One's first time getting drunk is a lot like one's first time having sex. With a combination of luck, education and guidance, it can be a great experience, but that's a fairly rare and sadly unlikely setup, at least in our society. The United States has an abusive relationship with alcohol. We've treated it poorly in the past and it has retaliated by mixing badly with our fat-and-carb-heavy diet and spending several post-Prohibition decades as terrible wine and even worse beer. We're getting better about it but there's still practically no discussion about lowering the drinking age here. I suppose this is because reaching 21 is a rite of passage and alcohol provides a convenient social barrier for nightclubs and music venues where people might not want to mingle with teenagers, but it's still pretty absurd that an American can legally go to war before he or she can legally drink.
Ah, but I've gotten off topic, at least a little. It's no coincidence that sex and alcohol get fairly equal treatment in America. They're both "adult" things that kids get into a lot earlier than anyone is comfortable admitting and so they're both things that do more damage to kids than they really ought to. Because both are illicit for the young, kids will go to great lengths to get them and keep them secret. And so, getting drunk for the first time, like having sex for the first time, is often more messy, confusing and painful than it needs to be.
As with sex, a young person's early drinking follies stem from a lack of education as much as a lack of experience. It's rare to find someone younger than 20 (and 20 is pushing it, too) who understands, let alone appreciates, the difference between different kinds of spirit. This invites disaster. I recall a friend in high school taking a trip to Australia where she could legally drink and deciding to have her first cocktail in the form of beer mixed with Coke. Why? Because apparently nobody told her that beer and rum are dramatically different substances.
And it's not just what you drink, but how. Personally, my first liquor foible involved an embarrassing amount of bottom-shelf gin consumed at room temperature with alternating cups of equally cheap beer. I was not a happy camper (or college student, to be more precise) for the next two days.
Now, I know the argument against educating kids about the joys of alcohol because it's the same argument levied against every other vice: If you tell them everything, it'll just make them want to do it. That's right, it will, but not any more so than telling them as little as possible and then saying that it's off limits. Teens are bored, desperate and have ridiculous amounts of free time. That's a recipe for getting things done, no matter how risky or elaborate the means. If a teen wants to drink, smoke, take drugs, have sex or do anything else adults do with impunity, they'll find a way. Better to arm them with the truth than put them through unnecessary pain to learn it for themselves.
An ideal first drunk should be mild and gentle, though it's too often not. Kids get drunk on whole bottles of Southern Comfort or cases full of Natural Light. These are things seasoned legal drinkers shouldn't do, let alone kids with virgin livers. I'm not suggesting a parent sit their son or daughter down one night for a few bourbons or vodka cranberry shooters, but I am suggesting that it's the responsible thing to teach teens about the joys of moderation, the necessity of hydration and the benefits of drinking middle shelf or higher. This is as important as impressing lessons about designated drivers and pill synergy. Or to put it another way: Would you rather your child's first time having sex be with someone who cares about them in a secure place with safe sex products, or with whoever they can find in a dangerous place and no protection other than luck? Because, in the end, that's the real choice. Not whether it happens, but how it happens, and education is the surest way to make sure things turn out well.