For many American teens, experimenting with alcohol is an important act of rebellion. The disparity between the age of majority (18) and the drinking age (21) seems perfectly calculated to fan the flames of righteous adolescent indignation.
The situation is very different in Germany: You need to be 18 to get a driver’s license, but you can purchase and drink wine and beer in public places at 16 – or at 14, if you’re with a parent. When our oldest turned 16 in June, it was no secret he was looking forward to being able to exercise his “rights” while visiting his buddies in Germany this summer.
Many Americans have an image of French or Italian children being given small drinks of watered-down wine at family gatherings. Moderate drinking in social settings is part of Western European culture – not a moral issue. Public intoxication is not cool, but how are kids supposed to know when to stop? The attitude of most of our German friends can be summed up as follows: “As teenagers, they’re going to test the limits. I’d rather have them doing it in a controlled setting, where I know what’s going on, who’s involved, and can intervene if needed.” (Interestingly, some of our friends express the same attitude about teen sex, but that’s another topic for another day.)
My husband and I are law-abiding Americans, but, anticipating the discussions that were to come during our family vacation in Europe, we figured we had better embrace the European approach. When in Rome… After all, for our son, too, this would be a relatively safe environment: legal activity, with friends we’ve known since they were in kindergarten, and not one of them licensed to drive. Still, my conviction was tested when I learned the details of one particular party – an event that would be inconceivable here in Pennsylvania.
To tell the story properly, I have to back up several months, to the run-up to a mayoral election in Bad Homburg (where we used to live). One of my son’s friends, an enterprising 17-year-old I’ll call Joe, decided to get politically involved by reviving the youth organization of a small, local party. He put together a dedicated team of high school kids, and they dove into the mayoral campaign with a lot of enthusiasm and a pretty good Facebook page.
Now, in July, with the mayoral race over (their candidate lost in a run-off) and the end of the school year fast approaching, Joe and his colleagues hit on a great idea to increase their base: On the evening of the last day of school, they would take 20 cases of beer to the local picnic ground on the edge of town, where high school kids were gathering to celebrate. They would offer free beer in exchange for a “Like” on Facebook! The idea was not entirely new: The youth wing of the Christian Democrats (Angela Merkel’s party) had for some years been distributing free beer to young people at the town’s annual festival. If they could do it, so could these guys.
I learned about the free beer from Joe’s mother, a couple of hours after my son had disappeared in the direction of the picnic ground. Politics is one thing, but the logistical complexity of getting 20 cases of cold (or, at least, somewhat cool) brew to the park exceeded the organizational talents of the teens, and Joe’s mom saved the day with her Land Rover and trailer. I wasn’t thrilled about the idea of my son partying down with a few friends and 160 liters of beer, but Joe’s mom reassured me: Joe was a reliable friend in these situations, and she herself would be picking the boys up after the party.
So, how did it all end? My son estimates there were about 300 young people at the party, most of them 10th and 11th-graders (16-and 17-year-olds), from all of the secondary schools in town. That estimate is substantiated by the bump in “Likes” on Joe’s party’s Facebook page – a big success! Joe & Co. checked IDs (for age) and smartphones (for Likes), and the police came by to observe for a while.
As for me, I coped with my misgivings, trusted in my son and the community, and resisted the temptation to dash over to the party and try to extract him. How many of those free beers did he consume? I guess I’ll never know.