On a family vacation during our daughter’s senior year of high school, Lizzie and I sat on the patio of our Balinese guesthouse, watching the sun set over rice patties. In a way, it felt like the sun was setting on our family life as we knew it. Lizzie was heading to college soon and everything senior year somehow felt like a “last.” Our last parents night. Our last cross-country meet. Our last parent/teacher conferences. I was hit with a wave of nostalgia for the tiny baby she’d been as I looked over at the young adult she’d become.
Suddenly though, I was hit with a first.
“Can I have a beer?”
Lizzie asked after I opened the small refrigerator on the patio that was stocked with Indonesian beer and tropical juices.
“But you said that if we traveled where I was legal, I could,” Lizzie said, in the same voice she occasionally used as a child when she wanted an ice cream cone as we were heading home for dinner.
She was right. I did. Three years earlier she’d asked if she could have a glass of wine if we traveled where she was legal. I’d said “Sure!” because I never really thought we’d travel again plus I couldn’t really picture her as an adult.
Lizzie had turned eighteen the previous month. She was now an adult with training wheels. She could vote, get tattoos and join the army, but not yet legally drink in the United States.
“Even Tanya and Lisa got to have wine when their family went to Italy last summer,” she said, mentioning two of her friends in the International Baccalaureate program whose parties trended more board games than booze.
I’d spent the previous eighteen years not bowing to “you promised” and “everyone gets to do it so why can’t I?” I’d managed to get from preschool to senior year without once saying, “If your friends jumped off a cliff, would you?” I wasn’t about to start now.
But Lizzie did have a point. I was curious about the legal drinking age in Bali. A quick Google search told me that the drinking age in Bali was seventeen, although, confusingly, it was twenty-one in Indonesia, the country that Bali is in.
I decided this called for a quick parental discussion. I went to find my husband. “I’ll be right back,” I said, thinking of the developmental milestones of childhood: that first smile; those first steps; that first beer.
I found Jeff drying off after a shower. As he toweled himself, I explained the situation.
“My first response was ‘No effing way,’ but now I’m not sure.” I said.
He started to laugh. “If she wants to have a beer and it’s legal here, I don’t see a problem. What do you think?” said my husband, whose drinking consists of a small glass of Manischewitz wine about every fourth Passover.
I thought about it. Lizzie has always been a responsible kid. When she was in first grade and we were at our library for Dewey Decimal story time, I watched in astonishment as she and another six-year old carefully re-shelved the small stack of books the librarian gave them.
“I can’t believe Lizzie embraces responsibility when I’ve spent my whole life fleeing it,” I said to the woman sitting next to me.
We always considered ourselves fortunate that Lizzie was the type of kid who makes good choices. The few times she didn’t, she learned from the experience. I doubted that one beer with mom was going to devolve into a drunken bacchanal.
And it wasn’t as if she hadn’t sampled booze before. She had, but not excessively, thankfully. High school today is nothing like the eighties and, I reminded myself for the thousandth time, my daughter is not me.
Not long ago, a friend and I, over glasses of wine, discussed high school then versus now.
“Kids don’t seem to drink like we did,” I said, thinking of the recent study that stated today’s teenagers engage in far less drugging, drinking and sex than teenagers in the 1980s did.
I used alcohol as a crutch to cover my teenage social anxiety. Back then, the legal age was eighteen which meant it was as easy for high schoolers to buy a drink as it was to buy a pack of gum. With alcohol, I morphed from shy misfit into life of the party — or what I assumed in the moment was one. Instead of worrying I’d say the wrong thing and all the other teens would look at me with horror or laugh, I just didn’t care. It was glorious. It was also unhealthy as one drink frequently turned into five. I pondered this.
“Actually, alcohol was really more of a wheelchair than crutch.”
I returned to the sofa and looked at Lizzie.
“You know, my immediate response was to say no way. But you’re right. You’re legal here and if you want a beer, go for it,” I said.
Lizzie grabbed a green bottle, opened it and took a sip as foam bubbled up. As she grimaced slightly, we talked. Her beer turned out to be a big deal in a way neither of us intended.
We talked — as adults — about my problems with alcohol in high school and about high school today. We chatted about the availability of alcohol at college and the “red zone,” those first few weeks of college when many sexual assaults occur. We discussed intervening if you see someone who has had too much to drink. Lizzie reminded me that they’d acted out drinking and assault scenarios in health class. She told me about her plans for the summer and how she was looking forward to studying Arabic. And I realized that while we had occasionally talked about drinking and its dangers for years, now it wasn’t academic; it was real and relevant.
Truth be told, though, we didn’t solve everything on that trip. As a parent, I’ll always worry about our daughter. At this point, though, I’m concerned more about pretension.
At dinner the night after our beer together, Lizzie sampled a glass of rose´. A few night’s later, she had a white wine with her meal. Jeff asked which she liked better.
“I prefer the white. The rose´ was too dense.” she said, taking a small sip of the slightly overly sweet wine.
Jeff and I looked at each other and tried, unsuccessfully, not to laugh.
Sue Sanders’ essays have appeared in the New York Times, Real Simple, the Washington Post, Brain, Child, and Salon, among others. She’s the author of the parenting memoir, Mom, I’m Not a Kid Anymore. She lives in Portland, Oregon.