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Would You Bribe Your Teen to Prevent Drinking?

Photograph by Twenty20

Kids in high school drink. A lot. In my own children's well-regarded Massachusetts public school it is estimated that 70 percent of the students will have tried drugs and/or alcohol by the time they graduate.

Parents need only check out the underage drinking statistics on Madd.org if they want a wake-up call about the reality of teenage imbibing. To name a few:

  • Almost half of all 10th graders drink alcohol.
  • One in 10 binge drinks.
  • Only 1 in 100 hundred parents thinks their teen binge drinks.

Some of my friends take the punitive route with their teens, as in "You drink then you're grounded." But I have one friend who is being more proactive in an unorthodox way: She bribes her kids not to drink. Here's how it works:

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Each of her teens—she has two boys, a sophomore and a senior—is required to sign a 12-month contract at the beginning of September. The contract states that the teen will abstain from drinking alcohol or taking drugs for the entire year, including summer when teenage drinking goes up as do alcohol-related traffic deaths. Each boy is subject to random testing (you can buy inexpensive test kits at any pharmacy) and must agree to participate willingly. If not, he is in violation of the contract. At the end of the school year, if the kid has fulfilled the requirements of the contract he receives $500 to spend anyway he likes.

My friend who has already paid out a couple thousand dollars claims that it's working. Neither of her boys drink and both are highly motivated to keep it that way. She says she has made a great investment in her kids' future, considering that studies show that if a person makes it to 21 years old without trying alcohol, there is almost no chance that he will become alcohol-dependent.

I really hope my children decide against peer pressure and choose to abstain. But choose is the key word.

She can't guarantee that her boys won't party in college when there is no more contract to keep them in check, but she feels like she has them on a good path, especially since alcohol and drugs have a particular devastating effect on developing teenage brains.

I have a daughter in ninth grade and a son in eleventh. And I'm of two minds about this contract thing. First of all, I'm married to a psychologist who does a lot of work with substance abusers. I see many horrifying outcomes of teenage drinking and really hope my children decide against peer pressure and choose to abstain. But choose is the key word.

I feel like young people will be faced with such pressures in life that they need our support, our encouragement and guidance around tough issues. But ultimately they need to start making their own decisions.

I have another friend whose son was a top student. He had just completed his applications to competitive private colleges when he and several other students were caught drinking at a Model UN conference in New York. He lost all of his designations: Track Captain, member of the National Honor Society, Student Council treasurer. His mom said it was a great lesson for him. He learned the hard way that his actions had serious consequences that could affect the rest of his life. Of course he still got into a fine college, but there were some weeks of serious worry.

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I don't want my kids to drink, but I want them to know their own minds. Teenage minds aren't always the most sensible, I realize, but learning is part of the high school experience. I drank in high school and, in doing so, I learned that it wasn't terribly enticing.

I hope my teens, with or without alcohol, come to a similar realization.

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