Kids / Parenting

Underage Drinking: Advice for Parents

IMG_1274Let me just get this out of the way: I don’t have kids. I have charming nephews, nieces, and a sweet god daughter in faraway Norway.

Yet, while I don’t have child-rearing chops, I do have advice.

Sound familiar, parents? Does your hair stand on end as you read or listen to friends, conservatives or Hollywood stars tell you how you should be raising your children?

Well, I’m not going to do that. Except in one tiny little area.

As someone who’s had a great deal of experience with every manner of spirit, from Incan maize beer (created by chewing corn, spitting it into a plastic vat and choking it down after fermentation) to 1950s vintage rum served to Hemingway, I have some thoughts about alcohol.

That is, I believe parents should introduce their teens to alcohol.

In my experience, the more alcohol is prohibited, fetishized and viewed as forbidden fruit, the greater the likelihood that kids will abuse alcohol. To wit, when I was in high school, my parents allowed me to have wine with dinner or a beer or two on a Saturday night. And I had other friends and relatives who treated alcohol the same way. And so I associated wine and beer with dinner and social occasions, but not exclusively as a means to get drunk.

But growing up in a very conservative (and dry) suburb, Wheaton, Illinois, and spending a few of my college years in an equally conservative town, Oxford, Mississippi, I’ve had plenty of experience with people and communities that abstain.

And in my experience, abstinence doesn’t work.

In both Wheaton and Oxford, more than a few of the kids who came from the most conservative families were binge drinkers. While my friends who were already familiar with alcohol mostly knew when to say when, the kids who didn’t have experience with alcohol often didn’t. Sometimes, they only stopped drinking after they started puking. Some of them just didn’t seem to realize that you could have a few beers or a few glasses of wine and stop.

I asked some dorm buddies in Oxford why so many students at Ole Miss drank so much and was told that many came from dry towns and counties and that their one chance to drink was their four years at Ole Miss. And they intended to make the most of it.

It seemed to me that these college classmates didn’t have the most healthy relationship with alcohol. And they often suffered because of it.

I believe that if they’d had a beer or wine with dinner in the few years leading up to their leaving for college, they might have been a little less crazy with their alcohol consumption.

But if my experiences aren’t enough to persuade you, think about the European approach, where wine and beer are part of meals and not solely associated with hitting bars and getting drunk. Sure, there are alcoholics in Europe, but there is not binge drinking on college campuses to the extent there is in our country. And, in my view, Europe has a much healthier relationship with spirits.

P1090611Finally, perhaps the most compelling reason to introduce your kids to alcohol is that at some time, in some way, someone will introduce your kid to alcohol.

And wouldn’t you rather that someone be you?

PHOTO CREDIT: ALAN SHANNON

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4 Comments

  1. My partner is Portuguese and grew up having wine with dinner (diluted when she was younger, a small glass as she got older). I grew up with very bad role models in terms of alcohol use and yes – I binge drank in college. We have talked about this a lot now that we have kids and are taking the European approach even as it sometimes make me feel panicky because of the cultural judgment here.

  2. I’m a sober alcoholic who grew up in a family that was quite permissive with alcohol (I was not encouraged to drink, it was just always around and it was okay if I tried it) and I disagree with just about everything you wrote here, which perpetuates basic myths about problem drinking–mainly that anyone can prevent it or control it with any level of education, repression, openness, whatever. But what I do agree with and what is key is that open discussion between parents and kids about alcohol and drugs is awesome. Because if kids do run into a confusing or scary situation they won’t feel embarrassed to talk to their parents about it, and if they get into trouble–say they get to college and find when they start drinking they can’t stop, in spite of their best efforts to control it or when they don’t try at all–they will know they have allies and helpers at home to get them the support they need. This is especially important if it involves safety — being in a car with an intoxicated driver, dating or social situations with intoxicated people or where they feel pressure to drink, etc. Parents being available, open, and supportive for kids will always make things better. But my family didn’t cause my problems with drinking any more than if they had been conservative teetotalers who forbade the mention of the devil’s water. 😉 (Everyone’s mileage varies, of course.)

    • Alan Shannon says:

      Thanks for the comment, Laurie. I wasn’t referring at all to people that do have a problem with alcohol–I was referring to the average person. Lots of youth binge drink, and many (most?) aren’t alcoholics. They’ve just never been taught or developed a healthy relationship with alcohol. For those with an illness or history, the rules are different. In my view, we shouldn’t be adopting approaches that assume everyone is an alcoholic or will have problems with alcohol. The key idea in this blog is that someone is going to introduce your kids to alcohol. Wouldn’t you prefer, as a parent, that it be you?

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