Children, Alcohol and Parenting
Drinking by children is often seen as a problem, but traditional alcohol education promoting abstinence is ineffective. Simply doing more of what isn't working cannot lead to success, so what should you do as parents?
Underage drinking is common and seen as a major problem by many people in the United States. Legislation has been passed in a futile effort to prevent those under the age of 21 from purchasing or consuming alcohol.
School alcohol education programs generally try to convince students to abstain both now and as adults by using scare tactics: teaching that alcohol is a poison, by equating it with illegal drugs, and by promoting the "gateway theory" that alcohol leads to marijuana which leads to cocaine and other hard drugs.
In spite of the billions of dollars spent, the enormous efforts of teachers, the commitment of vast amounts of student time in school, alcohol education has failed to prevent young people from consuming alcohol. 1 Large numbers of young people consume alcohol by their teen years.
It's illegal in the US for a 20 year old man to toast his bride with a sip of alcohol at their wedding. He can vote, serve on juries, write a will, defend his country by serving in the military, hold public office, hold top national security clearance, operate his own business, hire employees and otherwise conduct himself as a mature and responsible adult, yet he can't legally have a sip of alcohol.
Prohibition for young people is actually contrary to American tradition. In colonial America, even small children were served alcohol beverages by their parents, who considered alcohol a natural and normal part of life. Religion taught that alcohol is the "Good gift of God," to be used and enjoyed in moderation. What was prohibited was the abuse of alcohol. Alcohol consumption was widespread, but drinking problems were rare. 2
When children are served alcohol by their parents, drinking problems are generally low. When children are prevented from drinking until an older age, drinking problems tend to be high. The evidence is overwhelming. 3
In many groups around the world, virtually everyone drinks and they drink both frequently and regularly, but they have very few drinking problems. Such groups familiar to Americans include Italians, Greeks, Spaniards, Jews, and Portuguese. What are the keys to their success? In such groups:
- Alcohol itself is seen as a neutral substance - neither good nor bad in itself. It's not a poison and it's not a magic elixir that can solve peoples' problems. It's how alcohol is used that is important.
- People can choose either of two equally acceptable options: (a) to abstain or (b) to drink responsibly and in moderation. What is totally unacceptable for anyone under any circumstance is the abuse of alcohol. Alcohol abuse is simply never tolerated.
- People learn how to drink from an early age within the safe and supporting environment of the home. They don't learn how to drink from their friends and acquaintances, who aren't looking out for their best interests. Common sense suggests that it's better to learn how to drink in the parent's house than in the fraternity house. 4
Alcohol & Parenting
As parents, we actually have more influence on our children than anyone or anything else, although we often erroneously feel powerless in the face of television, movies, our children's peers and other parts of society. 5
Our children learn from observing our behavior and we are the most significant role models in their lives. Therefore, we need to:
- Be good role models. We need to be living, day-to-day examples of good drinking behavior.
- Reject "do as I say, not as I do." If we abuse alcohol, we can't expect our children not to follow in our footsteps when they begin to drink.
- Convey appropriate attitudes. We should never laugh at intoxication or inappropriate behavior. We can use news events, TV episodes, movies, or personal events as opportunities to discuss what is appropriate and inappropriate behavior. 6
Instead of stigmatizing alcohol and trying to scare children into permanent abstinence, we need to recognize that it is not alcohol but rather the abuse of alcohol that is the problem.
Teaching responsible use does not require the consumption of alcohol any more than teaching world geography requires visiting Nepal or teaching civics requires that children run for elective office or vote in presidential elections. We teach civics to prepare children for the day when they can vote and assume other civic responsibilities if they choose to do so.
Of course, letting children consume alcohol in moderation within the family and home setting is especially valuable in helping them realize that drinking really is a natural and normal activity that does not, in itself, confer "adulthood" or "maturity." Either choosing to abstain or to drink responsibly is a real sign of maturity and good judgment.
Because either drinking in moderation or abstaining are both equally acceptable options for adults, we must prepare children for either choice. To do otherwise is both ineffective and irresponsible.
We need to prepare our children to live in a largely drinking world. We need, by our own words and deeds, to teach such things as:
- Don't drink and drive.
- Don't ride with anyone who has been drinking; be a designated driver.
- Don't operate equipment, climb ladders, boat, or engage in similar activities, when drinking.
- Don't become intoxicated; being drunk involves an element of risk.
- Don't participate in drinking games or drinking contests. 7
We can also teach:
- How to refuse a drink politely
- How to "lose drinks" that have been forced on them
- How to prepare or order "mocktails"
And teach them:
- That "a drink is a drink is a drink," and they're all the same to a Breathalyzer. Standard drinks all contain equivalent amounts of alcohol. A drink is:
- That only the passage of time can sober a person after drinking too much. Coffee, cold showers, fresh air and similar remedies are ineffective.
- That people shouldn't drink on an empty stomach.
- That drinking should be limited to no more than one drink per hour.
- That eating slows the absorption of alcohol into the body.
- That women experience the effects of alcohol at lower consumption rates.
- That inexperienced drinkers become intoxicated with much less alcohol than do experienced drinkers. They are much more likely to have traffic accidents after consuming small amounts of alcohol. Even a single drink dramatically increases the chances that a teen-aged driver will have an accident. 9
- That many people (problem drinkers, pregnant women, patients on certain medications, etc.) should consult with their physicians to determine if they should abstain from alcohol.
In spite of noble intentions and the expenditure of massive amounts of time, effort and money, the evidence shows that our current abstinence-oriented alcohol education is clearly ineffective. Simply doing more of what isn't working cannot lead to success. Teaching moderation is demonstrably more effective. 10
We need to use proven ways in raising our children to avoid alcohol problems. Our young people are our future and they deserve nothing less.
Research continues to find that parents exert more influence over their offspring than do peers.
The latest report, by researchers at Columbia University and Queens College and published in Adolescent and Family Health, found that young people select friends who share their attitudes about drinking. And their attitudes have been shaped by observing their parents. Therefore, the peer group largely reinforces what young people have already learned from their parents. 11
filed under: Underage Drinking Prevention