Should We/Shouldn’t We? The Great Parent (and Kid) Drinking Debate

My daughter and me, c. 2009; guacamole for her, margarita for me.

My daughter and me, c. 2009; guacamole for her, margarita for me.

by Lela Nargi

 Mid-way through my daughter’s pre-K year, some two years into our acquaintanceship, the father of Ada’s friend B quit drinking. This event—and believe me, it was an event because every playdate our daughters had had to this point, with or without the inclusion of other kids and parents, was punctuated with a six pack or two that he or I or someone else had donated to the afternoon—was met with shock among the general populace.

“Is he an alcoholic? Is that why he’s quitting?” a fellow mom asked me, practically buzzing with the potential gossip factor this announcement afforded.

“Does this mean the rest of us aren’t going to drink at playdates now?” asked another, visibly agitated.

What she really meant, even though she didn’t directly articulate it, was, “Does this mean we shouldn’t drink?” And I know this is what she meant because it was exactly what I was thinking.

The dad’s decision to give up our mild afternoon beer swilling—which he imparted with no fanfare, no hint of judgment for the rest of us drinking parents, no explanation beyond, “I just felt like it”—unintentionally shone a spotlight on the unspoken focus of our playdates since our children had begun having playdates. It made us all feel, well, culpable. Of what, none of us could quite put our finger on. Although, we were pretty sure it somehow implicated our parenting and, if examined too closely, would show us to be frivolous, irresponsible, or even negligent in our responsibilities as mothers and fathers. Some savvy jokester’s well-timed mention of child protective services would probably have resulted in a few of us passing out cold.

Why all the hullaballoo? Humans have been intentionally making alcohol—and drinking the fruits of this labor—for something like 12,000 years. Once, we drank in order to take in nutrients, or to hydrate without fear of typhoid and other disease infecting us from befouled rivers; even children partook of ale, cider, or wine for this latter purpose. In the Middle Ages, our forebears believed that alcohol could prevent and cure disease and even today, we talk of drinking a whiskey-laced hot toddy to ease the symptoms of a cold.

We drink, now, for many other reasons, too, most no longer having to do with our physical well-being: “To cement friendships, to be convivial, for enjoyment, to relax,” rattles off Dr. David J. Hanson, an emeritus professor of sociology at SUNY Potsdam, who’s extensively researched and written about social drinking throughout his career. “And the reasons for drinking can change over time.” Like, for example, making it through a playdate when there are possibly two, four, seven small children screaming somewhere down around your knees demanding snacks and threatening to jump off the fire escape. And because we are often eager (desperate?) to reclaim the sense of community we took for granted before we became parents—meeting a friend for a beer, going out for dinner and a movie, whatever it was that made us feel connected before newborns shocked us into isolation.

It almost goes without saying that drinking is an accepted part of human existence in pretty much every society on the planet. Except, weirdly, the conflicted society we live in here in the States. “Americans have an ambivalent attitude about alcohol,” says Hanson. “On the one hand, we think it’s wonderful; that it makes us more interesting, appealing, attractive people. But we also view it as a poison, something terrible to be avoided at all costs.”

By way of contrast, Hanson mentions various non-Scandinavian, western European countries, where alcohol is consumed daily by most people, but where alcohol-related problems are rare. Why? “Because they see it as a fairly neutral substance, neither good nor bad, and also believe that drinking in moderation is good for everyone,” even a small glass of wine on occasion for kids, Hanson says. “What’s not acceptable for anyone is the abuse of alcohol.”

Here in the States, some of us grownups drink alcohol to excess. Some of us drink it not at all. (The temperance movement is still running strong in various pockets of the U.S., with 18% of Americans surveyed in a 2014 CNN poll reporting they believe alcohol should be illegal. According to Hanson, the U.S. has the highest percentage of alcohol abstainers in the world.) A lot of urban working parents, especially those of us of a certain (middle) age, say we consciously aim to imbibe moderately. But the truth is, Americans are collectively of two very radically different minds about drinking. And Hanson maintains that that’s what gets us into trouble.

For starters, though some drinking rates among adolescents have dropped since the 1970s, abuse among them is still rampant. Says Stephen Wallace, an adolescent counselor and director of the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE), this is because kids are more stressed out than ever before, and they’re “learning that self-medicating is the primary way to tackle tough times. In psychological circles we say they’re putting off figuring out important patterns of self-regulation.” They turn to alcohol because it’s relatively easy for them to get their hands on.

Are they learning to self-medicate from us? Wallace thinks so. So does Hanson—although they agree that we certainly aren’t teaching them wittingly. It’s possible that infants and toddlers aren’t paying much attention to the cocktail we’re imbibing at the local Tots and Tonics meetup. But as our children get older, they watch our social behaviors closely, whether we realize it or not. Still, “It’s not about whether you use alcohol,” says Wallace. “It’s how you use it.”

Getting sloppy drunk around your kids probably isn’t advisable—not just because those conditions can be confusing and frightening to children but because, on the flip side, “I’m afraid I wouldn’t use good judgment with them,” Elaine Henry*, a Brooklyn mother of 10-year-old twins, told me. Or, more drastically, says Nina Hurwitz*, a single mom of an 11-year-old daughter in Charlottesville, VA, “I’m afraid of not being in any condition to drive my kid to the ER” in case of an emergency.

What is advisable is modeling the behavior we want our kids to one day exhibit, and that includes, says Hanson, “conveying an appropriate attitude about drinking.” Which in turn includes letting them see you enjoy your wine—in moderation. Wallace advises showing kids other ways to deal with the stressors of a day, before you uncork your bottle. “If you’re upset or anxious, verbalize that to your kids first.” He recommends saying something like, “I’m going to take a shower—or go for a run, or sit quietly—to unwind.” You can have that drink afterwards.

Seven parents were interviewed for this story, and they all agreed that they wanted their children to develop into responsible, moderate drinkers. They saw it as a way to protect their children’s overall bodily health; additionally, parents of daughters in particular thought moderation was essential for giving girls control in situations that could turn dangerous if they were impaired (“rape culture” came up frequently as a fear factor, even with the mom of a 7-year-old). And with one exception, parents said they were tame drinkers who were definitely conscious that they were passing on messages about drinking to their kids.

But is modeling enough? I think back to my own childhood with a mother who could hardly finish a wine spritzer without nodding off to sleep. And I contrast her appropriately low-key drinking with my own habits of excess, through high school, college, and my first decade living in apartments of my own. My mother’s only response, in the earlier years, when I still lived under her roof, was to show her anger over my drunkenness by ignoring me for several days. Even now that tactic, such as it is, puzzles me. Was she trying to punish me, or subversively get me to change my behavior?

Wallace maintains that modeling must be supplemented with setting clear expectations for our how our children act—out loud! For Elaine Henry, opportunity has come in the guise of an alcoholic family friend, whose behavior she’s used as a jumping-off point for discussion. “We’ve talked about this friend’s judgment, how he’s unpleasant to be around, breaking furniture, not having control over his life,” she says. Janice Campbell, a New York area fitness instructor and mom to a 7th grader, says she’s been telling her daughter for years that alcohol is for adults only. “We talk about it in the legal sense,” she says. “You have to be 21 to buy it. Why would you drink it if you can’t buy it?”

Wallace also believes that helping even very young children learn self-care strategies that will help them cope with the stressful times that certainly lie ahead is critical. “We’re busy, so we try to redirect kids instead of using whatever’s going on as a learning tool,” he says. “But even from an early age we can coach them through tough situations. Our research shows that [interaction with] parents is the number one reason kids make good choices.”

Hanson believes in actively teaching children as well—but his methods are more controversial among the parenting set; he thinks kids should be allowed to sample, at home, with their folks. Four of the parents interviewed for this article were flatly against this idea. Says Alex Smith, a Manhattan dad of two, “We want to demystify drinking but I’m reluctant to give out sips. My folks did with me but it was Scotch—which was great negative conditioning. But beer and wine are more ‘user friendly’.” Hanson claims, though, that relatively heavy-drinking countries with few drinking problems eschew this ban, and that’s part of their success. “They teach children how to drink beginning at home at an early age, guiding them in acceptable use.” Which under no circumstances “involves them walking around intoxicated,” he says. (One recent study refutes this.)

Given our societal ambivalence about drinking generally, it’s unlikely seven parents—let alone 170 million of them—will arrive at consensus about how to most effectively guide our children in this arena. But the sites and studies below (some of which may prove—surprise!—contradictory) offer a place to start your own research. You may find, as did our own parental interviewees, that a little goes a long way—they all say that when it comes to their kids and drinking, they're trusting their own instincts.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Association 
Monitoring the Future 
Dr. David J. Hanson 
National Center for Biotechnology Information 
International Center for Alcohol Policies 
Students Against Destructive Decisions 
Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility 
Mayo Clinic 

* These parents asked to be anonymous.

Thumbnail photograph by Andrew McD via Creative Commons; mother and daughter photograph by Robert Cowan; bar stools photograph by Caleb Thal via Unsplash.com