Over on CNN, Kelly Wallace asks: “Am I better off never letting my girls drink around me, at home or at family celebrations, until they reach the legal drinking age or does it make drinking less taboo and alluring if I let them start drinking at home, maybe with sips of wine and beer, during their teenage years?”
This is a great question, and one I’ve thought about a lot, even though my son is only five years old. Like Kelly, my family has a history of alcoholism. The most present specter is my long-deceased grandfather, a terrible, abusive alcoholic who got electroshock therapy a few times to help soothe the anxiety that drove him to drink. I want to make sure my son — who, like me and my grandfather, experiences acute anxiety — has the tools he needs to avoid addiction.
I went through a bad period in college when I struggled with my nerves and drank too much. For a brief moment, the hole my grandfather fell into opened up before me, as I found myself drinking heavily every night, often to the point of black-out. I have, in large part, my parents to thank for not slipping into the trap of alcoholism. Here’s what they did:
They talked about it.
Growing up, my parents talked about the dangers of alcoholism and how to drink responsibly. My mom didn’t shy away from sharing stories about how my grandfather’s addiction ruined his life and made her childhood a living hell. Wallace writes about the #TalkEarly campaign by the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility, which encourages parents to discuss drinking with their kids at a young age, so that it’s not taboo. I think this open and honest path is the way to go. Secrets only make the behavior seem shameful, so that if a young adult does struggle with drinking they experience guilt too. Negativity might cause them to feel worse, and perhaps contribute to more drinking. Secrecy may also give children the impression that alcohol is this mysterious thing, while talking about it makes it seem ordinary, and not scary, or overly important.
They modeled good behavior.
My parents helped me establish a healthy relationship with alcohol by modeling healthy drinking behavior in the house. My dad would celebrate the weekends by having a few drinks after work on Friday, usually with neighbors and friends. He showed me how a person could enjoy alcohol without becoming full-on, stumble-around drunk. I don’t ever recall him getting wasted, in fact. On CNN, Wallace points to a study that shows that kids who grow up around parents who become drunk are more likely to drink to the point of drunkenness themselves. I certainly avoid getting three sheets to the wind around my son, though I do have a drink in front of him almost every day.
They allowed me to drink in moderation, at home.
This may be controversial, but from an early age, my dad called on me to bartend, probably because I was responsible and fastidious and had a knack in the kitchen. I’d make vodka tonics or highballs (whiskey and ginger ale) and at some point started taking sips. By the time I was a senior in high school, they let me nurse my own weak drink. While some of my teenage friends snuck off to parties where they got wasted on cheap beer, I spent many Friday nights drinking with my parents and their friends and watching movies. Why drink on the sly when you could experience grown-up fun with actual grown-ups? These base memories are really important. Alcohol has always seemed a way to relax when work is done, and there’s a social element to it. Sharing a drink and a chat with a friend is one of my favorite ways to spend my time.
Because of my parents, and because I’ve always had a strong support network of caring, responsible friends, I never struggled with addiction or alcohol abuse the way that my grandfather did. Sure, there have been moments in my life where I’ve gone a little too far and partied a bit too hard too many nights in a row, but I’ve always had the self-awareness to know that behavior is dangerous, and stop myself before making a habit of it.
This entire discussion seems like a particularly American one. In many European and South American countries, drinking often and in moderation is the norm. You’ll find grown men and women having a beer or glass of wine with lunch, or during family dinners, and the national drinking age tends to be closer to 18 than 21. These natural, more laid-back attitudes regarding alcohol are what I model in my house, and what my son is growing up around.
A good drink is something to enjoy, and it’s a regular part of our everyday life. It makes food taste better, whether you’re pairing wine with pasta or margaritas with burritos. I believe that this low-key attitude will help my son form a relationship with drinking based on responsibility and self-awareness, so that he won’t idolize alcohol, or find it scary. I look forward to my boy being old enough to saddle up to the bar with me, to clinking our pint glasses together, locking eyes, and saying, “Cheers.”More On