Ok, we all know that alcohol is a poison. We all know that children’s livers are vulnerable. And, if we have even a tangential connection with medical science, we know that too much alcohol can have a pretty devastating effect on the human body (and mind). It’s perfectly natural that we should want to protect our children from those things at all costs. The best way to do this, it seems, is to keep our kids from drinking alcohol. Simple. However, there is another point of view. This one holds that strictly prohibiting alcohol gives it an air of rebellious mystery which makes it enticing to teens seeking to break away from parental influence. Furthermore, under-exposure to alcohol makes it harder to understand (and thus to treat with the proper respect) when you child inevitably starts chucking back the shots. Some, therefore, advocate allowing children small tasters of alcohol before turning eighteen – to remove the mystery and to imbue respect for the substance. Is this really a good idea? Or is it – as some hold – inviting your child to ‘imprint’ upon alcohol early? As with most things, it depends upon how you do it.
Head out on the town with any bunch of mixed British and American freshers in a UK university, and one thing quickly becomes very evident: the Americans really cannot handle their alcohol. While we Brits aren’t exactly paragons of responsibility when it comes to drinking (far from it), American freshers at British universities tend to overdo it, get stupid, and pass out puking far quicker than their British counterparts (who go on tipping booze down their throats for hours longer before the inevitable idiocy occurs). The reasons for this are various – but there seem to be two particularly pertinent factors involved. For one, Americans cannot legally drink until they are 21. For another, underage drinkers in America don’t nip down the pub for casual (if illicit) drinks with their mates – they hole themselves up in illegal parties and work determinedly on getting as bladdered as they possibly can. After all, what’s the point in rebelliously breaking the law if you’re only going to have a couple of responsible pints? American freshers in Britain, therefore, are not only unused to alcohol, they’re unused to treating it as anything other than a means by which to get totally, naughtily paralytic extremely quickly. The implication here would seem to be that those with earlier exposure to alcohol are better at dealing with its effects. If we’re better at eighteen at handling our drinks than Americans of the same age, does it follow that earlier exposure to alcohol could help to eradicate our problematic culture of irresponsible drinking in the future?
There is definitely an issue in the UK with binge drinking. Too many young people see alcohol as a means of reducing inhibitions, altering behaviour, getting laid, and proving one’s willingness to have a good time rather than as an accompaniment to a meal or a social occasion. The amount you can and will drink has become the be all and end all of a night out, rather than, say having fun with your friends or generally making some memories (remembering anything at all on a Sunday morning is rare for many young British adults!). More worryingly, less and less of our young people seem to be aware of the consequences and laws surrounding drinking. An astonishing number of young people don’t know what the drink-driving limit is, and talks by concerned parents falter in the face of the overriding drinking culture. Could learning more about alcohol from a young age help? Many people advocate teaching children about alcohol in schools in the same way that we give them drugs and sex education. But could giving them more practical experiences equip them with a greater understanding of the uses and misuses of alcohol as they grow? It has been pointed out in the past that the drinking culture on the Continent is not nearly so pronounced as it is here – and many Continental nations allow children sips of the alcohol drunk by the adults, or even watered-down beverages for their own consumption with meals. While this is obviously not a particularly healthy procedure if overdone, there is some empirical evidence to suggest that it may have an effect upon the way the child views alcohol as it grows into adulthood.
Myth Or Truth?
Of course, the Continental example is by no means conclusive. It may be that Continental drinking habits are more informed by overall culture than by childhood exposure to alcohol. The theory that children who are taught about alcohol from a young age will treat it more as a substance to be respected and used in the proper manner is an engaging one – but one which lacks proof. Indeed, there is evidence to the contrary – which suggests that letting children taste alcohol will encourage rather than reduce risky alcohol-using behaviours later in life. However, none of this should be taken at precisely face value. There are a lot of variables here to take into account. For example, a child calmly passed the occasional glass of wine to sip from with a meal is having a very different experience to a child hauled up before cheering guests to take a drink from a pint at a party. The same amount of alcohol – a sip – has been taken, but the circumstances are different enough to create very different associations with booze. In the first example, the child is not likely to think much significant of the wine other than that it (probably) tastes rather nasty. In the second example, the child quickly learns that drinking is quite an event, for which they will receive attention and even praise (whether direct or indirect). The latter association can be developed even in more subtle ways, by laughing, taking photographs, commenting on the child being ‘Her father’s daughter’ or on ‘growing up fast’ etc. And, moving away from the particular circumstances of early alcohol exposure, there is still an enormous cultural weight attached to alcohol which it is extremely hard for any impressionable young person to circumvent.
As with everything, the circumstances and the context in which your child tastes alcohol are extremely significant. Perhaps, when undertaken in a perfect manner, early educational exposure to alcohol could prevent later problematic drinking. However, there are a huge number of variables and an awful lot of cultural baggage coming into play here as well. In the end, it’s up to you and your child to negotiate the perilous world of British drinking in whatever way you find best.