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?

The Problem

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 & 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:

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:

We can also teach:

And teach them:

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


References and Readings

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