Should You Drink with Your Children or Teens?

John Cloud, writing in Time magazine, has observed that "At first it sounds a little nutty, but you might consider drinking with your kids. Incongruously, the way to produce fewer problem drinkers is to create more drinkers overall--that is, to begin to create a culture in which alcohol is not an alluring risk but part of quotidian family life. Of course, that's a mostly European approach to alcohol, but there's reason to think it could work here. And it may be the best way to solve the binge-drinking problem."

In reality, the suggestion isn't the least bit nutty. Jews, Italians, Greeks, French, Spaniards, Portuguese and many others typically introduce their children to alcoholic beverages at an early age. And they tend to have fewer alcohol-related problems than we do in the U.S.

In these groups, people learn how to drink from an early age and do so in the safe and supporting environment of the home. Common sense suggests that it's better to learn how to drink in the parents house than in the fraternity house.

Groups that have a successful relationship with alcohol de-mystefy it and prevent it from being a highly desired "forbidden fruit." Then, instead of promoting alcohol abuse, peers and social expectations reduce it. In Italy, for example, "children and young people disapprove and tend to exclude from their circle a contemporary who gets drunk," reports a government-sponsored study.

As parents, we actually have more long-term influence on our children than anyone else, although we often erroneously feel powerless in the fact of television, movies, our children's peers, and other parts of society.

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.

But isn't it illegal for anyone under the age of 21 to drink alcohol anywhere in the U.S.? No, it isn't. In spite of its title, the National Minimum Legal Drinking Age Act of 1984 doesn't actually require states to prohibit drinking under the age of 21 -- only purchase and public possession. And it very narrowly defines public possession. In most states it's legal for those under to consume alcohol under certain conditions. In only six states is all underage consumption of alcohol prohibited.

That's good because federally funded research involving over 6,000 people ages 16 to 20 in 242 communities across the U.S. found that those who drank with their parents were about half as likely to have consumed alcohol within the past month and about two-thirds less likely to have recently engaged in "binge" drinking. The researchers observed that "Drinking with parents appears to have a protective effect on general drinking trends."

Residents in the six prohibition states are handicapped and are restricted to teaching about alcohol by word and deed alone. Teaching responsible use doesn't require the consumption of alcohol any more than teaching world geography requires visiting Fiji or teaching civics requires that children run for elected 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.



  • John Cloud. Should you drink with your kids? Time, June 19, 2008.

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