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Should You Let Your Kids See You Drink?

Is it O.K. to let your children see you drink alcohol? What's the proper way to teach them about alcohol?

Friday night I poured myself a glass of wine and told my kids I was going upstairs to take a bath. It had been a long week and I wanted time to relax and get ready before I went to hear Alan Paul read from his excellent new book Big in China: My Unlikely Adventures Raising a Family, Playing the Blues and Becoming a Star in Bejing at a bookstore in Maplewood.

My kids headed outside to play basketball and on their way out, my older son turned to me and said, "I feel like whenever I see you, you're drinking wine."
"No, I'm not," I said. I felt ridiculous, because whenever you deny something like that you automatically sound like you're guilty, even if you're not.

Let me just say for the record: A) I don't drink that much and B) It freaks me out that my older son thinks I do. But I decided maybe it's not such a bad thing he sees me drinking a glass of wine at the end of the day. I wasn't driving for several hours and was planning to sip the wine while I got cleaned up and read a review of Frances McDormand's new play in the New York Times.

My older son is almost 15. He's at the age when kids start to drink. My friends' kids have gotten caught drinking and smoking pot. I found one of my friend's kids getting drunk in broad daylight with a bunch of girls. So far, I haven't caught my older son doing anything but I'm sure that day will come. For all I know it has already happened at camp or a friend's house and there were no adults around to stop it. In the mean time, I wonder how discreet my husband and I should be about drinking in front of him.

My husband drinks beer and has the occasional glass of Scotch. I like a glass of cold white wine every now and then—one or two glasses of sauvignon blanc a week. Frankly, I wouldn't mind drinking more but then I wouldn't be able to help my younger son with his homework at night and I wouldn't be able to run, teach or write the next morning. I try to take some of the excitement out of drinking by letting my older son have the occasional sip. He doesn't seem to like it all that much but he does seem pleased that we have made him the offer.

Mea culpa: I know he's under age and I realize that in writing this I will never be able to run for public office. But I want him to see that you can drink responsibly after dark and I really want him to develop a healthy respect for alcohol and become accustomed to the taste so that when he does see it at parties, he'll know what to do and, hopefully, won't abuse it and pass out.

When you're first learning to drink you have no idea how much is too much, and even if you do, sometimes you just don't care. A friend of mine told me a story about a party where the parents were home but upstairs. They were responsible and collected the kids' car keys. The kids were drinking in the basement, and one of the kids ended up passing out in a closet. No one knew where he was for a while. When they found him, he was unconscious and had to be rushed to the hospital.

I'm hardly an angel. When I was in high school my parents drank Corvo wine almost every night at dinner. They left their liquor cabinet unlocked. My friends with older siblings taught me the tricks they'd learned: One demonstrated how to pour shampoo out of a bottle, rinse it and replace it with Jack Daniels. Another friend suggested we steal bottles of wine from our parents' liquor cabinets and drink it in the woods. For some reason, we had no problem stealing the wine but were too scared (or stupid) to steal a corkscrew, so we picked up sticks and jammed the corks into the wine bottles. The result was wine with flakes of cork floating around in it—disgusting for an adult but utterly drinkable for a teenage girl.

Another night, this friend and I decided to sample everything in my parents' liquor cabinet. My parents weren't big drinkers but they did have dinner parties and their cabinet was stocked: Wine, vodka, gin, Courvoisier, Kahlua and Harvey's Bristol Cream Sherry. My friend and I decided to sample little bit of everything. I remember we got on our knees and prayed, though for what and for how long I have no idea. Eventually, I pulled out my trundle bed and we passed out in my bedroom. When I woke up the next morning, I realized we'd both gotten sick in our beds. I raced to clean our sheets before my parents realized what had happened.

My mother was shocked to see me doing laundry and doing it at 7 a.m. She had her suspicions about what had happened. My father confirmed them when he caught me in the hallway. "You were drunk as a skunk last night," he said. "Do you know you crawled into our room at around 2 a.m.?"

No, I didn't. I don't know if it was the combination of vomit, laundry and my parents' reprobation, but that was the last time I got drunk.

The best thing my parents ever did was to tell me that if I ever went to a party and I, or the designated driver, was too drunk to drive home, I should call them and they would come and get me, no questions asked. One night, I went to a party in the next town. A guy I sort of knew said he would drive me home. The party was huge and there was beer everywhere. When I was ready to leave, my designated driver was in no shape to go. I called my house. My father arrived in blue pajamas. He had gotten lost getting there and could barely look at me. We drove home in silence. I didn't feel good but I felt grateful that my parents had established guidelines for staying safe when other people weren't.

The bottom line is I'm hopeful I can teach my kids to drink responsibly, at home, and I pray that they will never, ever drink and drive or get into a car with someone who is drunk.

My husband and I don't have a liquor cabinet. We keep the Scotch and the red wine in a rack by the refrigerator and the white wine in the refrigerator. I hope my kids won't help themselves to it. I hope that if they're offered liquor at their friends' houses, they will have one drink, not ten. It's ridiculous to think they will "just say no" and abstain. Teenagers aren't particularly risk averse and they want to experiment.

So while I feel a little ashamed that my older son thinks I'm always drinking, I will continue to let him have the occasional sip, and I will definitely keep talking to him about it.

Should you let your kids see you drink?

Kevin Knopf March 08, 2011 at 05:45 PM
Thanks for publishing this. My wife and I drink a fair amount of wine - probably three bottles a week (2 red, 1 champagne). I drink a beer or a scotch here or there. I think the kids are getting used to the idea that one can enjoy alcohol responsibly - they certainly see that if I have a drink while we go out my wife will drive. I do want them to know enough about alcohol not to drink themselves into a stupor when they go away to college so when they are interested I will likely violate the law and serve them wine or beer at home - as they do in France.
M OKeef March 08, 2011 at 06:31 PM
I thought it was legal to give your own children permission to have a small amount of wine/beer in your own home. NOT others children of course.
Noreen Brunini March 08, 2011 at 07:51 PM
Also very informative article about this very topic in today's Wall Street Journal http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703386704576186380879004132.html
Ruthi Byrne March 08, 2011 at 10:51 PM
Most studies have shown that serious alcohol addiction has a genetic component. If that component is present in the family it should be avoided at all costs. Otherwise, seeing parents drink responsibly should not be a problem.
Laura Zinn Fromm March 11, 2011 at 05:06 PM
Thank you for all of your comments! This has turned into a controversial topic. I appreciate all of your honest feedback.

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