My son, for as long as I could remember, has enjoyed the act of toasting drinks. Maybe it is the resonant chime of glass tapping glass, the simple emulation of adult behavior, or just the communal spirit behind the act. Whatever it may be, he takes so much pleasure in it that we sometimes indulge him by either giving him a very small sip of our wine, or simply dipping a finger in for a few drops he lets drip into his water glass. It is, without a doubt, a taste of things to come. However, this relaxed form of parenting may not be so popular in restaurants, nor is it popular with fellow parents and adults who view virtually any exposure to alcohol (whether it be minute ingestion or simply being around adults drinking) as a way to foster your child’s inner-alcoholic.
According to reports published within the last three years, by the time children reach the legal drinking age of 21, there’s an 86 percent chance they’ve already tried alcohol. With binge drinking and alcoholism what it is among teens and college-age adults, it is no wonder that many parents would be tremendously wary and guarded when it comes to any sort of liberal imbibing around children. Some research has shown that virtually any exposure to alcohol (meaning ingestion) at a particularly early age may lead to changes in the sensitive adolescent brain which, in turn, may “switch on” genes that affect a person’s susceptibility to addiction.
These findings however are pretty widely disputed and don’t take into account genetic predisposition and cultural factors. One of these cultural factors includes being French. As anyone somewhat familiar with French culture knows, the French take on a very liberal attitude when it comes to exposing children to alcohol, wine in particular. Many French children have their first sips of wine well before they are school age, and, some would say, because of this French teens and young adults seem far less prone to excessive drinking than their American peers. The thinking goes that if French parents expose their children to responsible drinking, rather than making alcohol a taboo or mystery, then their children will follow their parent’s example and develop an appreciation for wine and spirits, instead of a reckless self-indulgence (but even here, in bucolic France, trouble brews).
This emphasis on moderation and responsibility over the inherent dangers of alcohol abuse, or even the more sinful aspects of indulgence, seems like a sensible and respectful approach to take with children and teens. However, if there exists a pattern of alcohol abuse in the family (say a parent or close relative who has had struggles with alcohol addiction or substance abuse) it might be best to rethink this exposure, or at least be hyper-vigilant about such exposure. As it stands, there is no clear cut data that reveals whether such exposure at a young age is a healthy way to address the temptations and destructive potential of alcohol, or simply an imprudent way to cultivate your child’s taste for a lifetime of substance abuse issues?
What is your feeling about early exposure to alcohol? Is it enough for parents to promote responsibility and moderation, over some of the more inebriating effects of alcohol, or should exposure be virtually nil? Have you had experiences that have swayed you one way or another? Should alcohol consumption be treated as taboo and hidden away?