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Does Early Exposure to Alcohol Promote Responsible Drinking?

Does Early Exposure to Alcohol Promote Responsible Drinking?

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?

Read more: Addiction, Blogs, Caregiving, Children, Family, Parenting at the Crossroads, Teens, , , , , , ,

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Eric Steinman

Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, NY. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture, and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.

61 comments

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5:52AM PDT on Oct 14, 2013

Thanks for posting.

6:38AM PDT on Apr 29, 2013

Thank you for sharing.

2:54PM PDT on Apr 13, 2012

Iguess it depends on so many things...
My parents always let us have sips of whatever they were drinking (i remember having watered down scotch when I was 4). Alcohol was never taboo, and we didn't sneak out to get drunk. We could get drunk at home for free if we wanted to, I guess. So those people that went crazy in college just seemed silly to us.

12:01AM PDT on Apr 7, 2012

My parents used to let us have a little wine. They drink quality stuff and so cheap wine had no appeal to me. This may have been part of the reason I did basically no binge drinking. Or it may be because I am just a control freak who wouldn't have thought that drinking to excess was fun.

10:52AM PDT on Apr 1, 2012

i was exposed to alcohol as a child, not extreme, but i was allowed to have sips or very small amounts mixed in with my soda when i was 10-12 with the family. when i was 15 i began sneaking alcohol and going to school drunk to deal with my depression and also because i had a full blown case of border-line personality disorder. after my parents found out they locked all the alcohol up but i continued drink until i was 16 because i would go to my friend's and we would drink her parents alcohol. by the time i was 16 it was more of a social thing. for a couple of years i didnt drink until i finished high school where i became a full-blown "party girl". so from about the age of 18-25 i would party hard with alcohol, being able to consume more and more until i was about 24 where i could drink most of a bottle of vodka myself in a night. when i was younger alcohol's bad effects didnt really hit me, meaning no hang-overs. but was time went on i would get them and the effects werent just headaches, i once had to go on nexium because i changed the pH of my stomach from binge drinking or have digestive problems and liver pains. during my late teens up until now i would drink for socially or to wind down. i had to settle down because of my son but it doesnt mean i dont drink anymore, it means im more responsible about it. when i drink now it is far less and mostly to wind down after a stressful day or week and i enjoy it with my girlfriend or close friends. last weekend my girlfriend, ou

1:17AM PDT on Mar 28, 2012

I think it primarily depends if alcoholism runs in the family, as there is evidence that there are genetic proclivities in families. That said, I think that it also depends on the culture...and in the U.S. these days, the pressure kids are under in school and non intact families can lead to self medicating with alcohol. There are many ways to look at this, and thanks for the article bringing up all the different points of view via people's responses. Very educational!

10:08AM PDT on Mar 27, 2012

interesting article and comments

10:23PM PDT on Mar 26, 2012

ONLY an 86% chance they've tried alcohol by 21? I think some of them lied...

11:12AM PDT on Mar 26, 2012

Interesting comments!

1:14AM PDT on Mar 26, 2012

There's a huge difference between a young teen having a wine spritzer with a family dinner and doing a dozen jello shots or otherwise binge drinking with friends. Our kids (now 17, 21, & 26) have always been allowed alcohol at home with the family, and it's worked just as we expected. None of them has had any alcohol-related problems.

Abstinence-only policies don't work with sex ed; they don't work with drinking, either. The forbidden is always more attractive to kids.

That said, however, I suspect this approach only works if the parents also drink responsibly. If the parents drink to intoxication, drive drunk, or self-medicate with alcohol, kids are going to learn that, too.

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