The XX Factor

Should You Teach Your Kids To Drink?

Can you teach a kid to be a “responsible” drinker? If you want documentary evidence, we’re never really going to know. Two health reporters in the WSJ lay out the results of studies on parents’ role in underage drinking and, unsurprisingly,  they’re inconclusive. Teens at a party drinking alcohol supplied by parents were more likely to binge drink and twice as likely to be regular drinkers. But teens who drank along with their parents were less likely to either binge or drink regularly. Then again, teens in the European countries that parents who drink with their teens often reference as having a healthier attitude toward alcohol (like Italy and France, where there is no drinking age, or the U.K., where it’s lower) are actually more likely to binge drink.

What does that mean for the parent who believes in allowing occasional moderate drinking at home, with a meal or on a special occasion, in the hopes of demystifying alcohol or encouraging responsible drinking? It means that, as with nearly everything else to do with parenting, there is no conclusive right answer, in part because there are so many variables. The effects of co-drinking on the teen who’s helping Mom finish a bottle of wine every night at dinner in the weeks after an ugly divorce are likely to be very different than on, say, the daughters of the WSJ ‘s former wine columnists, who I’d imagine have shared a sip or two with their parents over the years.

This makes studies and official recommendations, which, like those for pregnant women , focus on the extremes, largely useless. Yes, heavy drinking by adolescents can result in decreased cognitive function. Yes, teen drinking has been linked to an increased risk of “motor-vehicle crashes, homicides, suicides, and accidents of all kinds as well as unplanned sex, unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.” But the co-drinking parent believes that kids who “drink in moderation with their family” are actually less likely to do the kind of drinking that leads to such problems. And so far, at least according to the survey the WSJ included with its article , the vast majority of us (87 percent as of this writing) agree.

My kids are still too young for me to have anything more than a theory about this one, although they’ve all at least had a small sip of wine or beer at some point or another. I grew up drinking occasionally with my parents, and it didn’t stop me from the occasional binge, but it didn’t push me toward it, either. It probably helped: I never drank because I was curious, and never particularly felt a need to use drinking to prove anything or to rebel. I’d argue that the more transgressive a culture we create around alcohol, the more we increase its appeal, and that’s the approach I’m planning on taking with my kids-but how that idea plays out in practice is still to come.