The XX Factor

Should Drinking and Parenting Be Mixed?

Should parents teetotal or teach? 

In response to the recent tabloid “scandal” in which British Prime Minister David Cameron briefly left his 8-year-old daughter at a pub, the Washington Post’s Janice D’Arcy has dusted off the old question of whether drinking while parenting is a good idea. Leaving aside that it’s unclear whether the mix-up (the family was traveling in two separate cars) had anything to do with a lunch-time beer, D’Arcy’s query is a timely one—‘tis the season for family picnics, block parties, and neighborhood barbeques that tend to pair well with a glass of rosé or a frosty martini for those of us who are of age. But when the kids are around, should parents and other adults modify their drinking behaviors?

In these matters, of course, safety comes first. As D’Arcy points out, drunk driving arrests are on the rise among women; it seems pretty clear that the sassy “mommy needs a cocktail” shtick can have a darker side. But what about responsible consumption? Though some research suggests that the “European model”—the idea that because European families are more likely to consume wine and other alcohol as part of their quotidian food culture, kids should have a healthier relationship with drinking—may not be as effective as was previously thought, I still tend to believe that gradual, age-appropriate instruction is better than outright prohibition.

But that belief comes with one important caveat: Tone matters. If parents are modeling an approach to alcohol that foregrounds the pleasures of inebriation—in other words, that drinking is merely a means to an altered state of mind (whether mildly buzzed or trashed) reserved especially for adults—they’re doing it wrong. Instead, the message should be focused on appreciation of the drink itself. Why this wine, and why with this meal? What are the qualities of various spirits, and why do they mix best with certain ingredients and not others? Even better, what are the histories of various distilling techniques and particular cocktails; the cultural contexts of aperitifs and other drinking rituals?

Teach the art of drinking (much like the art of cooking), and you can’t help but to teach respect for the substance. As a person not so far removed from collegiate drinking practices, I can attest that once one begins to care about the nuances of a good drink, he will be far less inclined to spend a night binging on swill. If parents present drinking as a privilege that requires appreciation, taste, and maybe even study, kids can only benefit from the exposure.