There’s a relatively genteel discussion in the comments of a post by Michael Bauer asking about when children should be offered tastes of wine. I’m fairly impressed, actually, since those comment threads can get rather vicious. But I think it’s a valid and important question, especially in the United States.
My own history with alcohol starts at a young age, when I was baptized in a vat of ouzo. (I kid you not. You’d think that dipping babies in 40% ABV spirits would not really be all that healthy, but I think I turned out ok.) As a young child, I was always offered wine with the adults, probably because we were living in Greece, where children drank watered wine with their meals. When we returned to the United States, my father kept up the offer on the rare occasions that wine was present at dinner, and I sometimes joined the adults, drinking a small glass of whatever they were drinking.
Drinking small amounts of wine helped me to develop a palate for wine, and also took a great deal of the mystique out of alcohol for me. It also seemed to make some of my father’s friends uncomfortable, along with some of my young friends. As a general rule, he did not offer anything to my friends unless their parents had expressly stated that it was appropriate, and I usually abstained in these instances out of courtesy. Of course, a lot of those young teetotalers are now lushing it up, making up for lost time. So, who is right? The people who say that children should never be allowed alcohol, or those who believe that children should be gently introduced to reality? (For the time being, we shall leave the children of alcoholic parents who may inadvertently introduce their children to alcohol out of the equation, as this type of introduction cannot really be considered “responsible”.)
Do I buy the argument that drinking wine as a child reduces the risk of alcoholism? Well…no. I think that a lot of things can contribute to alcoholism. My father raised me to be, in general, a person who ate, drank, and lived in moderation. Of course, the eating lesson didn’t take, but everything else did. If the logic that being exposed to something makes you less likely to use it follows, we should be giving young children drugs. Clearly, I think most people would disagree with that last statement, and with good reason.
I think that my father offered me wine and beer because it was part of a larger cultural framework which encouraged safe exploration, moderation, and respect for each other. He never offered me drugs, but I didn’t turn into a drug user, primarily because I have no interest in that lifestyle. I think, also, that the culture in which I was raised subtly suggested that drinking small amounts of wine and beer was acceptable, but that shooting up before dinner would not be. Because our relationship was based on mutual respect, it behooved me to follow my father’s advice and model, and I saw no benefit in defying him. I developed a taste for some wines and beers, but not for others, and was never really terribly interested in hard alcohol either. I suspect that my father could just as easily have denied me alcohol until I turned 21, and I would have turned out the same. It’s just my nature, and I have other much more appealing vices.
However, I do think that it was beneficial for me. For example, I have never driven drunk, because I understand how alcohol affects me, and I know my own limitations. Had I started driving before I started drinking, I might have gained a state of overconfidence about my driving abilities, which could have been compounded by alcohol. I really believe that people should experience the state of being mildly buzzed on a glass of good wine before they learn how to drive, because it instills a healthy respect for alcohol.
I think, also, that my father instilled a healthy respect for alcohol and its impact on the human body in me. He also served as a model, not only telling me how I should drink, but also showing me. I never saw my father in any state of drunkenness as a child, and therefore never really considered an extreme state of intoxication as an option until I reached high school, when I was largely repulsed by it. Children who are exposed to alcohol in a responsible and sane fashion can see how it might enhance a meal, rather than merely serving as a means to a drunken end.
There is something to be said for modeling responsible behaviour for your children. I know some parents who choose not to drink, or cannot drink, and I wonder how they will deal with that when their children start to come of age. Alcohol is such a socially accepted drug that the topic is bound to come up. How do you deal with natural curiosity about alcohol when you can’t crack open a bottle of decent wine and sit down with your kid? Or when you don’t want to?
Ultimately, I think that the decision to introduce children to alcohol or not is a personal one. I do not condone offering hard alcohol or drugs to children, but I personally do not see a problem with a small amount of beer and wine. Of course, everyone’s parenting choices are going to be criticized by someone. I think that respect for others on this hot button issue is probably a good course of action. Others, of course, will probably not agree with me, primarily because most Americans seem to specialize in minding each other’s business.