I appeared on ABC World News last night, where my small voice was drowned out by a chorus of government and media ones shouting - "Don't ever, ever let your kid drink."
The Stanton Peele Addiction Website, June 27, 2008. This blog post also appeared on Stanton's Addiction in Society blog at PsychologyToday.com.
Public Health and Well-Meaning Media Will Save Your Children -- If It Kills Them
A woman described to me alcohol and drug awareness night at her son's secondary school. "They told us never to let our kids drink at home, that that was the surest route to alcoholism. I looked around at all the parents I knew who gave their kids alcohol - many of them Jewish and Italian - and not one of them peeped up. So I certainly wasn't going to say anything.
"But I was shocked to learn how many young people died of alcohol poisoning, and it really worried me."
There were three elements to the back story to this presentation that this mother wasn't aware of:
- The people lecturing them about alcohol didn't drink. This could have been because they were recovering alcoholics, or else because they came from conservative Protestant sects (e.g., Southern Baptist, Mormon, Christian Scientist) which disallow drinking. Such anti-alcohol proselytizers dominate alcohol awareness programs around North America. They embody the all-or-nothing approach to alcohol I outlined in PT a decade ago.
- Alcohol poisoning incidents are extremely rare, remarkably enough, given the widespread binge drinking that occurs among young Americans in late adolescence, college, and through their mid-twenties.
- Those fatal drinking events that do occur are most likely to befall young people from abstinent backgrounds who have no experience limiting their drinking when they participate in extreme initiations with other teens or college students.
One point these speakers make is that, the earlier young people begin to drink, the more likely they are to become alcoholic later in life. Perhaps they are harkening to a study led by Wake Forest Medical School researcher Kristie Foley which found that teens whose parents permitted them to attend drinking parties were twice as likely to binge, a finding broadcast around the country.
Less publicized was this result from the study: children who drank with their parents were one third as likely to binge outside the home. The difference between young teens sneaking into the woods to become falling-down drunk and kids sitting around the table with their parents drinking small amounts of wine is so obvious you wouldn't think the distintion would need to be drawn, would you?
Here's another mother I spoke to. Although her father, mother, and brother all had serious drinking issues, she drank moderately. Moreover, she made sure to introduce her two children to alcohol at home. When I complimented her for overcoming her own troubled family background with alcohol to create a moderate drinking household, she disclaimed credit.
"It's so obvious that I didn't want them to learn to drink by sneaking drinks around the house like I did or by bingeing when they got to college, I really can't take any credit for doing something so sensible."
I respectfully demurred. This woman, although not from an ethnic background (e.g., Jewish, Italian, Chinese, Greek) that socialized drinking in the home, figured out that this was the best policy on her own. And, apparently, there are other Americans out there like her!
Which gets me to my appearance on ABC World News. As author of Addiction-Proof Your Child, I was brought in as an afterthought (along with my 20-year-old daughter, Anna - that's her sipping wine in the picture) when a new study found that many kids were introduced to alcohol by adults, usually parents. Surgeon General Steven Galson denounced this approach. "Parents should not be permissive," he said. ‘"They should not facilitate.'"
And who wants to facilitate their child becoming an alcoholic, or dying from an alcohol OD?
My voice was a very minor one in the program. They used one quote from me: "Your children are going to drink; who should teach them how?" Anna's remarks about how moderate-drinking parents should model this approach for their children, as opposed to the binge-drinking one so prevalent around them, was left on the cutting-room floor.
But what struck me most in my daughters' ignored remarks was that our approach was not such a big deal among her friends - most of the parents she knew practiced it. After all, it IS so obviously the sensible and healthy one. That is, until enough alcohol education takes place to make us just like the alcoholics circling the globe teaching parents and children how to drink.