Kids and Alcohol – An “Inappropriate” Subject?

My nine-year old son, Elliott, recently had another “inappropriate” incident at school. If you read my post from December 9, 2011 entitled, It’s Important to Explain Why “That’s Inappropriate!” you’ll know that I feel this term has become something of an excuse for avoiding challenging discussions with kids in our care. That said, sometimes it’s not obvious how best to handle some of the things our kiddos say and do – and there’s always a learning opportunity in these experiences….

This time the inappropriate statement took place during library period. The fourth-grade class was having a learning session with the librarian and ideas on how to be useful and good to others were being exchanged. As my son put it, they were discussing “how not to be lazy and just sit around playing video games all day.” So what did my bundle of joy offer up?…

“Well, you could do something nice for your parents – like get them some nice steaks and a bottle of wine for dinner.”

Hmmm…a lovely sentiment…doing something nice for your parents. But there’s just the small complication that he’s clearly under the legal drinking age – so can’t purchase alcohol, and probably shouldn’t even be handling it. This idea quickly breaks down in the implementation phase!

If only the librarian had focused on the sentiment – and the funny side – of his comment, then things might have ended there. Instead she told him “that’s inappropriate!” and proceeded to complain to his homeroom teacher and the school’s Assistant Principal….sheesh!

Now I volunteer at my son’s school library, and I really like the librarian. Nevertheless, I have to admit….I was mad! Do I wish my nine-year-old son had suggested something else – something less…controversial? Absolutely yes! But there was no way I was going to call him to account for this. His intention was good – and he didn’t really do anything wrong. If the librarian had praised his sentiment but emphasized that it wasn’t legal for kids to carry this out – and why such laws exist – it might have been a great teachable moment. Instead, he was just made to feel badly for a situation he didn’t fully appreciate.

You see, his comment has to be taken in context – cultural context. Our home and family has a strong European orientation. My husband is first-generation American. Both his parents are from Europe – and most of his relatives still live across the pond. Additionally, we both spent a decade of our early adult years living and working in Europe. With that background, we share an interest in good wines paired with a nice dinner – or a glass of aged port with cheese. We also hold mulled wine parties in the depths of winter, and I cook with wine – in risotto or to make reductions for beef tenderloin.

Consequently, wine – alcohol – is a fairly common presence in our house. That said, we have family members who don’t drink alcohol and we always provide plenty of non-alcoholic beverages at parties. We also have a local college student as a regular babysitter and “adopted” family member – and we were careful not to serve her wine with dinner until she turned 21. My thought was always that demonstrating moderate and responsible alcohol use at home was better than making alcohol a taboo subject.

Nevertheless, this incident got me thinking. Elliott has had several educational sessions throughschool about the dangers of cigarettes and he’s very attuned to the risks of smoking and even second-hand smoke. However, his school has not held any sessions about the nature and risks of alcohol. Maybe just demonstrating responsible use of alcohol isn’t enough? Does he even understand why kids and young adults are restricted from purchasing and consuming alcohol? To better tackle this issue I did some research and found a useful resource from the National Institutes for Health or NIH (an agency of the US Department of Health and Human services and one of the world’s leading medical research organizations) called Make a Difference – Talk to Your Child about Alcohol. Interestingly, the booklet is aimed at parents of children aged 10-14. Since my son is about to turn 10, I guess this isn’t too early to start broaching the topic of alcohol – especially since the NIH states that “parents have the greatest influence on their child’s values and decisions about drinking before he or she begins to use alcohol.” And given that 20% of eighth graders in a national survey reported drinking alcohol within the previous month and 17% said they had gotten drunk in the previous year, there’s no time to waste.

So, we’ve started our talks about drinking. Sure enough, Elliott didn’t have a full appreciation of the nature of alcohol or the risks involved in drinking. And he wasn’t entirely sure why I was bringing this up. But we’re making progress, and at least we’re communicating about a difficult subject – and not just labeling it “inappropriate.”

About the Author

Audra is an experienced pharmaceutical marketing professional, aspiring writer, and mother of Elliott, a high-spirited twenty-year old. Frequently tired but never bored, she has a strong interest in public health fostered by numerous years implementing global oncology education programs as well as by her twenty-year crazy (wild? amazing?) adventure in parenting. She recently earned a Masters in Public Health to augment her expertise in health policy and health promotion. Audra is a founding member of the PedSafe Team


4 Responses to “Kids and Alcohol – An “Inappropriate” Subject?”

  1. Diana says:

    My husband drinks beer responsible as well as smokes (outside only thank goodness!) so my sons – 3 and 7 – have been discussing cigarettes and beer/alcohol since my oldest was 3. We obviously keep it very basic that smoking is really bad for you and should not be done at all and drinking alcohol can be harmful and should only be done responsibly. The main reason we started these discussions so young is my sister had severe issues with drugs and alcohol and several of my husband’s sisters have had issues with drugs and alcohol so we want them to understand the dangers before they get the temptations of trying either through peer pressure.

    • Diana, thank you so much for sharing your story. It’s great that you started the conversations so young. This will help keep the lines of communication open as they age – on this topic, as well as others!

  2. Suzanne Hantke says:

    Thank you for your important and meaningful post Audra! It just so happens that the timing could not have been better. It happens to coincide with a recent conversation I had with my sister regarding my 11 year old niece. I am a recovering addict myself (coming up on 7 years) and believe she’s at an age for me to talk with her about it. However, being that I am not her Mom, I felt it important to first consult with my sister on my desire to approach the topic with Alexa and respect her personal thoughts and feelings on it. But when I broached the subject with my sister, I felt a lot of resistance from her. I was (am) concerned with her response “she’s learning about it in school right now.”

    While I agree that the facts and statistics she is learning in school are important to hear and understand; I truly believe that there’s no substitute for hearing it first-hand from someone with personal experience; especially her aunt that she respects and looks up to. I assured my sister I’d keep it age appropriate, but her obvious hesitation and excuses concerned me… “Alexa is a pretty smart kid and generally does the right thing.” I know she is a very smart kid (As a matter of fact when my niece and I first started emailing each other about different topics, I worried I might be talking ‘over hear head’, But after reading her responses, I worried I might have been condescending!! But being a recovering addict, I know that intelligence seldom plays a role in it. She is still just a child.

    An excerpt taken from the site stated:
    “For older aged children, it is vital that you talk over addiction with them. This is true whether you are an addict or not, as kids are introduced to drugs and alcohol at a very early stage in life these days. Even if you keep your kids on a “short leash” they will have heard about drugs and alcohol by the time they get to middle school. They may even be offered these things. That said, you have to take some time to explain how dangerous these things are. If they hear it from you before they are offered it at school, then they have a much better chance of knowing how to handle the situation. Your own addiction can serve as a warning for them. Explain to them what happened to you and allow them to ask questions. Be honest with them, and let them know the dangers in clear language. If you remain silent with your children about addiction, they will be left to draw their own conclusions. Worse yet, they may draw their conclusions based on what other kids are telling them. Kids understand far more than we give them credit for, and will benefit greatly from your doing so”.

    Anyway, the discussion with my sister was ended with “I’ll think about it” and I honestly am not sure if I should revisit the topic and pursue it further, or assume her lack-of-response is a “leave it alone” message. I love my niece and nephews more than life itself, and would never want to hurt them…which is why I feel this is important. I am also a firm believer of “fore-warned is fore-armed.”

    • Suzanne,
      Thank you for sharing your experience. The resource I mentioned in my post indicated that many conversations with kids about alcohol may be prompted by the experience of alcoholism or other addiction in the family – and that this is an important reason to speak to children about the dangers of alcohol. But I can also understand your sister’s hesitation, particularly if she hasn’t read any of the guidance on this subject. If that is the case, perhaps giving her some resources to review on speaking to kids about alcohol and addiction would help her get comfortable with the idea. Also, perhaps letting her talk to the kids first to gauge their responses might help. Anyway, just a few thoughts. It is a challenging subject, but your desire to help inform and prepare your niece and nephews is very commendable.

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