Firstly, there are no 'rights' or 'wrongs' as far as parenting in this area is concerned. Don't get me wrong, some parental behaviour is truly bizarre in my opinion, but as I've said many times before, no-one can tell you how to raise your child and as long as you believe what you are doing is right and you feel comfortable with your decision, then go for it! The most important thing is that you make your rules around alcohol and parties based on the best possible information you can find and that you are not bullied into doing something based on what another parent says or what your child tells you other people do ... Most importantly never impose your beliefs in this area onto other parents. If you believe giving your teen a glass of wine at a family function is appropriate, that's fine - but don't ridicule others at the event for making the decision not to allow the same behaviour.
So is drinking with your child encouraging them, controlling them or teaching them responsible drinking? Some people, like the father I mentioned above, cite the 'Mediterranean Model' as a good example of how you could introduce alcohol to a child in the home, i.e., with a meal with the family like they do in countries like Greece and Italy. Unfortunately, simply 'transplanting' the Mediterranean Model to Australia does not necessarily work as there are so many other social influences at play. In this country, alcohol is associated with success in so many areas of life, whether it be sport or celebration and that is difficult to challenge simply by providing alcohol with a meal. It is also important to acknowledge that even in countries where this model once appeared to have been successful there are now growing problems, e.g., France now has one of the highest rates of liver disease in the world and are now seeing some significant youth drinking issues. Although family influence is incredibly important, there are so many other external influences that bombard our kids from a very early age, most of which are almost impossible to control, the positive messages you are trying to send can become confused, sometimes resulting in a completely different message being conveyed to the one intended.
Most importantly, this notion of 'teaching a child to drink responsibly' really makes little sense. In reality, teens learn from you and start modelling your behaviour from a very early age, so whether you drink with them, around them or even away from them they will be watching ... You certainly don't need to sit there with them and 'teach' them how to drink in a responsible way - they've been picking up how you and your partner (and the rest of your family and friends) drink alcohol for years. Do you really believe that all of a sudden drinking a couple of beers watching the TV with Dad is suddenly going to significantly affect how they perceive alcohol? Research that has been conducted in Australia around the impact of the 'Mediterranean Model' has found that instead of being protective, drinking (even small amounts) with your son or daughter is instead likely to send them the message that you condone and support their drinking at an early age - the positive messages you wanted to get across are often lost.
Delaying drinking for as long as possible is still the best message for teenagers as the research is clear that the younger the child is introduced to alcohol, the more likely they are to develop a range of problems, including dependence later in life. Researchers have long known that the age at which a person starts drinking or taking drugs is a good predictor of whether or not he or she will have future problems, particularly dependence or addiction.
So am I saying that a father shouldn't have a beer with his teenage son or families should avoid allowing their teens to have a glass of wine with a meal? As I've said before, the evidence is confusing here and as I discussed recently there are essentially four messages that are acknowledged as important for parents in this area:
- Delay, delay, delay - try to delay their first drink of alcohol for as long as possible
- If a teen is to drink, ensure their first drink of alcohol is with you in a controlled environment
- If a teen believes their parent approves of teen drinking they're more likely to drink
- If teens obtain alcohol from sources other than their parents, they're more likely to drink in a risky way
With all of that in mind, I believe the best way forward for any parent is to 'follow their heart' - I know that sounds so corny but it really is the best answer. If you believe that allowing your teen to have a drink at home in a controlled setting is appropriate for your family situation and that they will get something positive from that experience, that's what you should do. My only suggestion is that if you do, try and delay it for as long as possible and at the same time, rules and boundaries are discussed and established around alcohol and parties. Believing that simply allowing your child to drink with you at home, no matter how controlled, is going to somehow protect them from drinking in a risky manner in the future is not only naïve but dangerous ...