Monday 27 September 2010

The Demon Drink 5: Should You Drink in Front of the Kids?

By Paul Hilton in the Times, Sept. 25 2010

Paul? The answer is "no".

Obviously there must be parents somewhere who are bringing up their children without enormous glasses of wine in their hands, but I just haven’t met any. Theoretically I suppose it’s possible for a family to pass a weekend without visiting a gastropub; it’s just hard to picture.

My wife and I are part of a generation who are more open about drinking than our parents. A typical middle-class family; life is wholesome, happy, and gently marinated in booze. Anyone at a music festival this summer will have seen similar families annexing vast tracts of field with tartan blankets and chilled white. We don’t see our children as a reason to stop drinking, we see them as people who can bring us more pistachios from the bar.

But is this entirely wise? What kind of messages are we giving them? Earlier this month the Red Cross launched a campaign to give teens the life-saving skills needed to cope with an alcohol-related emergency. The organisation says that one in ten 11 to 16-year-olds has been left to cope with a drunken friend who was sick, injured or unconscious. Are we creating irresponsible teenage drinkers? Is our liberal honesty simply self-indulgence?

I ask Dr Linda Papadopoulos, a psychologist, who says that turning alcohol into a desirable and mysterious forbidden fruit is a mistake. “If you vilify alcohol too much then drink becomes a rite of passage,” she says. “This idea of being in the gastropub and demystifying drink and seeing it used responsibly is a good thing.”

Papadopoulos assumes that because we are middle-class drinkers our consumption is sensible. In a way my wife and I make the same assumption. But if I stop to question those pub outings, the idyllic image we present is only half the story.

With the first magical pint I am a more relaxed version of myself. By the second I am joking, laughing easily, doing “a funny voice”. The third means that I’m Captain Fun.

But later we’re at home. Captain Fun is tired and he’s heading for an armchair. He doesn’t want to play football. Then he’s asleep on a precious Saturday afternoon when he could be with his family.

Rosemary Duff, of the research company ChildWise, carried out a survey of children’s attitudes to parental drinking earlier this year for the BBC. She found that 30 per cent of children felt scared when their parents drink (not mine, by the way; I asked — they laughed) and one of the biggest fears for the children of drinkers was that their parents were damaging their health.

Duff says that this wasn’t the only concern. “They also worry about the arguments that occur and parental break-up.” Duff also confirms my suspicion that children of drinkers are more likely to drink themselves. “We found 70 per cent of children whose parents drink say that they themselves are likely to drink alcohol in the future compared with 30 per cent of the children of non-drinkers.”

Dr Sal Severe is an educational psychologist based in Arizona — author of the neatly titled
How to Behave so Your Children Will, Too! — and has little time for my approach to family boozing. He rejects the idea that the affluent are immune to drink issues.

“You get more problems in lower-income families where people use alcohol to self-medicate and ease the pain of not being able to pay the bills, but in higher-income families they are more indulgent when it comes to drink and drugs — it crosses all classes.”

He warns against using booze to ease the stresses of everyday parenting. “We call it Arsenic Hour here in the States — this is the time before dinner when the kids arrive home from school, they have to do their homework and you have to make dinner. It’s chaotic. Having a glass of wine is fine, as long as you don’t have one every 15 minutes.”

Dr Severe sees an alarming change in the children of problem drinkers as they move into their teens, a reminder that we are all role models. “When the children of alcoholics are about 12 they hate their parents’ behaviour but, sure enough, by the time they’re 18 they’re addicted too.”

Hopefully far from dependency myself, I do have a confusion about what I should tell them about my more adventurous evenings out. To put these in perspective they do not take place every week. In fact, for much of the week I don’t touch a drop — I’m a keen gym-goer and brown rice puritan. However, I’m also British and every now and then I will go out and drink sensibly ... before getting totally smashed.

I’m not proud of this, nor am I ashamed. I know my safe limits, I do not fight, shout or make sexual advances to people who aren’t my wife. I talk rubbish, laugh and perform age-inappropriate dance moves with trusted friends.

What should I say to my children about our nation’s favourite leisure pursuit? To depict my behaviour as an error of judgment is dishonest — some of the best nights of my life have been facilitated by Guinness. But on the other hand, I would hate my children to join the millions of teen drinkers bumbling into danger.

I’m frank about the good and the bad of bingeing. We have the Blanket of Death in our house — this is the Sunday morning shroud worn when Mummy or Daddy has a “special headache”. The children jump on us when we wear the Blanket of Death, often gleefully banging percussion instruments. They know we had a good time, that there is a price to pay and that maracas are unwelcome before midday.

Susan Foster, of the National Centre on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, questions our open approach. “I don’t know that it’s necessary to share drinking stories with your children. If they ask, then you have to wonder, why they are asking?” Plagued now with guilt and liberal self-loathing, I finally decide to ask my children if they feel there are downsides to Mummy and Daddy drinking. My daughter nods. I lean towards her, eager to hear her pain, ready to apologise and alter my behaviour for ever. Rolling her eyes, my 11-year-old says: “Mummy sang karaoke on holiday, it was sooo embarrassing.” I suspect that we haven’t seen the last of Captain Fun and his musical partner.

You can call Alcoholics Anonymous on 0800 9177650, or email them at

More about the demon drink here, and links to the rest.

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