Kids are always watching, learning from and imitating their parents. Their ideas and behaviours are constantly being shaped by us. So when I sit down to dinner with a glass of wine almost every night—hypothetically speaking, of course—what message does it send? As the person responsible for developing their healthy drinking attitudes, am I OK with the example I’m setting? “The strongest influence on children’s drinking is parents’ modelling,” says Catherine Paradis, senior research and policy analyst at the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction in Ottawa. “It’s 5 p.m., you’re stressed and impatient and you just need a drink, and your kids see that. We are telling our kids how necessary it is, and we need to think about that.”
But it’s not only what they see—I also have to look at what I say (or don’t say) about my drinking. They’re not too young to discuss it. “Surveys indicate that children start to think positively about alcohol between ages nine and 13,” reads a 2015 report from the American Academy of Pediatrics on teen binge drinking. "The more young people are exposed to alcohol advertising and marketing, the more likely they are to drink, and if they are already drinking, this exposure leads them to drink more. So, it's important to start talking to children about the dangers of drinking.” What’s more, binge drinking in 12- to 14-year-olds is a reality—in Statistics Canada’s 2005 Community Health Survey, one in 25 kids admitted to binge drinking in the past year.
I don’t have to turn myself into a prohibitionist—and I shouldn’t—for the sake of my kids. But I can start some important conversations.
1. Explain why you drink. I love a margarita on taco night—and this is the best time to chat with my kids about why. It’s something some adults like to do, it goes really well with the food, and it’s a Friday night, which is a great reason to celebrate. It’s also why wine and beer are a big part of dinners and parties we have with friends and family.
2. Have lots of little talks. This isn’t one lecture you deliver and it’s done. Sprinkle chats throughout daily life—at dinner, sure, but also when you’re exposed to bro beer ads or rule-breaking teens in a movie.
3. Don’t tell funny drinking stories. Avoid glamorizing, normalizing or making light of drinking. “A permissive pro-alcohol environment has led to normalization of drinking in a range of settings and ‘culture blindness’ to alcohol harm, masking issues which may affect children,” reads an October 2017 report from the Institute of Alcohol Studies (IAS) in London, England.
4. Talk about the risks. Everyone, including kids, knows how nasty smoking is, not just for the smoker but for everyone around them. We need to talk to our kids about excessive drinking in the same way. They should know that it’s not safe for kids, as their bodies and brains are still growing. And that consuming too much can do serious damage to the stomach, liver and brain, and cause cancer, alcohol poisoning and addiction for anyone—a teenager or a grown adult.
5. Don’t lecture, listen. Over tacos, I might ask what they think about Mommy and Daddy’s drinking. What do they know about alcohol?
6. Know that even moderate drinking affects kids. Parents may assume their kids don’t even notice their drinking, but the IAS report finds the more a parent drinks, the more worried the child becomes.
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