I was frustrated, upset, and raising my voice with my five kids. I don’t remember what I was upset over, as any mom can understand, the frustrations of the day, homework, carpools, household tasks can sometimes catch up to you at the least suspecting moments. In the midst of being visibly upset, my youngest ran to me in his footie jammies and saggy diaper, with a champagne glass in his adorable, chubby hand.
At that young age, he understood that mommy used a substance to calm down. He was two. If a two year old can make that connection, what will their view of alcohol be when they are in grade school, or high school?
Alcohol is the drug of choice among America’s adolescents, used by more young people than tobacco or illicit drugs combined. According to the NIH, approximately 5,000 persons in the US under the age of 21 die from causes related to underage drinking per year. If the pervasiveness of underage drinking in our culture now is unparalleled, why do we hear so little about alcohol abuse? Because it’s very difficult to explore our own behavior and demonize a substance we celebrate with and use consistently. Children don’t copy what we say, they copy what we do. And what we are doing is drinking in almost every social situation and glorifying booze without a second thought.
The world is designed to numb us. “Rose all day” and “mommy juice” are celebrated taglines, and everyone knows, “It’s 5:00 somewhere” is synonymous with “Oh damn, Karen’s had a rough day.” We throw back a nightly beer or a glass of wine, with little eyes watching, yet we are stunned when our kids grow up to be teens who are caught drinking, or rifling through our prescription pills, or buying street drugs. We make drinking look so alluring, how can kids possibly say no, or understand that they have the choice to say no? Children have learned through our example that they need a substance to dull their feelings, have fun, or act like an adult. We are surprised when our kids are learning that, if alcohol is good, something stronger must be better. And that’s important, because the fine lines between first sip to kegger to binge drinking to street drug are not very wide.
So, what do we do?
First, don’t include booze in child-centered activities. Stop with the wine at playdates, cocktail-filled solo cups on the sidelines of the flag football game, beer at the 2nd grade soccer award ceremony, or any other event where your kids, not your beverage selection, should be the focus. The mommy-and-daddy-deserve-a-drink culture is sending a dangerous message to our kids from a very young age. The reason we see kitchy t-shirts and mugs and pro-drunk-mom marketing that further justify this messaging in our brain is because we consistently demand it. We need to stop demanding it.
Second, talk to kids about the real dangers of drinking, and start earlier than you think. Alcohol is the gateway drug to all substances, as it is the first drug of choice for 80 percent of teens. The Council for Chemical Addictions suggests that kindergarten to age 3 is the time to start talking to kids about drinking. If they are old enough to absorb the wine-mom culture, and be dressed up in “I’m the reason mommy drinks” shirt” (a search on this design pulls up 65,000 results) they are certainly old enough to be told the truth about it. As they get older, communicate with your kids about their activities. Talk to their friends, and their friends’ parents. Know who they are with, and where they are, and what they are doing. Sixty-eight percent of teens first drink at their own home, or the home of a friend or family member, and seventy-six percent have their first drink with their peers. So, stay plugged in and check in. And don't be the parent who thinks allowing drinking at home is safer, it is not. Your job is to keep them safe, not supervise illegal activity. Make sure this is clear with the other parents in your circle as well.
Lastly, and most importantly, if you’re drinking daily in front of your kids, stop. It starts and ends with your example. If you cannot get through the day without a drink, if you use wine as the fix-all for your stress, and you’re showing your kids that alcohol is a required part of adulthood, you are sending them the message that substance = stress reliever. Demonstrate better outlets for stress like mediation, exercise, hot baths, or long walks. Show them that numbing out isn’t the answer for life’s stressors. If you try to cut down or stop, and find you can't, seek help.
Watching my 2-year-old act as my home bartender was part of a huge wake-up-call that lead to big changes in our household. My husband is still an occasional drinker, but now very rarely drinks at home, and I haven’t had a sip of alcohol for 3 years. We stopped centering activities around drinking and kid-friendly breweries. We no longer lead our kids to believe that every social activity requires booze. They see alcohol for what it is: a very risky drug, not a required accessory to adulthood.
Alcohol kills 3 million people per year. It’s the third leading preventable cause of death, so even if you don’t have a teen who may end up reaching for a street drug, educate yourself on the risks of drinking for your own health. Change the conversation for yourself so you can set a better example for the young people in your life. They deserve better.