Q: We live in Belgium, where we have access to a fantastic variety of beer, and we have a 4-year-old and a 1½ -year-old. My partner and I never get drunk, but we'll often have one beer or a glass of wine while we're cooking our dinner, the kids are eating theirs and we're all chatting together as a family. I thought it was good for the kids to see us enjoying alcohol responsibly and appreciating the complex flavors rather than drinking to get drunk. But I noticed when we visited my in-laws that they don't drink at all until the kids are in bed, and it gave me pause. My 4-year-old told my parents that when she's a grown-up, she wants to drink pink wine, and my dad's response was, "Some grown-ups choose not to drink wine." Any advice on whether we should keep the alcohol under wraps or carry on as we have been? It's such a big and fraught part of our society, and I want to make sure my kids have a healthy relationship with alcohol when they grow older.
A: This is a complicated issue. Not only are you wondering about drinking habits within your family, but you are also living in a different culture, which I imagine plays a role in your drinking life.
This is also complicated because there are a million opinions when it comes to imbibing, parenting and children, and most of these opinions come from our complex historical and cultural past.
You are asking two things: one, when you should keep the drinking under wraps, and two, how to make sure your children have a healthy relationship with alcohol. And those are both big questions. There is no reason to think that ceasing or hiding your drinking will lead to a healthy relationship between alcohol and your children. The reason that people drink is multilayered, and children who abuse alcohol as adults do so for primarily emotional reasons, not simply because alcohol was part of their family.
Alcohol is a depressant. It loosens our concerns about what people think, our executive-functioning skills and more. Hence that “I feel so much more relaxed during dinner” feeling.
If your childhood was scary at times because your parents were alcoholics, you may decide not to imbibe at all, or you may be more prone to abuse alcohol to escape the pain of your big emotions. Conversely, you may have grown up in a dry home and still end up abusing alcohol and drugs, because addiction and abuse are complicated and don’t just happen to people from broken homes. This is all to say that you cannot control your children’s relationship with alcohol; the only thing that you can control is your relationship with alcohol.
Drinking alcohol in the evening can quickly become the go-to way to relax for many young parents. The demands of raising young children, whether you are home all day with them or return to them after a long day at work, can chip away at the soul. Four-year-olds and 1½ -year-olds can be extraordinarily difficult, so it is no surprise that a glass of red wine or a beer feels good at the end of the day. The drink takes the edge off. Or maybe it feels as if you have earned it. Or maybe you just genuinely enjoy the taste. In any case, many parents are surprised when one glass turns into two, two into three, and then, wow, you are feeling mighty lovely for bath and book time. And then in no time, you are downing copious amounts of wine or beer every night (because your body will build a tolerance to the effects of alcohol, requiring more to have an impact).
In some cultures, drinking every night is normal. In some families, this is normal. I am not here to judge your drinking or decide what is normal. I am only here to report that alcohol abuse is real in parents of young children (it always has been) and that it can affect your ability to be present to your children. If you can have a glass of wine and feel relaxed, happy, and emotionally and physically available to your children, proceed with your life.
But if you are beginning to feel some worry creeping in, or if you are feeling cloudy in the morning, then strongly look at that. And don’t think for a minute that drinking in your basement after everyone has gone to bed is healthy or is saving your children. Drinking alone or in private is often the big red flag that you’re doing something you’re ashamed of. I am not impressed by parents who regularly and purposely wait to drink after their children are in bed and assume that this is better parenting. The parents who have a healthy balance of fun and responsibility are the best role models to their children.
You can go down a rabbit hole of research about children and alcohol abuse, but for now, I would strongly encourage you to have an honest conversation with your spouse. Maybe drinking every night is beginning to have an impact on your family (the children are noticing and that is causing you to worry), and you want to take a look at that. Maybe you and your spouse need more date nights to truly kick back and relax, which is what you are searching for when you pour a drink in the evening. Maybe you both decide that you are fine and agree to keep the conversation going. Whatever you choose, be as honest with yourself as you can. Your children’s relationship with alcohol depends on many factors, and one of them is that you have an honest and healthy relationship with alcohol yourself.
And remember: The deepest and most primary need of every child is that their main attachment attends to them with warmth and boundaries. If alcohol is in any way disrupting that connection, it is time for some introspection. Good luck.