Friday, February 25, 2011

Can you make someone an alcoholic?

My five-year old daughter came home from preschool and went straight to our attic office to play with her Polly Pockets. After she was up there for a while, I turned to my wife and said "Pink Floyd's The Wall is playing on the computer" (audio, not video)."Do you think it will ruin her life?" It was the imagery and tone rather than the cursing that worried me (see my previous post on that issue), but my wife didn't seem concerned at all. Her glib response: "I don't think so. Is she high?"

But then my wife told me about a blog post in which a mother talks about letting her toddlers take a sip of wine as part of the Friday Night Jewish shabbat service. Before Friday night dinner, Jews all over the world welcome the sabbath by saying a small handful of prayers, one of which thanks God for "the fruit of the vine." A cup is then passed around so that everyone at the table can have a sip. Lots of people let their kids do it, but you would think from some of the responses that the mother was injecting heroin directly into her daughter's veins. Here are two examples: 

"As a pediatric nurse practitioner my advice to any parent would be the same – do not condone or encourage the use of alcohol, even under the guise of it being part of a religious practice. Any professional dealing with children would say the same."

and

"Where will you go next year and a year after. Will sips lead to glasses as they will understandably expect? Next will you let them get a “taste” of sex with you so that they “learn the effects of it at home”.

The commenters are claiming that letting kids sip wine will lead directly to alcoholism. The solution, they are arguing, is to teach the kids self restraint and to tell them that they are never supposed to touch alcohol. Ever. Finally, there is an analogy between the destructive consequences of alcoholism and sexual activity (incest, actually), and sex experimentation is also suggested to be a very bad thing.

Now, the philosopher will ask what magical thing happens at eighteen (or twenty-one) that makes these activities okay when they weren't the day before. And, to be fair, if one is to be consistent with Jewish practice, the appropriate age for drinking the shabbat wine probably ought to be thirteen since that is when children become "adults" in the religious community and ought to engage fully in the sabbath ritual. (Adult here means being held responsible for one's own sins and being considered a full member of the prayer community. I am not suggesting that thirteen-year olds have reached the age of sexual consent.) But the question of the age of adulthood is less interesting to me than asking whether the mother in question is, indeed, "making" her children alcoholics.

The argument for this position is obvious: if children aren't taught the dangers of alcohol then it may consume their lives. As one of the commenters remarked, her kids aren't learning self-restraint. However, the argument against the position is more powerful. First, it seems to me that learning to take only one sip of wine instead of drinking all one wants is a much more effective means for teaching self-restraint. Second, there is a great deal of room between abstinence and addiction. Being a moderate wine drinker is, many studies suggest, quite healthy (albeit, not for two-year olds). Third, alcoholism is not a matter of being weak willed. It is not the case that all substance abusers are simply lacking self-restraint. Addiction is a disease, and genetics play a significant role in its power. Add to this the fact that (as far as we know) the mother is not herself modeling addictive behavior, and it is particularly difficult to show that these actions cause problem drinking.

The problem of causation is notoriously complicated -- it is very difficult if not impossible to know whether one thing actually causes another. Famously, David Hume argued that causation itself could never be observed. Nevertheless, we still have to ask about the consequences of our behavior, and substance abuse is such a destructive force, that it behooves the parent to consider what they're teaching their kids. The commenters are coming from a noble place. They are thinking of the children.

There is, however, a very powerful argument that the commenters would have to respond to before I was convinced that a single sip of wine leads to alcohol abuse. It seems to me that demystifying alcohol is probably very healthy. Kids are much more interested in that which is forbidden and if healthy drinking is made to be a part of meals rather than binges, if it is made a family activity rather than a nightclub sport, if it is something that kids can communicate about rather than hide from their parents, then such kids will grow up much less likely to be alcoholics than the kids who drink too much with their friends and hide it from their parents.

I am, as always, curious as to your thoughts and, in particular, to what my readers who are parents think about this debate. As for me, I'm going to have some wine. This discussion made me thirsty.

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2 comments:

  1. I would let my kids try a small amount of wine, beer, or nearly any alcohol. I believe the demystification idea has merit, for one, but I would also allow it as a means to let them experience the range of their senses like I would with different foods, music, activities, etc. There's a difference between letting a seven year-old take a sip of wine and allowing the same seven year-old to get drunk on vodka. Unfortunately, the laws in this country don't make a distinction between the two scenarios. We'd rather keep the kids mystified.

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  2. I do not think allowing a child to drink a little sacramental wine will turn him/her into an alcoholic, but I do believe it is important for the parent to teach the significance of it in an age appropriate way. I think the object of parenthood is to teach discernment. I don't think it is evil to drink alcohol, but I also do not think it is good to teach a child it is fun. There are times drinking in social settings is more appropriate than socially separating oneself from peers. However if ones child is provided the tools to determine when and how much alcohol is appropriate, the parent has done their job. It is also good to impart on a child ones life experience, not to be preachy, but to help them discern when use is appropriate, if ever. For instance, once when I was a young teenager, my mother said to me, "your Dad and I smoked when we were younger, but we later decided it was unhealthy. While I can not prevent you from smoking, I just want to ask you to think it through before you do." I don't know if that conversation helped me avoid smoking, but it may have helped and that is all a parent can do. I wish we would haver had a similar conversation about alcohol, but we didn't. I had to trip my way through those experiences myself. I guess my point is teaching a child to think is far more effective than trying to protect them.

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