Should You Share Wine with Your Child at the Family Table?

One dad-to-be weighs the pros, cons and consequences of sharing wine at the family table

Should You Share Wine with Your Child at the Family Table?Preparing to become parents, my wife and I face plenty of decisions: from choosing colours for the (formerly spare) bedroom, to setting a household policy on alcohol.

Jumping the gun a little? I honestly don’t think so.

As a wine educator, I believe that no one is too young to start learning. In fact, children begin learning about alcohol by watching their parents… long before their first drink.

My child will witness wine being enjoyed in moderation. The example set is an important first step, but at some point we’ll have to decide to allow our child to join us.

At what age will this be appropriate? Can sharing wine at the family table steer a child towards a healthy relationship with alcohol? Here are some things I’m considering.

1. Timing

  • Extremely young children (infants and toddlers) should not consume alcohol. A dose of alcohol is not a safe way to soothe a colicky baby.
  • Some parents allow curious, school-aged children a sip of wine or beer. Others feel that age 12 is more appropriate. In my home, my child (at about five years old) will be offered his own small glass, watered down at first. Base your decision on what feels right, and the personality of your child.
  • Don’t forget: alcohol effects according to body size — children are, of course, small.

2. The Facts

As parents, let’s keep our fears in check: adolescent alcohol abuse has actually declined over the past few decades, but we can’t pretend that it doesn’t happen. According to 1997 and 2004 figures from the Canadian Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and Statistics Canada:

  • 24% of Grade 9 students report binge-drinking at least once a month (that figure rises to 45% for Grade 12 students).
  • 8% of Grade 8 students, and 19% of Grade 9 students, report having been intoxicated to the point of illness.
  • 10% of 13 year-olds report having been intoxicated at least once (by 15, 44%).

3. Parties

Sharing wine at the table does not mean giving unsupervised access to alcohol. The difference is striking — according to a 2004 study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, children introduced to drinking at home had binge-drinking rates lower than average, but providing alcohol to parties, or even permitting children to attend unsupervised events, doubled the rates of youth binge-drinking.

4. Setting a Good Example

  • Lead by example: moderation, always.
  • Multi-generational parties are opportunities to set good (and bad) examples. Talk about the bad ones.
  • Be careful around TV and movies; never laugh at drunkenness.
  • Let kids hear you say “No thanks, I’m driving.”
  • Kids don’t act sensibly if they think that “everyone’s doing it.” Peers boast, so equip kids with realistic information.
  • Teach kids to drink (and eat) slowly. The delay between consumption and intoxication can be very dangerous.
  • Value a positive, respectful relationship. Inconsistent rules, enforced by fear, are a major risk factor.
  • Don’t drink? Explain why. Kids will learn many things before making their own decisions about alcohol someday. Participate in that process.

5. The Law

Across Canada, it’s illegal to sell, or give, alcohol to a minor (younger than 18/19, depending on province). However, there are exceptions. Most importantly: parents may provide their own children with alcohol within their private residence. The rules are not uniform across all provinces and territories—Newfoundland and Labrador lacks an exemption for parents, while Manitoba and the Yukon expand it to include celebrations such as wedding receptions.

6. Cultural Values

Clare, a mom of Croatian heritage from Aurora, Ont., remembers that “wine was served with our evening meal every day. Alcohol was not only served at celebrations. It was certainly part of the meal.” This is a common attitude in Mediterranean European families. Binge drinking is less of a problem in France, Italy and Spain, countries where wine is commonly part of daily life, shared in moderation with meals. A Harvard University study compared American families where wine was a part of meals against families where alcohol was forbidden at the table, but consumed away from the home. Subjects raised in the latter situation were seven times more likely to become problem drinkers. The table is the perfect place for children to learn that the pleasure of flavour, not intoxication, is wine’s purpose.

Brian Heard is a wine educator and writer based in Kitchener, Ont. Three years into the adoption process, he suspects parenting will be infinitely more complicated than he can imagine today. Along with his wife, he hopes “the” phone call will come soon so he can find out.

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