by Meg Akabas
Did I have the “drinking” talk with my kids? No, I did not.
You may find that shocking since I am a mother of four and a parenting consultant. Let me explain.
If we had sat down and talked to our kids when they were age 14 (or 13, or 16) about drinking responsibly, I’m convinced that it wouldn’t have done a bit of good.
As with any other topic, if you wait to talk to your kids about something until they are grown, it’s really too late.
Teaching our children about restraint has been a cornerstone of our parenting philosophy since day one. Research shows that fostering self-discipline in age-appropriate ways early and often is the best way to end up with kids (and ultimately grown-ups) who can control their impulses. And, studies show that teaching children self-discipline generally produces better-behaved and more successful kids.
Babies are not born with self-control; cognitive scientists say that practicing restraint from a young age can significantly improve a person’s ability to curb impulses later in life. My husband and I guided this process, giving our children opportunities to develop self-control by having them experience waiting, sharing, and not always getting everything they wanted (yes, disappointment is OK!).
For example, you could foster restraint using our method of resisting demands for toys and other things by creating a gift list for each of your kids. When your children see something they want, tell them that you will put it on the list of potential gifts for his or her next birthday or for holiday (whichever is coming up sooner). When you return home, in fact, write the item on his/her gift list. The list will satisfy their immediate craving. Then, when birthdays and holidays roll around, they will know what to request from grandparents and other relatives when asked what they want.
However, we found with our kids that often, well before the gift-giving occasion did roll around, even on occasion by the next time we looked at the list to add a suggestion, more than half of the items on the list were already out of favor! The kids could actually see on their own how much their wants were mere whims that changed even before the item could be acquired. This delayed gift plan was one of many strategies we used to foster self-control in our children.
We also tried our best to be models of restraint and moderation ourselves by keeping an appropriate voice volume, choosing our words carefully, conserving materials, exercising, eating well, and being frugal. (I know – it sounds demanding…it is.) Even though my husband and I are far from perfect, it seems to have made an impression on our kids, who all appear to be quite self-disciplined as teenagers and young adults.
So, instead of the “drinking talk,” we’ve had discussions (not lectures) about restraint in general on an ongoing basis. We’ve helped our kids to develop self-control in all aspects of life, and made our best effort to model moderation ourselves. All this superseded the need for a discussion about drinking.
Don’t get me wrong; I distinctly remember telling my kids somewhere along the way about the health benefits and risks of drinking, the absolute, hands-down, non-negotiable rule of never getting into a car with someone behind the wheel who has been drinking, and the dangers of excessive drinking (sometimes fatal) associated with hazing. But, these were discussions that came up at various critical times and special situations (before prom night, before leaving for college) as a reminder of what we had already taught them.
“Everything in moderation” is what we have instilled in our children. And, that goes for alcohol as well. It has worked for us for two reasons: the fact that my children have grown up in New York City and don’t drive is a salient factor. The other factor is that there is no history of alcoholism or any sort of addictive behavior in either my family or my husband’s. So, for us, moderation has been a strong enough warning. Other parents would need to alter their message to suit their particular situation.
Nevertheless, as a parenting skills educator, my advice to other parents is that your attitude and approach to teaching your kids about drinking should be the same as all other things you teach your children. In short, you must start young and it should be a part of overall values you instill in your children. My point is that a “talk” just isn’t going to cut it as they head off to their first party.
What is my own relationship to drinking? I have a glass of wine at the very end of most days for enjoyment and as a health measure (though the jury is still out on this one). I admit — wine and cheese are actually my two favorite food indulgences (even over chocolate)! Sure, there are times when I have to resist a second or third glass of wine (or piece of cheese); at those times, a little voice thankfully reminds me what I’ve hammered into my kids — you know — restraint….
Meg Akabas is the founder of New York City-based Parenting Solutions, a consultancy designed to help parents discover the joy in parenting, and the author of 52 Weeks of Parenting Wisdom: Effective Strategies for Raising Happy, Responsible Kids. She regularly provides one-on-one consultations and leads workshops for parents and teachers on infancy through pre-adolescence.