Is It OK To Let Your Kids Try Wine?

Wine, beer, and other potent potables.
March 21 2012 6:45 AM

Should You Let Your Kids Try Wine?

Does exposing children to alcohol make them more or less likely to abuse it when they grow up?

Illustration by Robert Neubecker.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker.

When my son James was 10 months old, he was baptized into my religion. The ceremony took place in Bordeaux, and I performed it myself, rubbing a small amount of 2000 Château Pétrus on his gums. Yes, the kid started well. Since the age of 4, he has been allowed to dip his finger into my glass pretty much whenever he wants. (He says he especially likes Champagne; I’ve told him that’s what his allowance is for.) All along, I’ve assured myself that my wife and I were being a sensible, forward-thinking parents—that if we didn’t make wine completely off-limits and instead permitted  James, now 10, and his 7-year-old sister, Ava, to satisfy their curiosity about it (within reason, of course), they’d be less likely to abuse alcohol later in life. Recently, though, I’ve started to wonder if that’s really true. Does early exposure promote responsible drinking, or is it better to treat alcohol as forbidden fruit?

This second-guessing isn’t the result of anything my kids have done; I haven’t caught James sneaking unsanctioned swigs, and Ava, having tried wine a few times, has no desire at the moment to taste it again (although she does a wicked imitation of me sniffing and swirling my glass). Rather, it’s a closer examination of French drinking culture that has given me pause. French child-rearing is much in the news at the moment thanks to Pamela Druckerman’s best-seller, Bringing Up Bébé. I don’t believe Druckerman addresses the question of bébé and booze. But like many people, I’ve always viewed the French as beacons of common sense when it comes to this issue. They don’t regard alcohol as a vice, it has long been their custom to offer children a sip à table, and presumably as a result of this liberal attitude, French teenagers and twentysomethings seemed far less prone to excessive drinking than their American peers.

However, that isn’t the case—not now, anyway. NPR recently aired a story looking at the rising incidence of binge drinking among French youths and growing doubts in France about the wisdom of giving children an early introduction to alcohol. What accounts for the upsurge in hell-raising? One possibility is that French parents have become more like us: They aren’t drinking nearly as much wine as they used to, and fewer children are being introduced to alcohol in the home. But here’s the thing: Early exposure has historically not encouraged moderation in France. Alcoholism has long been a major public health problem there. (In fact, the incidence of alcohol-related road fatalities got so bad that in the mid-1990s the government enacted some of Europe’s toughest drunk-driving laws.) The bottom line is that the seemingly more enlightened French approach hasn’t actually produced healthier drinking habits.


I grew up in a household where a French sensibility held sway. My parents had wine with dinner pretty much every night. I didn’t touch the stuff as a teenager; when I started drinking, it was strictly beer. My parents drummed into my head the importance of drinking responsibly and would even let me and my friends drink at the house in order to keep an eye on us and keep us off the road. Sure, I went a little crazy went I got to college; for a time, I was even the proud (and sadly skillful) owner of a beer bong. But I knew my limits, was generally good about staying within them, and never drove under the influence. I suppose fire-and-brimstone types might regard the fact that I ended up writing about wine as evidence that my parents failed me, but that’s obviously not how I see it.

However, self-doubt seems to be a condition of modern parenthood, and even though most days I think I turned out OK, I now find myself wondering if a permissive approach is best. As you would expect, there’s a large body of research concerning children and alcohol. Dr. George Vaillant’s ground-breaking 1983 book, The Natural History of Alcoholism, compared the backgrounds of alcoholic and nonalcoholic men in the Boston area and found that those who grew up in households where booze was not allowed were seven times more likely to succumb to alcoholism than those whose families had consumed alcohol with meals. Vaillant’s conclusion was that letting teenagers drink wine with family dinners promoted responsibility.


Frame Game

Hard Knocks

I was hit by a teacher in an East Texas public school. It taught me nothing.

There Are New Abuse Allegations Against Adrian Peterson

After This Merger, One Company Could Control One-Third of the Planet's Beer Sales

John Oliver Pleads for Scotland to Stay With the U.K.

If You’re Outraged by the NFL, Follow This Satirical Blowhard on Twitter


Don’t Expect Adrian Peterson to Go to Prison

In much of America, beating your kids is perfectly legal. 

The Juice

Ford’s Big Gamble

It’s completely transforming America’s best-selling vehicle.

I Tried to Write an Honest Profile of One of Bollywood’s Biggest Stars. It Didn’t Go Well.

Here’s Why College Women Don’t Take Rape Allegations to the Police

The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 1:51 PM Here’s Why College Women Don’t Take Rape Allegations to the Police
  News & Politics
Sept. 15 2014 8:56 PM The Benghazi Whistleblower Who Might Have Revealed a Massive Scandal on his Poetry Blog
Sept. 12 2014 5:54 PM Olive Garden Has Been Committing a Culinary Crime Against Humanity
Dear Prudence
Sept. 15 2014 3:44 PM Home Work Prudie advises a man who wants to be a stay-at-home dad, but his wife refuses.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Sept. 15 2014 11:38 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 4  A spoiler-filled discussion of "Listen."
Brow Beat
Sept. 15 2014 8:58 PM Lorde Does an Excellent Cover of Kanye West’s “Flashing Lights”
Future Tense
Sept. 15 2014 4:49 PM Cheetah Robot Is Now Wireless and Gallivanting on MIT’s Campus
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 15 2014 11:00 AM The Comet and the Cosmic Beehive
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.