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.