Having a beer or wine is a big part of Aussie culture, but how does it impact our kids?
I’m sure we all remember that powerful, tear-welling TV advertisement where the dad sends his young son inside from the sunny, ’70s backyard to grab him a beer. It then time shifts to that same boy grabbing a beer as a grown-up and sending his son in for another, and so forth.
Quite seriously, the first time I saw this “Drink Cycle” ad it brought a tear to my eye, in the same way those Westpac ones about “Helping” do, and any time I hear “I Am, You Are, We Are Australian”. I honestly thought it was a clever bit of national-pride signalling by some trendy craft-beer company that wanted to win an award on Gruen.
I was shocked, then, to be hit with the anti-boozing, Drinkwise message it was actually meant to enforce: “Kids absorb your drinking.” Alcohol and drinking it are powerful parts of our culture, or at least they were when I was growing up, and they’ve stayed with me for life. When people talk about doing “Dry July” I just get horribly thirsty. The last time I went a month without drinking I would have been 16 years old.
Now, I’m not for a moment saying this is a good thing, because I’m aware that, while it’s a wonderful social lubricant and far tastier than water or milk, alcohol is not good for you. Or at least not in large amounts.
And it certainly has struck me in the past, particularly while living in Italy, that other cultures have a more mature approach to booze than “drink until you can’t feel feelings”.
Becoming a parent — an act that quite likely involved alcohol in some way — does make you at least think about your drinking. Partly because you become very aware of your mortality all of a sudden and both the desire and the biological drive to stay alive as long as you can for your kids.
Then there’s the whole “baby could come at any moment” period, during which you’re not allowed to get too drunk, just in case you have to drive to the hospital at a moment’s notice.
This gives you just the tiniest taste of empathy for your partner, who can’t drink for a whole year, at least, because of being pregnant. Not having to endure that comes very high on my list of 368,442 Reasons It’s Easier to be a Man.
Even in the early months, or years, of parenting, while still celebrating this little miracle with a drink, you might be advised to stay off the bottle, “in case something happens”. To which I have just one word: “Uber”.
The question of whether you should stop drinking in front of your children because it’s doing them harm is a tricky one, though. And one that might not fully hit you until your children are old enough to smack you with the sucker punch question of: “Were you vomiting last night because you were so drunk?”
The sobering reality
The research, as it so often is, is bad news. The Institute of Alcohol Studies in the UK says its studies show that children who witness even “low-level parental drinking” (a couple of glasses of wine with dinner at the weekend) can find the experience damaging. It can make them embarrassed or worried about you and may disrupt their ability to get to sleep.
Witnessing heavy drinking is even more likely to create anxiety in children, the IAS suggests. It also advises that children as young as three are aware of, and affected by, your drinking. Ouch.
Addiction counsellor Alastair Mordey, however, cautions that alcohol itself isn’t the problem, it’s more the way it’s consumed, and behaviour associated with it.
“Enjoying small amounts of wine over a meal, or a few beers in a pub garden at the weekend, is a perfectly healthy part of our culture,” Mordey told The Telegraph. “Exposing children to that does no harm at all. Children seeing their parents incapacitated is what does the harm.”
Now, as my children have gotten older, I can confirm this because the big thing it does is make them worry about your health and safety. The idea of you being sick, or in danger, is terrifying for kids.
Will our kids grow up to be alcoholics?
While it would be easy for me to suggest that I like a drink because my parents drank in front of me, the evidence does not suggest that Australia’s drinking history — right back to the Rum Rebellion — begets successive generations of soaks.
I’d suggest it’s just as much societal, because the younger generations in this country are drinking less than ever. And some of them were brought up by my peers.
Teen drinking in Australia is in decline, according to recent research, which found the number of adolescents who admitted to having a drink in the past month (teens with an average age of 14) fell from 45 per cent in 1999 to 25 per cent in 2015.
The 2016 National Drug Strategy Household Survey also found that teenage drinking was shrinking, with 80 per cent of 12 to 17-year-olds now abstaining from alcohol.
The oldies, however, are still coming right at it, with drinking rates increasing slightly for people over age 30, while, for the first time, Australian women in their fifties are now more likely to drink at risky levels than younger girls.
A dry argument
So, what should you do, and how soon should you worry about it? The suggestion that children as young as three, or younger, can be affected by your drinking seems alarming at first. But then you think about how your little toddler copies all of your behaviour.
I have a friend with a two-year-old boy who shouts “Daddy beer!” whenever he sees a six pack. Of anything. They know, and they know early, I reckon.
The counter argument, of course, is that it’s your job to teach them responsible drinking (which in no way defends the idea of boozing to excess around your children). If you were to grow up in a house where there was no alcohol, ever, and then went to university, imagine how ill-prepared you’d be.
In the end, drinking is just another one of those things you need to re-evaluate in your own behaviours once you have children — like swearing, or mentioning Donald Trump. And, to be fair, drinking less never hurt anyone.
Perhaps it’s best to take advice from a Greek bloke who died more than 1000 years ago, the poet Hesiod, who probably drank retsina anyway. “Observe due measure; moderation is best in all things,” were his words, originally.
READ MORE FROM STEPHEN CORBY:
- I’d rather put my kids to bed than drive a Ferrari in Italy
- Sex, stuffing up, and the six fears expecting dads battle
- Criticism from your partner can make you shut down as a dad