Friday 27 April 2007

Attitudes to drinking

The UK charity Alcohol Concern today called for parents who allow their children aged under 15 to drink at home, under any circumstances, should be liable for criminal penalties. (See their press release.) Their research shows that people who are exposed to alcohol at a young age are more likely develop alcohol-related problems later on.

I spot several holes in their plan. My parents (well known for their slapdash child-rearing style) allowed my brother and I a taste of wine from time to time. On our first family holiday to France when I was 12, we were allowed to share a pitcher of sangria one evening at a restaurant. And guess what, neither Peter nor I have turned into raging alcoholics as the result of this wantonly irresponsible behaviour on the part of our parents. In actual fact, my abiding memory of encounters with alcohol in my early years was pestering Dad for a taste of his ale, him caving in, and us both finding it downright disgusting and not asking again for the next 14 months.

I do feel that current UK legislation, under which parents can allow children aged 5 and over to drink alcohol at home, needs to be revised. Maybe that should be upped to 8 or 10? But I don't believe that a splash of wine taken during a family meal or a sip of champagne for special occasions will turn children into drunks. On the contrary, it helps them develop a healthy and responsible approach to drink. If they can see that you can enjoy a glass of rouge with dinner and it doesn't lead to you vomiting in the street or getting arrested for peeing in the street or flashing your tits at a copper, surely this is a positive thing?

By banishing even the occasional taste of booze for youngsters, all that is achieved is a reinforcement of the exoticism of drinking. It's a "forbidden" activity, which, for teens and pre-teens, adds considerably to the attraction. This kind of move would push youngsters to clandestine drinking, hidden away from their parents, and in some cases drinking "poor quality" booze which can't be good for them and in some cases can even be toxic.

I'll concede that for some unfortunate children their parents will quite happily encourage them to drink ten cans of lager and puke everywhere, because that's how they "enjoy" their drink. But making that illegal won't stop it happening, will it? No. Rather sadly, those children will almost certainly develop an unhealthy attitude to drink because they will reproduce what their parents show them. Children watch their parents and elders and they copy what they see. Saying they shouldn't be allowed to drink at home will only push them out onto the streets in even greater numbers, congregating at bus stops and in parks to get wasted on cheap cider or buckfast.

The problem goes far deeper, it is all about UK society's attitude to drinking. It remains a "leisure" activity in itself, for all generations. I know it's a well-worn cliché, but here in France, yes young people go out to bars and they drink, but then as they get a bit less young, they tend to stay at home and have friends round, enjoying some wine over dinner or sharing a beer for an aperitif. The drinking is an annexe to the main event (which is a meal, usually). In the UK, the drinking is the main event. That's the problem. There's the rub. Until that changes, until people stop seeing getting sozzled as a pastime, the binge-drinking problem will remain.

Were I a parent of pre-teen children, I would much rather give them a small serving of wine with a meal from time to time, and be able to exercise some control over the alcohol they consumed, than worry that they be buying cheap alcohol illegally and drinking in the street with their mates.

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