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Parenting: Is it safe to drink alcohol in front of your children?

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Research suggests drinking alcohol in front of children may be harmful, but parents argue it can be done responsibly. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Growing up, my dad was a professional chef and typically wouldn't get home until after my sisters and I had gone to bed. That's why my mom took care of us most weekday evenings.

Our routine never seemed to change. Dinner, a walk around the block, a Popsicle on the front porch — it's always summer in my faulty memory — then bath, books, bed. We were sufficiently exhausted by 8 p.m. And so was my mom. 

I didn't think much about it growing up, but I never remember her drinking alcohol while we ate or walked or played on the porch. When my dad got home, they'd eat dinner together and drink a beer or two. But it was something that they seemed to enjoy on the weekend or after we'd gone to bed. 

How was she able to survive our weeknight ritual without a stiff drink? For me, a glass of red wine during my daughter's bath time often takes the edge off a long day. And there seems to be a subculture of wine-drinking moms who agree with me. I mean, we've become a cliche

I asked my own mom about this recently — about her choice to put us to bed before she drank beer or wine — and she told me it wasn't a moral decision she was making to hide alcohol from us. It was simply too difficult to corral three young children and relax at the same time. 

Research suggests she made the right choice. A study published last year by the Institute of Alcohol Studies in the United Kingdom found that children may be distressed, embarrassed or otherwise negatively impacted when parents drink even a "low level" of alcohol. 

"That this effect starts at the stage when parents are tipsy, rather than being drunk, is possibly a surprising finding," the report's authors concluded. "However, it suggests that the way in which parents and their children view episodes of ‘tipsy’ drinking is quite different."

Further research shows that parents who exhibit favorable attitudes toward drinking alcohol will more likely raise children who will begin drinking as adolescents.

It goes without saying that children face even greater risks when parents abuse alcohol. But it's the research about casual drinking that worries me. Am I inflicting lasting damage by drinking before my daughter's bedtime? By taking her to an outdoor brewery on a Saturday afternoon? By ordering a glass of wine at a kid-friendly restaurant? 

I was surprised to read a thread on Facebook a few months ago that included comments from a few moms who drink alcohol, but never in front of their children. Period.

I understand, of course, that some adults choose to abstain from alcohol altogether for a variety of reasons. But consciously keeping it out of sight from your kids? Is that even possible? 

I decided to convene my own very scientific Facebook focus group to learn more. I asked fellow parents if they drink alcohol around their children. Many of them chimed in and graciously agreed to let me share their comments. I've included a few below — not to draw any conclusions — but to highlight a range of opinions. 

'Too far'

A woman I used to work with at MTV News several years ago recently had a baby boy. He's still too young to understand what alcohol is or to register that his parents are drinking it, she said. But what happens when he grows older? 

"When he is 2 or 3 ... or 10 ... will he ask questions? Will he notice we are slightly different? At one point do we stop?" she wondered. "Because we have to stop right? I don't ever want him calling wine my 'mommy juice' or grabbing a beer for his dad. To me that is too far."

Demystifying alcohol

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A former colleague and a father of two offered this advice: 

"I have one beer whenever I have one and don’t make a big deal of it," he said. "He’s asked about it before and I’ve explained that beer is something grown-ups drink and one day, if he wants, he’ll have the choice to drink beer, too. No one drinks to excess in front of him and no one ever acts like it’s a big deal (i.e. like we all did in college). My opinion is that if I demystify things like alcohol consumption, it’ll save me — and him — a lot of headache later."

'In moderation'

A friend from Spartanburg who now lives in North Carolina said she drinks in front of her daughters but never drives after drinking. That's where she draws a hard line. 

"I want my kids to see responsible drinking," she said. "So if we go out to dinner as a family, Jeff might have a beer and I will have a Coke. Then I drive us home. I tell my children all the time safety is my Number 1 job, to keep them safe. Also, when we are home, Jeff and I will have a glass of wine in front of them, or a drink outside, we just don’t over-serve ourselves. We drink in moderation."

In Europe

I went to graduate school with a journalist from Greece. She said attitudes about drinking in public are much different in Europe. She, too, agreed that introducing alcohol at a younger age demystifies it for children. 

"In Greece, most kids will try their first glass during a family dinner and it's usually with their parents consent," she said. "This demystifies alcohol. There are also no drinking games in Greece. Not that teenagers don't get drunk, but not in the rate that it happens in the U.S. Finland has the worst drinking problem, I'm no expert, but it must have to do something with weak family ties and the weather."

'How to drink responsibly'

A friend from Clemson laid out several reasons why she thinks drinking alcohol in front of her children is actually beneficial.

"1. It shows them it's not a secret or something to be done in secret. Hiding your alcohol consumption at any age is unhealthy. 2. It shows them how to drink responsibly. As long as you aren't knocking back a case a night. 3. It opens communication for their questions about alcohol," she said.

"In my experience from high school and college, the kids whose parents didn't drink, or never drank in front of their kids, were always the ones to overindulge. They were the ones who drank everything put in front of them and didn't know when to stop," she recalled.

'Healthy drinking'

I'll round out the comments with feedback from a local family doctor. 

"My husband’s parents were teetotalers and he enjoys a drink or two after work. He never really drank in front of our children," she said. "Neither of our kids seem to like alcohol much! I think healthy drinking around your kids teaches them how to handle it. Unfortunately, alcoholism runs in many families! Lots of children are 'hurt' emotionally and physically by parents whose alcohol use is not healthy."

Reach Lauren Sausser at 843-937-5598. 

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