There is no evidence that you should wean children on to alcohol at an early age so they get used to it. So says Sir Liam Donaldson, England's Chief Medical Officer. The idea that giving youngsters a glass of wine at meal times can be beneficial is dismissed by Sir Liam as a "middle-class obsession". Instead the evidence shows the earlier children are introduced to alcohol the more likely they are to get taste for it and become binge drinkers as teenagers and heavy drinkers as adults. Ergo, children should avoid alcohol as long as possible, at least till the age of 15, and then drink on no more than one occasion a week, preferably in the company of their parents, at least until they are 18.
The logic of this argument is as irrefutable as the problem it seeks to address. Half a million children aged 11-15 get drunk at least once a month and the numbers have doubled in the last 20 years. England has one of the worst records in Europe for under-age drinking and is reaping the costs in terms of social and medical harm.
But is the strategy workable? All parents of teenage children – and Sir Liam has been one – know that exercising control is one of the greatest challenges. Not only over drinking, but also over smoking, drugs, sex and myriad other activities. Teenagers are born to experiment – testing the limits is part of growing up. It may be best to accept that you cannot stop them going at 100 miles an hour, and to strive to prevent them going at 150 miles an hour. The important goal is to keep the lines of communication open.
Curbing teenage binge drinking is an essential parental responsibility. Drunken or neglectful parents who set a bad example and fail to provide the care their children need are not fulfilling their duty. That much is clear. Beyond this, however, parents will have to take the Chief Medical Officer's advice and interpret it in their own way. It involves recognising that while alcohol gives much pleasure it also does great harm, and the harm has been underemphasised. We want to instil a healthy attitude to drink in young people. But we should also recognise that parenting is the art of the possible.