E Jane Dickson: When it comes to children, I'm for banning alcohol

Is it really so hard to explain that alcohol is a pleasure best deferred?

Sunday 23 October 2011 07:52

Other mums are marvellous. I know this because my children, aged 13 and 11, hold daily audits on British attitudes to parenting.

Am I aware, they wonder, that "every other mum" is fine with chat rooms/staying out late/dressing up like a Crazy Horse saloon girl to hang about in parks? Thoughtful analyses of my intransigence on these and other matters include the possibility that I am hopelessly behind the times on account of being a) Irish, b) old and c) "just sad".

I don't discount these factors, but can generally call a few named witnesses to the defence – parents, known to us all, who share my saurian views. When it comes to the issue of alcohol, however, I'm pretty much out on a limb. I've lost count of the convivial family lunch parties where hosts ask if it's OK to give the kids "just a little wine" and are surprised when I decline the offer.

It has become a tenet of middle-class mores that "responsible drinking" should be taught in the home, that introducing children to alcohol at mealtimes will deflect the rise in underage binge drinking and make Continentals of us all. In January, when Liam Donaldson, the Government's Chief Medical Officer, issued guidelines advising parents not to give alcohol to children aged 15 or younger, mutterings about "the nanny state" could be heard from Clapham to Chiantishire.

When last year's World Health Organisation report cited British teenagers among the heaviest drinkers in Europe, David Cameron was quick to join the chorus. Reflecting that some of his friends, "the ones who had the biggest problems were the ones who actually were never allowed to drink anything at home", he suggested that "a glass of wine or a shandy or something" was just the thing to introduce children to the idea that "drinking is something you can do socially, and something you can do with a meal, and something that is part of life".

Which is a little like introducing children to the idea of driving safely by sticking them behind a wheel before their feet can touch the pedals. New research carried out by Washington University in Missouri shows that, contrary to Cameron's cosy experience, children who are introduced early to alcohol by their parents face increased likelihood of becoming problem drinkers in later life. The Missouri research team analysed data on young adult twins and found that the age at which alcohol is first consumed has a direct bearing, not just on drinking habits, but on the amount of physiological and neurological damage suffered by heavy drinkers. In particular, the study suggested that early exposure to alcohol (crucially exposure under the age of 15) may "switch on" genes in the developing brain which can affect a person's susceptibility to addiction.

It doesn't take a whole lot of science to work out that teenagers and alcohol don't mix. Cameron is right in as much as children are keen observers of adult behaviour. You don't have to witness your parents drinking themselves under the table to see the loosening effects of social drinking. For an adolescent already suffering seismic shifts in self-confidence, it's an attractive prop. And it requires neither research nor imagination to complete the picture: from knife crime to teenage pregnancies, the pitiful consequences of underage drinking are staring us in the face.

Yet we persist with the self-flattering notion that, in our own little corner, we're simply adopting "the Continental model". No matter that the Continentals now have their own, well-documented problems with teenage drinking – the botellón, a street party fuelled by two litre bottles of spirits and mixers is the scourge of Spanish civic authorities. No matter that centuries of Anglo-Saxon drinking culture is premised on excess. To put it bluntly, the British drink to get drunk. Our youngsters get drunk on drinks that don't even taste of alcohol. And it's going to take an awful lot of Burgundy brought over in the back of the Volvo to change that.

This is what really sticks in my craw with the Cameronian "teach them to drink around the table" brigade. There's an arrogance there, a "surely they can't mean us?" insouciance that the problems of "society" are not really going to affect them. And the worst is that they're partly right.

Alcoholism, God knows, is no respecter of class, but there is a substantive class difference in how it can affect the rest of your life. The worst casualties of underage drinking will not happen around the Smallbone kitchen table. They won't necessarily show up in the Priory, either. They'll happen in underpasses and alleys and all the places we prefer not to look.

Is it really so hard to explain to our children that alcohol is a pleasure best deferred? Would legislation to this effect, an enforceable ban, say, on drinking below the age of 15 (it is currently legal to give alcohol to children over the age of five) be such a terrible erosion of our liberties? It's a quirk, but not a coincidence that those most exercised by "the nanny state" are invariably the nanny-hiring classes. Maybe – just sometimes – nanny knows best.

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