Parents Teach Children Drink Alcohol Responsibly Maintain no use Policy – At home

I find this question to be more about how we teach our children to make responsible, independent choices, than it is about drinking alcohol,specifically. How they choose to drink alcohol responsibly, or smoke cigarettes or weed, or drive defensively, or respect curfews, or address any other challenges they may experience, are all derived from the same values system. I believe that if this question is addressed only when the children are old enough to drink alcohol, it is already too late to expect responsible decisions from them.

By teaching our children, at an early age, to make wise choices based on consequences, when the time comes for them to make decisions about alcohol, smoking, driving, curfews, etc. they will have a lot of experiences from which to draw, in order to make responsible choices. Have your children learned to make their own lunches, do their own laundry, make their own beds, take out the garbage, etc.? Are your children expected to do chores in order to earn their allowances?

When children have been exposed, from an early age, to making responsible choices and have received praise for responsible choices, they come to understand the difference between good and bad decisions, and drinking alcohol responsibly becomes a moot point.

In our house, our children were started off with a full “trust account”. That is, they knew that we trusted them to make wise, informed, responsible choices. They received positive reinforcement for their good choices and their trust accounts remained full unless/until they made a decision that resulted in a “withdrawal” from their trust account. The level of withdrawal directly related to the choice/decision. No choice was ever so wrong that the trust account could not be refilled.

Imagine if our school systems started each student off with an “A”, and children worked to keep their “A”, or had opportunities to recover their “A” if they made a mistake? Imagine what that perspective would do to our children’s self esteem!

In our house, our message to our children (who are now grown, with children of their own) was that everyone makes occasional mistakes/wrong choices (including us,their parents). None of us is perfect, and it is through our mistakes that we learn and grow,as long as we find the lessons and try not to repeat our mistakes. They knew that our love and support for them was unconditional. Having said that, they also knew that their choices and actions had consequences, and that negative decisions/actions would have negative consequences. We would ask them what their “punishment” ought to be, and they were often harder on themselves than we would have been!

Our home was always filled with our kid’s friends. We treated their friends with the same degree of respect and trust and the same messages that we gave to our own children. As they got older, and alcohol became an issue, our message was always – “we hope that you and your friends will make good choices and not drink when you’re underage. When you are of age, we hope that you will drink responsibly and never drive if you have been drinking”. That’s not to say that we ever encouraged or allowed under-age drinking, however, if it happened, their safety was our first priority.

When at our house, if anyone had been drinking, they handed in their keys and crashed at our house. Many of them crashed anyway, even if they hadn’t been drinking, because they knew we served wicked brunches on the weekend. With brunch, they always received praise for their choice to stay in a safe place until they were sober.

When partying elsewhere, our message to our kids and their friends was always the same – “if you’ve been drinking and need a ride home, call us, no matter what the hour or the situation. We will come and get you and bring you home with us. No questions, no judgments – we just want you to be safe”. We would get calls from our kids’ friends, even when our kids weren’t with them. They knew they had a safe place to go. They also knew that the next day, they would be having a discussion with us about responsible choices, and that they would be making withdrawals from the trust account with us. They also knew that by taking lessons from the experience and making better choices in the future, they could build up their trust account once more.

We always urged our kids’ friends to be open and honest with their parents, because we had no desire to enable behaviour their parents would not endorse. We always encouraged them to contact their parents and update them on where they were and what they were doing, and it was amazing to us how many parents were not at home or were disinterested in where their kids were or what they were doing.

Even though I was a stay-at-home mom until both our kids were in high school, our kids would make their own breakfasts, or pack their own lunches, or come home to an empty house (they didn’t know it, but I would park around the corner, to ensure that they did what they had been taught to do if they arrived home before me). That consistent trust, and our belief in their ability to make good choices gave them a solid foundation for meeting and handling difficult issues like peer pressure, drinking alcohol responsibly, and other responsible decision-making challenges.

I’ll never forget, when my daughter went to University, her telling us that the students who had never experienced independence and responsibility at home were very obvious. They were the ones that went wild with new-found freedom and no restrictions or accountability. They partied into oblivion and with no self-discipline whatsoever. They were the ones who flunked out early in the school year, because they had had no prior experience with freedom and responsible decision-making.

Does that mean I believe our kids never got drunk or got high or drove irresponsibly or broke our rules? I think probably they did at some time or another – who among us has never experimented with enticing forbidden fruits? We were all young once, and we remember that we learned from experience, probably more than we did from rules, lectures, expectations and punishments.

What I know to be true is that forbidden fruits are always the most intriguing. And, the more intrigue and mystery that surrounds a forbidden activity, the more curiosity it evokes. And, curiosity almost always leads to action – action that might be forbidden, yet is so enticing it cannot be ignored. For those who have not learned how to make values-driven choices, their actions can have serious concequences.

Children will not and cannot be angels. They seek their independence, yet are very susceptible to peer pressure and their greatest desire is to fit in with their friends and do what their friends do. For that reason, I think a no-use policy is, in the majority of cases, doomed to failure.