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To sip or not to sip? That is the parent’s question E-mail
Saturday, 04 January 2014 10:14

By L&T Columnist Rachel Coleman

A gift basket that arrived at my house this Christmas season included a bottle of Bailey’s Irish Creme — the liqueur that make hot cocoa a little more snuggly, and good coffee better. Only problem is, my house has been alcohol-free since the day I learned I was expecting the daughter who turned 19 last month. Now that I’ve hit 20 years of sobriety, does it make sense to turn back?

Ordinarily, I would say, “no way.” Though it’s tricky to self-label, I am not stupid enough to think that blackouts I barely remember are trivial events. Nor am I willing to write off the hereditary nature of alcoholism. I’m just very grateful to be the sort of hardcore drinker who was able to walk away from the stuff without enduring the shakes. I’ve never had to fight the daily battle of self-denial that wears down many a recovering drinker. And I am glad for that.

Even so, the parent part of me wonders exactly how best to equip my children for the world they will encounter as they venture past our family’s front door. Should I provide supervised drinking experiences in the safety of the family living room, in order to demonstrate that it is possible to be a responsible drinker? Does that even work?

Having a sip of something from a goblet or a dollop of Bailey’s in the cocoa is light years away from the red Solo cup party scene. Should I take the children to restaurants in other locales that do not prohibit underage drinking in the presence of parents, in order to practice proper social drinking behavior?

What, exactly, is the purpose of parent-sponsored alcohol consumption? I imagine it’s connected to the goal of helping one’s children learn to live well. That includes pleasure as well as discipline, joy as well as perseverance. Does that also mean wine as well as workouts?

The great British writer C.S. Lewis lamented the way uptight teetotalers relinquished the high ground of true celebration. By grimly denying the grounds for joyful excess, he said, the Puritan mentality left all the alcohol consumption to its crassest, least responsible practitioners. As a result, it’s rare to raise a glass of bubbly in elation, he observed: more people slug down mediocre beer alone, in the dark, despondent.

Even so, many families who teetotal — as my dad’s oh-so-Anglo relations really called it— succeed in passing along the zero-sum game. Parents didn’t drink; children grow up into adults who also avoid situations where alcohol is served. Story over.

Yet that’s not so easy to achieve in a society that is more global than village. Previous generations often stayed close to home; children grew up with grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins. If you were a Mennonite, or a member of the Amish, or just part of a very conservative, not-particularly-colorful, non-drinking family, it was entirely plausible to spend your adult life among people very much like you.

The small Kansas town where I grew up was dry. If you wanted to buy booze, you had to go one town over, eight miles west, or head 20 miles north to Dodge City. Time has changed all that, of course; the corner store in Minneola now sells beer. A small bar flourished for a while just off U.S. Highway 54, then boarded up its windows right around the time the casino opened in Dodge.

As a teenager, I experienced drinking as a covert activity. I’ve wondered, over the years, if that sense of secrecy contributed to my poor development of a healthy approach to alcohol.

This is how it worked, when I was 15 years old: Upperclassmen able to pass for legal — which at that point was 18 years old — often purchased alcohol for parties and particular people. A friend of mine loved peppermint schnapps mixed with hot chocolate; she’d grown fond of it during family vacations at a Colorado ski resort. She often prevailed upon her bearded boyfriend to buy the liquor, and then she’d carry the thermos to football games. She’d share. We’d all feel so sophisticated and sneaky. Somehow the two intertwined.

That sounds like a quaint prank in 2014. Teens now have access to, well, just about everything — in virtual reality and in Kansas. A more experienced mother told me, some time back, that she’d concluded it was almost better not to know what her children encountered as teens. Another confided that only after her child graduated college did she learn the extent of the party scene.

I’m a fairly conservative parent. If my own children edited this column, they’d certainly strike out that qualifier, or replace it with “ridiculously” conservative. As we reach the final two of our collective eight children, I suppose my husband and I have mellowed.

I recall writing a column in which I toyed with the notion of skipping “teenage” years altogether. I’d help my offspring transition from childhood to young adulthood, much as Revolutionary-era Americans did — with apprenticeships and personal tutors. We’d keep our son and daughters so busy with gardening and carpentry and sewing and canning, maybe even beekeeping and candlemaking, that they’d have no desire or energy for so-called teenage rebellion. Isn’t it wonderful that we all grow out of our youthful enthusiasms?

I’m not a fan of that disaffected, surly stage of adolescence that passes for “normal” teenage behavior in America. Yet I’ve seen enough to know that growing up happens gradually, in lurches and long spells of what looks like dormancy. Kids take time. They don’t instantly morph into mini-adults. If it looks that way on the outside, some serious catching up (or sliding back) lies in a messy future. That’s just my opinion, and I know it might change.

For now, though, the seal on that bottle of Bailey’s remains intact. I don’t have a good enough reason to crack it open. But I also don’t have any reason to toss it in the dumpster. Oddly, I’m OK with that — not tempted, aggrieved or anxious. Just riding out the adolescent experience, which, experience has taught me, will pass.

In the meantime, suggestions from those more experienced than I am, are welcome.

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