Friday, August 26, 2011

Alcohol & Kids Part 1: A Ramble

Everywhere We Go, The People Want To Know

One thing Swaits are known for, oddly enough, is how they handle the "issue" of kids and alcohol. Folks know that we are very open with our use of alcohol, and that we use it around our kids, for example, when I include them in a beer review video, or when we have a summer party where there's a ton of beer and fifty kids running around. This is unusual enough that it's attracted attention, and several people have had conversations with Kimberly and me about the use and consumption of alcohol in a family setting.

A single friend of mine, homebrewer par excellence and uncle to four, recently sent me this message.
The older two, obviously curious, saw my brewcave in my basement, I explain [alcohol] as "adult juice" : ). Subsequently they offer their services and I let them help me out a couple times (the older one especially is a great assistant). Anyway, my sister is totally okay with this, ...and I'm totally okay with this because I like the help and also have no real responsibility for them.

But there is a bigger question about alcohol, responsibility, and child-rearing that I feel like we're both missing. Maybe it's just an irrational conservative fear. But I haven't thought through it completely, and I don't know really anything about raising children.

At what age do we start teaching our children about alcohol? How? Home-brewing at the age of 7 seems extreme but it doesn't seem unreasonable.
In order to address the spoken and unspoken questions here, which are questions that come up pretty frequently for Kimberly and me, I thought I might just describe what we do, and what some of the thought behind it is. Hopefully that will be helpful for some folks.

When Do We Teach Kids About Alcohol?
 
"Teach" is a very intense, pro-active word, one that I wouldn't really choose to describe how we address alcohol with the kids. Sure, there is some teaching, but not in the way, say, that a parent who owned guns would seek to actively and thoroughly teach their children about fire arms. Many parents have an instinctive American Protestant complex of guilt and fear revolving around alcohol, so that they treat the subject with a gravity, severity, and degree of fear at a level similar to that involving guns (lock it away in a cabinet, hide the key, and hope that we've taught them well enough that they won't try to break in when we're away). In my opinion, the level of alarm that needs to be applied to alcohol and children is more like that in cooking: please don't touch the hot stove, never use a knife carelessly, and you're probably not old enough to use the stove yet.

My son George and my dad watching my daughter open her birthday present.
I can't imagine a better way to be introduced to alcohol than through homebrewing. It's like learning to cook! Beer is not some fearsome magical thing that comes from elsewhere and does harm...it's a fun food that my uncle makes for all his friends.

Of course, it's more than just a food...but it is that. Calling it "adult juice" is what starts to move toward territory that I think can be harmful. Anything that suggests mystery and black magic is potentially harmful...and suggests sin to a child.

Modesty Without Cheer Is Oppression

Adults often encounter that issue when it comes to talking about sex. It's the difference between what is modest and what is occult. Kimberly and I have, of course, talked about how we plan to talk about sex with our kids. The decision we've made (as with everything family or parenty or whatever that I talk about, please remember that I'm not telling you how to do stuff...just the whats and whys of what we're doing) is to postpone talking about a lot of the mechanics of sex for a while, much later than many other children might be told about the mechanics. At the same time, we're not trying to create an atmosphere of mystic darkness and mystery where there ought to be none. Our kids have known since they were toddlers that mom and dad make babies together, privately. A little later they are told that like all males and females, dads have seeds and moms have eggs, and that the egg needs seed from the dad to be a baby.


This sunset brought to you by beer. BTW, have you seen my kids?
The important thing is that, while we try to be prudent and wise about what the kids are exposed to, an atmosphere of good cheer and openness pervades our lives. Modesty without good cheer is oppression. Alcohol without good cheer is drunkenness.

It's Not About Alcohol; It's About Feasting

We hosted a big party in the back yard this summer, which was an absolute blast. All the invitees were told that there would be lots and lots of beer. They were also all told to bring their kids. Those who hung out with us regularly did just that. Some folks didn't hang out with us all the time, and checked and double checked that it would in fact be cool to bring the kids. We got a lot of "if you're sure it's okay", or "we're bringing our daughter, if kids are really welcome...". Of course they were. A bunch of kids came and, although they behaved well, got rowdy and trampled the blueberry bushes and kicked several beach balls out into the street. Several adult hearts were made merry with beer, but they didn't do any damage the way the kids did. Of course, eventually all the kids went to bed...and hours later I did as well, around 1 a.m., because I had to be at work the next morning. A half-dozen people carried on talking and drinking at the garden table while the wife and I slept, which I took to be a sign that the party had been a success.

Some of the people who stayed up past my bed-time.
That would be my answer to the "at what age" question. It's not as much about age as it is about atmosphere. I spent my childhood in Brazil, where people tend to segregate generations a lot less. I remember falling asleep at more than one party, while the grown-ups played guitar and sang together in the next room. I and the other kids had had about as much fun as we could stand, and now it was time to sleep...the older kids, of course, could stay up longer than we. This American idea that we ought to do our drinking in secret, away from the kids, is only harmful.

A friend of mine is an alcoholic. He has custody of his kids. He won't touch a drop in front of them.

The Swait kids have been told about the effects of alcohol. They know that beer has less than wine. They have some idea of what being drunk is; they know that drunkenness is a sin. But we don't focus on that.

We do focus on feasting in our lives. And one thing our kids know about feasting and parties is that beer and wine is for feasts. (Which means we can read The Hobbit without breaking stride.)

It's important, of course, to maintain an awareness of what is appropriate for adults and what is appropriate for children in any part of life. Still, there are very few things in life you should be willing to do that you shouldn't be willing to do in front of your kids. If I couldn't smoke a cigar in front of my kids in good conscious, I should probably not smoke a cigar at all. If I can't have a gin and tonic in front of the kids, then I probably shouldn't have one when they go to bed. You're ashamed of it; it's a vice. I do these things in front of the kids...and of course they ask questions, and of course they learn. But it's not from a manual, at a distance. It's up close. No one in the family is scared of or awed by alcohol. It's a part of what will be the scenery of their adult lives. Like beards, and marriage, and having kids, and driving a car. Dad's cool when he drinks beer, sure...but not in that "dad-gets-to-do-bad-dangerous-stuff" that so many kids experience. Drinking beer is cool the way getting to drive a car is cool. Not a big-deal cool...it's something normal I'll get to do when I'm grown up. Happy-normal. Like having kids and having parties and taking drives and kissing spouses.

My baby and I.

When I was in high school my dad, who had often enjoyed a glass of wine, made a conscious decision to be an educated and knowledgeable oenophile. He worked a substantial chunk of his pay as a partner in his company into a fun and frivolity clause. He basically had to spend a lot of money on food and drink. As you might imagine, I learned a lot about feasting from him (interestingly, although such things are usually taught by parents, he taught himself how to feast...not coincidentally, a few years after becoming a Christian). When I was a junior and senior in high school we had a lot of great meals at the dining room table, and I learned to enjoy good wine. When I went to college in the same town (my dad had been a professor at the University of Florida), my parents' house became party central. Without a second thought, I started inviting my twenty-something friends to hang out with my parents...because they threw awesome parties. Lunch after church on Sundays became a day-long affair, with friends, my friends, eating great food and drinking plenty of wine...and loving life. It never seemed strange to me. My friends loved it, really loved it...and it blew their minds.
Lots of beer, lots of food, lots of babies. Thank God.
For a lot of twenty-somethings, parties are about alcohol. That should never be the case. It's about feasting, and celebration...and alcohol is a God-given part of that.

When's a good time to start teaching the kids about alcohol? Now. As soon as they speak the language you speak. Lump it in with instructions about forks, saying thank you, crossing the street, how to find the North Star, and all the other stuff you're going to teach them.

6 comments:

  1. I couldn't agree more. Although I'm not a Christian and wouldn't say alcohol is God-given, I certainly agree that it is a natural part of living in our world and should be treated as such. So much bad arises from the dark mystery that is woven around adult activities in an effort to shield our children from their negative effects. Almost everyone knows someone who grew up very protected by his parents and went wild (in the bad way) the moment he was free of them.
    You're doing your children a favor by treating them like intelligent human beings who will have to make adult decisions about alcohol when the time comes. Cheers.

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  2. I love this! In some ways im being taught and in many im teaching myself. I couldn't have said it better.

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  3. I appreciate the sanity, here. After a lifelong abstinence, at almost age 50, I chose to begin drinking some wine "for my health," mainly so I could explore the world of alcohol with my son, who as almost 21. We realized there were a whole lot of people just waiting to "teach" him about alcohol when he turned 21 and decided to let him get a head start, with our approval. He did lots of research and we tried a variety of wines, as well as Mike's Hard Lemonade. Now, 21, he does not feel driven to experience every drink on the planet at once, because he knows he has the freedom and a lifetime to do it with sanity and pleasure. So far, about 1 bottle of Mike's Hard Lemonade is all he's wanting. Mom likes Muscato and a little Mike's now and then, too. Dad's still a teetotaler, which is ok, too.

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  4. Great article. I agree with you 100%. Being a Brazilian from German descent alcohol has always been part of my life - in good and bad ways. But it was clear, even from a young age, when it was good and when it was bad. I think your article capture the essence of why people drink. Thank you

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  5. Thanks for your feedback, everyone! Be sure to check out my new domain: http://joffrethegiant.com

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