ABC Everyday; By Kellie Scott; dec. 2023

My toddler has seen the inside of a lot of bistros and beer gardens in his short life, which means there’s also been many occasions he’s witnessed me and his dad consuming alcohol. We drink responsibly — according to the health guidelines and the law — but still, I worry about how our relationship with alcohol is shaping his in the future. Alcohol is an ingrained part of Australian culture, and expecting parents to shield their children from it completely is unrealistic, and not necessarily helpful, explains Paul Dillon.

Through his business, Drug and Alcohol Research and Training Australia (DARTA), Mr Dillon educates school communities, including parents, about alcohol and role-modelling. “The reality is we have to remember alcohol is a legal product and part of many people’s lives,” he says. “Many people drink responsibly and if you do drink responsibly around your child … you can actually have a very positive influence on their values and attitudes.”

Megan Cook, a researcher at the Centre for Alcohol Policy Research at La Trobe University in Melbourne, says not all alcohol exposure “is a bad thing”, but asks, “should children as young as four have developed the expectation that when they grow up they should and will consume alcohol?” Ultimately, it’s up to parents to decide, but knowing what the research and experts say can help guide us.

We’re doing our best, but we need to understand better

We know parents are trying to get it right when it comes to shaping their child’s relationship with alcohol.Australian research from 2012 found most parents report using strategies they believe “will minimise harm”. But their knowledge of the parenting guidelines for adolescent alcohol use was “poor”.Dr Cook says while caregivers are aware their alcohol consumption has an impact, some hold misconceptions such as “it’s safer to introduce alcohol in the home in a supervised environment”. Research from the Australian Parental Supply of Alcohol Longitudinal Study shows the supply of alcohol from parents to adolescents does increase their likelihood of riskier drinking patterns later in life. Dr Cook says we don’t know the same about introducing “sips of alcohol” in early childhood, because the evidence is inconclusive.

What the research says about kids seeing us drink

Children internalise adult drinking behaviours from a very young age, which has implications for their future drinking, explains Dr Cook. Dr Cook cites a 2019 study that found when parents drank frequently, at higher quantity, or during meals, their children (aged three to six years old) knew more about the social norms of consumption. They believed that drinking alcohol is common among men and at parties, for example.

In a 2005 study from the US, children between two and six years old used props and dolls to act out grocery shopping, and almost two-thirds purchased alcohol. “Children were more likely to buy beer or wine if their parents drank alcohol at least monthly,” the authors wrote. While Dr Cook’s own research has found parental drinking is a key source of young children’s perceptions of alcohol norms, she says it’s important to note that the way children learn about alcohol is no different from how they learn about any concept or behaviour.

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Mr Dillon says hiding our drinking can send a bad message.

“There are parents that are worried and say, ‘We lock our liquor cabinet’ … I think making it seem like something should be locked away is most probably not always the best idea.”

Connection and communication

Dr Cook says having a strong-parent child relationship and good communication can have positive impacts on their future alcohol consumption.

Mr Dillon says we don’t have to “ram alcohol messaging down our kids’ throats”.

“It’s not just about modelling the practical things you do, but make sure you add … an explanation for why you’re doing something the way you do.”

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