Like many parents during the pandemic, we set up a miniature home office for our third-grade son for e-learning when he was home from school. I found a small, Swedish-looking lime green wooden table and chair and placed them so they looked out our living room window so he’d have a bit of natural light and something to look at when he needed a break from the screen or the page. He’d typically see pedestrians, cars, buses, bikes, ambulances, fire trucks, and undercover cop cars going after speeders on our busy street. Or, on an atypical day, he’d see an intoxicated man stumble and pass out in our front yard.
My husband first noticed him when the police arrived. He thought, for a moment, that perhaps the man was sick with COVID and the police were there to assist him. Then he saw a police officer pour a handle of vodka out on our front lawn before they took the man away in a squad car.
I didn’t witness it, so I didn’t think much of the poor guy until my eight-year-old asked, “What is ‘drunk’?” at dinner that night. I still remember hearing the word the first time myself as a child, mishearing it at first as “trunk” and then for a long time associating the word with elephants. We told our boys that when people drink too much alcohol, they can act silly sometimes, like not speaking well, being louder, or having a hard time walking. We said that it could be much more serious than that, too, that drunk people sometimes get into cars, cause accidents, fall and hurt themselves, get very sick, or make other very bad decisions. In a strange way, my husband and I enjoyed this conversation because, for once, we were talking about something that incurred our own memories and regrets. Instead of floating along the kids’ conversational track, which can sometimes dead-end into places like inane knock-knock jokes or talk of Minecraft, not only could we talk about our own lives, maybe we could, early, impart some wisdom upon our two boys. High on the list of things I worry about way too in advance, I fret about my six and eight-year-old sons drinking to dangerous excess later in life, particularly in college.
“But Daddy drinks,” one of the kids pointed out. “He drinks beer.” This was true. “Not that much,” my husband objected, and this is true, to the extent that he doesn’t drink so much he passes out on the front lawn of someone’s house during the day, or even close to that. But it’s hard to explain moderation to a kid. The reason why they didn’t point out that Mommy drinks is because I have stopped. I realized last summer that COVID and alcohol moderation were incompatible for me. Maybe I had always had a problem with moderation but didn’t realize it until the pandemic. The last time I drank, in fact, in early March, it had been after a bout of sobriety and, unused to my low tolerance and thrilled by a warm day where my husband and I went to a brewery and then a friend’s yard, I overindulged. My sons didn’t know it, but I was drunk right in front of them. I excused myself from the $80 family dinner we had brought home from a nice restaurant, mumbling that I didn’t feel well. I went to bed at 7:30 and was sick all night, berating myself for my stupidity when I was awake.
“Well, I’m never going to drink, ever,” declared our firstborn eight-year-old at dinner, which was unsurprising. He believes in justice and fairness and dislikes when people don’t follow the rules. He dabbles in vegetarianism and believes “the s word” stands for “stupid.”
“That’s great, but you may not feel that way when you’re older,” we told him. “You’ll make friends and be in places where you might want to drink and you might change your mind.”
“Well, I won’t,” he said. His younger brother claimed that he is going to drink sometimes. Ever since the younger one was a baby, I said he has the personality of someone who likes to crush beer cans on his head.
I thought about how much drinking I did around my kids when I decided to stop. Most times we went out to eat. Every time it was available at a party or playdate at another house. At my parents’ house. At baseball games. On vacation. Each time we took the boys to the neighborhood wine shop that kept a train table and coloring books to keep customers’ kids busy. I realized it was more unusual for them to see me not drinking than drinking.
My parents were drinking parents, and they still are. If they’re coming over for dinner, I know to stock Bombay Sapphire for my mom and beer or wine or maybe bourbon or Tito’s vodka for my dad. While I sometimes have seen my parents drink too much (an embarrassing thing, like seeing the man behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz), they drank the way I thought grownups did. A husband making his wife her drink at 5 PM or ordering a nice cocktail before selecting a bottle of wine at a restaurant. I feel lucky because I am an adult child who didn’t have a childhood that needs to be corrected as I raise my kids, to re-blaze a once-rocky path. But I considered what might be different if my kids stopped seeing a cocktail as a grownup appendage the way I did.
Author Jessica Lahey, a recovering addict, has a book called The Addiction Inoculation about how parents can mitigate their children’s likelihood of succumbing to drug or alcohol abuse. I’m curious about the book but have yet to check it out. As a graduate of the D.A.R.E. program, and having heard too many stories about teen moms who were taught abstinence as sex ed, I am a little leery of programs that claim you can prevent your child from causing later harm to themselves (I am also simply reluctant to read any parenting books, period). Maybe I feel overloaded with things I am already trying to instill in my kids from a young age in a probably-futile attempt to keep them and others safe. In addition to looking both ways before you cross the street and not going somewhere with a stranger, I also need to remember to teach them about consent, how to be empathetic, to stand up for others, what to do or say if they encounter something ‘bad’ online, and also the value of money. How much of this is a kid really going to listen to?
But the specter of older children, particularly boys in high school and college, making stupid choices with alcohol is not that abstract. My husband, a lucky one, has told me about some of his youthful exploits with booze that I would not want my kids to repeat. A boy at my college, an unlucky one, died after he and another intoxicated student got into a fight, and he fell and hit his head on a curb. This was 20 years ago, and stories like these are still not uncommon. It’s almost like a risk parents just agree to take when they send their boys to college.
I haven’t bought Lahey’s book yet because we don’t have a history of alcoholism in my family in the way that we see it portrayed in TV and movies so maybe I tell myself we’re not at risk. Nobody hid drinks, crashed their car, hurt themselves falling down the stairs. But my parents didn’t tell me much about not drinking, on the other hand. They let me have beer at the first family party I attended when I was home from college. They assumed I would make good choices. But I still recall how a partially-formed frontal lobe thinks. I considered myself a reasonably cautious, safe person when I got to college. Even though I wasn’t much of a drinker, when I realized my roommate had a fake I.D. and was familiar with ordering drinks at bars, my reaction was FOMO. I envied my friends who had experienced being blackout drunk. I couldn’t brag about that story. I felt behind, not grateful for my good health and lack of worry about what I did with a boy I went home with.
If you restrict a child too much, are they doomed to rebel? That’s a question parents grapple with constantly, whether it regards screens, or sweets, or restricted substances. Don’t send your daughter to an all-girls school if you don’t want her to become a sex-starved nympho at 17, and don’t act like booze is a big deal if you don’t want your kid to sneak out and binge drink the second he can. Do as the Europeans do and give your kid little harmless sips of alcohol. If you act like it’s not a big deal, it won’t be a big deal.
But moderation is still halfway between abstinence and too much, and it can cut both ways. My parents semi-normalized drinking, and I was a semi-normal drinker until this summer when a pandemic and anxiety and alcohol misuse finally let me graduate to blackout status. It felt less cool than I had thought, in college, to try to remember what I ate for dinner the night before while also trying to facilitate e-learning.
Like any mother, what I want for my kids overall is their health and security, that they don’t cause harm to anyone else. But when it comes to alcohol, I consider what “moderation” meant to me for many years – weekend hangovers, occasional bouts of vomiting paired with self-hating insomnia, always wondering how I could become one of those people who just had one drink without wanting another. If I had any control over it, which I know I don’t, I would wish for my kids to have fewer regrets, wasted time, and second-guesses when it came to drinking. The middle of the road between abstinence and passing out in someone’s front yard is still the middle of a road, and I just want these kids to be safe.
In 2018, during the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, I started thinking about kids whose parents looked the other way when they drank. In high school, I resented not getting invited to the type of legendary parties that high schoolers held when their parents were out of town (or even home.) I could have been so much cooler had I gone to those parties. Talking to old friends about those days, though, in 2018, I learned that some of their memories from those parties included unwanted groping fingers, unwanted body parts waved in their faces, many regrets. Now, I couldn’t stop thinking about the parents who had signed off on these parties, either implicitly or explicitly. What did they think was happening in their basements? Did they believe nothing? Or harmless trouble?
The evening my husband and I riffed extemporaneously on the stupid, dangerous things people sometimes do when they drink too much alcohol, my eight-year-old son crept downstairs after bedtime. “What’s up?” I asked him. In his crackly on-the-edge-of-tears voice, he said, “I just…keep having bad thoughts about alcohol.” I hid a smile at his dorky innocence, led him back upstairs to bed and rubbed his back, and talked him down. “Alcohol usually isn’t dangerous,” I soothed him. In a desire to get him back to sleep, instead of telling him that if he just avoids alcohol, he doesn’t have to worry about its dangers, I waxed on about happy drinking memories, like when he would accompany me to the wine shop and have a glass of pink lemonade while I enjoyed a glass or two of Graham Beck Brut Rose or the beautiful experiences I had wine-tasting in Italy. I was again riffing, this time just trying to make him less scared so he could go to sleep.
Claire Zulkey is a writer in Evanston, IL. She writes the newsletter Evil Witches.