Don’t just say no

Comment is Free – Guardian Blog 27th April 2007

Alcohol Concern’s recommendations are irresponsible. Prohibition has never worked – what children need is a good parental example.

I never thought any charity could be so irresponsible as Alcohol Concern was today in suggesting that parents should be banned from letting their children drink at home. It amounts to punishing parents for giving their children one of the most important lessons you can have in life, learning to cope with a potentially dangerous but wonderfully enjoyable drug. Thank goodness the outcry has been quick and strong, but I want to add to it, for we all need to stand up to the creeping progress of the Just Say No meme.

Just Say No has been a disaster for drug policy and would be a disaster for alcohol policy as well. We know that prohibition has never worked – indeed it’s been disastrous for those countries that tried it. We also know what kids are like – tell them not to do something and at least some of them will rush right out and do it. With alcohol this matters; it’s a potentially harmful drug and we need to teach people how to use it positively rather than misuse it.

Alcohol Concern is quite rightly troubled by the increasing amount youngsters that drink, the trend of binge drinking and other forms of abuse. Alcohol Concern is right to try to tackle these problems. I think the organisation is also right that education is part of the answer. But what kind of education?

Alcohol Concern seems to have in mind more of the Just Say No kind. Presumably children will be taught, at school, in lessons, about the dangers and harm that alcohol can do. They’ll be taught it as yet another piece of intellectual information to take in, more or less divorced from what they actually do, how they feel, and what skills they have.

Will they be given practical lessons in how to drink? Will they learn by careful and gentle guidance over many years how to handle that tipsy feeling when it gets a bit too much? Will they learn to enjoy the released inhibitions that are the reason so many of us drink, and then recognise when it’s time to stop? Will they learn how to make beer, appreciate good wine, or pour a gin and tonic? Will they learn to mix a cocktail and which mixtures can be dangerous and why? Will they learn how to deal with social pressure to drink too much, or how to help friends who get in trouble with drink? No they won’t.

Only parents, relatives and friends, in the course of ordinary life can do this. Happily lots of us do it anyway. We give our kids a little beer or wine from whatever age they want it. Most kids don’t like the taste at all until they are teenagers, and then often don’t want much to drink, and when they do want it we are there to help. We set an example by drinking in sensible ways and letting them join in. We drink with meals only, or only after 6pm, or only at weekends, or whatever our own rules are. We don’t get plastered in front of them, or if we do we let them see what a stupid thing it is to do. We don’t drive and drink, or drink before working. In these, and numerous other ways responsible parents simply help their children – without even thinking of it as education – to acquire the skills and habits of ordinary social drinking.

And you want to ban this? Do you think lessons in school could ever do better? Please, think again. The last thing we need is a war on drink to add to the war on drugs. The result wouldn’t be a decrease alcohol abuse but – as has happened with so many other drugs – an increase. We should encourage all the best in good parenting, be thankful that so many parents do teach their children how to use alcohol safely, and help others to do the same, not make the very best practice actually illegal.