My sister was an alcoholic, and passed away from complications of the illness last summer. My mother died without that label but with many of the issues. I enjoy having drinks, but I don’t drink every day and I don’t drink to get drunk. No one takes alcohol more seriously than me; that’s why people are surprised about my parenting choices.
Alcohol was always around in the house where I grew up. My parents had the old-school habit of a cocktail before dinner, every day. The family drank the most on special occasions. And with five kids and a large group of close relatives, growing up in Pittsburgh during the Steelers’ reign, there were many excuses to drink.
My sister had memories of being 5 or 6 years old and swiping sips of Champagne punch from everyone’s glasses at parties. Her life was ruined by her alcohol addiction, and who is to say if it truly began at 5, if it was predetermined even before then, or if it was simply that no one was paying enough attention. I want my children to have a healthy relationship with alcohol. I don’t want them to see booze as bad, or as a way of life. Bottles on our liquor cabinet stay put so long they get dusty, but they’re not hidden.
I recently ran into a neighbor while I was buying a box of inexpensive zinfandel at the local liquor store. When I saw him again a few days later at a friend’s birthday party, I lightheartedly shared that the box of wine was for my daughter Hayley: “I didn’t want you to think it was for me! I am not a fan of zinfandel, especially not from a box.”
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Instead of laughing, the people around me fell silent. “If I were you, I wouldn’t tell people I do that,” said a man I’d never met. The pause after that was long, and I wondered how many of the people in that circle realized that the first thing they all did was take a sip of the drink in their hands.
But I’m trying to spare my kids the risks and expenses of procuring alcohol illegally. I realize why some people think this tactic is flawed, but raising kids is not a matter of easy choices.
The zinfandel incident happened when Hayley was 20, a junior in college with a 3.5 grade-point average. It wasn’t the first time I’d bought alcohol for her and it wasn’t the last. My other daughter Allison, then 22, graduated summa cum laude. They are both doing well, succeeding in school, jobs and relationships, coping with the usual challenges young women face. I’m proud of my daughters, and I trust them. This is why I let them drink - and I see no reason to hide this.
I knew some of the other adults at that party had college-age kids, and I asked them about their kids’ drinking: Isn’t it inevitable that they will find a way to drink? Shouldn’t we try to help them do it safely?
One parent said he encourages his daughter to bring her own beer into parties and keep it with her, for her protection. “I’ve told her to refill her own bottle from the keg and hang on to it even when she goes to the bathroom so no one can spike or roofie her,” he said. When other parents admitted that they, too, have encouraged their kids to BYOB to parties, I asked: “Well, where are they getting their booze?” I was fascinated that they all acknowledged college-aged drinking, but thought my actions went a step too far.
My perspective on a “working relationship” with young adults and alcohol may be skewed, as I’ve taught at the college level since I was barely out of college myself. My 18-to-22 year-old students see me as a safe outlet - an adult who can give them perspective, without punishing them.
So I hear about Friday-night blackouts, throwing up on subways, waking up in beds they do not know, losing shoes, belts, phones, hoodies, and much more. I know many girls who answer 3 a.m. booty calls and two boys who were hospitalized with cirrhosis when they were 20. Their tales are terrifying. I look at my own kids’ consumption, and while it’s illegal, it seems mild compared to some of what I’ve seen and heard.
My perspective on alcohol is even more skewed by my family’s history. I saw my mother so snockered she could not see me standing in front of her. I saw my sister get arrested, lose jobs, be evicted. My daughters saw their beloved aunt passed out on the couch and were unable to wake her, and watched her, on numerous occasions, stumble and fall down. They remember waiting to eat as their grandma topped off her bottomless before-dinner cocktail for hours.
These memories may be painful for my children, but there can be value in observing what not to do. We have all seen the worst of what alcohol can inflict, but instead of avoiding it out of fear, we try to understand its strength and be stronger.
I’m trying to teach my kids that alcohol is meant to enhance our life experiences, not cloud them. We look for seasonal cocktails to pair with what we’re eating. We make drinking a social activity. When we go on vacation, we have a ritual of filling and freezing a bucket of margaritas upon arrival. It takes us the week to finish it, sipping leisurely on the beach. We make homemade strawberry liqueur and are fascinated by how the strawberries’ color leaches into the alcohol. We held a wedding for friends in our home last Christmas and we all drank Prosecco at 10 a.m. But the sparkling wine was part of the celebration, like the music, flowers, candles and the people in our home.
We live in a small town and there are many parents who turn a blind eye to high school kids drinking on their property. That is where I draw my line. I never want to make another parent’s choice for them by being the house where kids can hang out and drink.
My husband and I didn’t agree on this issue. He died when the kids were 13, 11 and 5. But when the kids were little, we had talked about how we would handle topics such as alcohol, marijuana and premarital sex. He felt strongly that we should enforce a zero-tolerance policy. I disagreed, wanting to create a space where our kids could come to us with questions and concerns, even if - especially if - they began to explore.
My middle child, Hayley, moved in with three other girls in her sophomore year of college. As I helped her set up her apartment, her roommate unpacked a margarita pitcher and glasses. Boxes of wine glasses and a carton of beer mugs covered the counters. Later, as they were getting ready for their housewarming party, I knew it was time to leave. “Girls. Here’s the deal,” I said, hoping they would see me as an ally and not just dismiss my parental advice: “These really are some of the best days of your life. You want to remember them.”
The subtext: Don’t drink so much you lose your memory. And Hayley tells me she and her roommates have not forgotten those words. Each night before they go out they remind each other: “Let’s remember tonight.” Allison says she can hear my voice while she’s out, reminding her to sip water between drinks, to stay with her friends and to watch out for them. Christopher tells me horror stories of kids getting into fights or worse. They are all hyper-aware of when and how it can all go wrong.
The ramifications of alcoholism in my family have benefited me and my kids. Of course they have made mistakes - as have I. But we talk about them. They’ve called me from school to relate their occasional incidents, moments when they took things too far. I’d rather know than pretend it’s not happening; transparency feels safer than denial.
It’s hard to navigate this terrain. Of course I’m still scared that I’ve made bad decisions, that the children won’t be able to fight heredity, that they will lose control. And I wonder - have I enabled them? Have I made alcohol too “okay”?
But right now, they are more than okay. It works for us that I never turn a blind eye to their behaviors - that way, if they need help, I won’t be in the dark.
Kathleen Volk Miller is an essayist, a professor and the director of the graduate program in publishing at Drexel University.