Your 14-year-old son arrives home from a party smelling of beer. Should you be worried or is it just a normal rite of passage? You’re at a family wedding and when it’s time for the toasts your 16-year-old daughter asks if she can have a glass of bubbly. What’s the harm?
Let’s face it, booze is very much a part of South African life. Many people would find it hard to imagine a braai without a round or two of beers or a sit-down dinner without a bottle of wine. But at what point is it acceptable for your child to start indulging?
A controversial study in the UK sparked heated debate recently as it revealed that half of the parents surveyed admitted allowing their children to drink alcohol at home before the age of 14. A quarter of these parents insisted there was nothing wrong with this. They said they were allowing their kids to drink at home so they could monitor their consumption and teach them to drink responsibly.
It sounds level-headed – yet alarmingly, more than a third of the parents who took part in the study admitted using booze as a bribe, offering to buy drinks for their kids to reward them for doing well at school, for instance.
Surely South African parents can’t be so permissive? Actually they are, says Sandra Pretorius, director of Sanca Horizon Alcohol and Drug Centre in Boksburg, Gauteng. “The UK study mirrors what’s happening among our teenagers,” she adds. “Alcohol use and abuse is socially quite acceptable and not frowned upon.”
The South African National Youth Risk Behaviour Survey reports that 12 percent of South African kids start drinking before the age of 13. And research by the Industry Association for Responsible Drinking reports there’s “a significant rise in the proportion of 11- to 15-yearolds who drink alcohol regularly”.
Pretorius says many parents turn a blind eye to their children’s drinking because they reckon it’s preferable to their using drugs.
Izabella Little-Gates, co-author of the bestselling Life Talk For Parents, reckons underage drinking may in fact be more of a problem in South Africa than it is in the UK.
“Binge-drinking culture is destroying our youth,” she says.
Local statistics certainly seem to back her up. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), 35 percent of high school learners in SA are problem drinkers – meaning they consume alcohol during school or study time – and one in four has indulged in binge-drinking in the past month.
And while all this is going on, what are the adults doing? Probably drinking too. According to a 2014 WHO study, South Africa is one of the drunkest countries on the African continent – the average consumption of those who drink is 11 litres of pure alcohol per person per year.
It’s estimated that as a nation we collectively guzzle in excess of five billion litres of booze a year, which means we have one of the highest per capita consumption rates in the world.
HOW OLD SHOULD CHILDREN BE?
Like it or not, your children are probably going to be offered alcohol somewhere down the line. When is it acceptable for them to start indulging, and should you let them begin under your supervision?
“It’s not possible to give a ‘one-size-fits-all’ answer,” Little-Gates says. “But in terms of a ‘minimum age’, we believe that children below the age of 16 shouldn’t be given alcohol.”
Johannesburg psychologist Michael Niss advises that parents should try to prevent teenagers from drinking altogether but concedes that if you’re going to permit it, the legal drinking age of 18 would be a better place to start.
Both experts agree that children younger than 16 should never be given alcohol. Their body simply can’t handle the substance and its effects.
Pretorius warns that parents are kidding themselves if they think that by allowing their children to drink at home under supervision they’re teaching them to use alcohol responsibly. The problem with this isn’t the drinking but rather the fact that alcohol is a mood-altering substance and therefore addictive, she says.
“The younger a person is when experimenting with a mood-altering substance, the more impressive the effect or the wow factor. This plays a big part in the process of addiction, as you’ve learnt that you can change the way you feel.”
This is a particular risk in this country – more than 30 percent of South Africans have or are at risk of developing an alcohol problem.
Niss says parents are mistaken if they believe that allowing their kids to drink at home will curb teenage rebellion.
“Rebelling is part of developing. In fact, it’s a healthy life stage. If you try to circumvent the process by taking away the reason to rebel, they’ll just find something else which may be worse.”
Studies show that teenagers who drink are more likely to experiment with drugs.
Pretorius warns that if you frequently allow kids to drink at home, alcohol consumption will become the norm for them. “Having alcohol at home isn’t going to prevent children from drinking with their peers where no supervision is available.”
And, of course, rewarding children with booze for excelling at school – something that 42 percent of parents in the UK sample group admitted to doing – is another no-no.
Pretorius says that from an early age it teaches them that all achievements should be celebrated with a tipple.
“Using alcohol as a reward sends out totally wrong messages, and ultimately encourages a drinking culture,” Little-Gates adds.
ADVICE FOR PARENTS
If you suspect your child is drinking on the sly, it’s important to confront the issue.
Experts agree that turning a blind eye is the biggest mistake parents can make.
“Under-age drinking is illegal and needs to be addressed,” Pretorius says.
“Lay down the rules and monitor their behaviour and drinking habits. If your child tends to drink when he has been out with a specific group of friends, discuss this. Ground him from parties or outings and take away certain privileges.”
“We’d hope that our children would abstain until they’re older, but not all children will,” writes Johannesburg psychologist Thomas Burkhalter, co-author of Life Talk For Parents.
“You need to be interested and involved in your child’s life. Have a sense of what they’re thinking, care about where they are and what they’re doing, and open up about the issue of alcohol and drugs.
“In so doing, don’t make alcohol ‘bad’ – because you presumably drink, as do their friends – but talk about why you drink, what purpose it serves, what purpose it may serve for them.”