Parenting Beyond Belief: Keeping Forbidden Fruit From Taking Root

July 1, 2009

(HNN's Parenting Beyond Belief column provides a forum for humanist parents and parenting experts to share their wisdom, advice and knowledge of parenting and family issues. Edited, and sometimes written by, Dale McGowan, the monthly column features guest writers who provide information and support about issues affecting freethought parents and children in the 21st century.)


It's funny/sad/scary how many things we humans get not just wrong but precisely backwards.

We try to make ourselves safe from terrorism by military force-in the process creating deeper anger and much more fertile ground for terrorism.

We try to raise moral kids by inculcating unquestionable rules and commandments-which turns out to be "worse than doing nothing" because "it interferes with moral development," according  to an article titled "The Art of Creating Ethics Man," published in the The Herald (Scotland) on January 23, 2006.

We try to prevent teen pregnancy by abstinence-only sex education classes, which several studies have cited results in equal or greater rates of teen pregnancy.

Some of us try to protect our kids from religious fundamentalism by shielding them from all exposure to religion-an ignorance that results in many secular kids being emotionally seduced into religious fundamentalism.

And in our fervor to protect our kids from risks, we often deny them the chance to develop their own risk management smarts-which then puts them at far greater risk.

The whiplash reply to this line of thought is often, "Oh, so you're saying we should raise kids without rules, encourage them to enjoy unprotected multispecies sex at age twelve, and let them cartwheel down the middle of the freeway while smoking?"

Allow me to suggest that there's something in-between.  A lot, in fact.

One of the decisions parents have to make is how best to approach the issue of alcohol. Since most of us can be assumed to share the goal of raising kids who will use alcohol responsibly and safely once they are of legal drinking age, the question is about how best to get there.

Once again, it's research to the rescue. And once again, it turns out that the advice of our jerking knee is precisely wrong. Children are more likely to develop dysfunctional and unhealthy habits regarding alcohol if it's made into forbidden fruit and a magical rite of passage into adulthood.

"The best evidence shows that teaching kids to drink responsibly is better than shutting them off entirely from it," says Dr. Paul Steinberg, former director of counseling at Georgetown University. "You want to introduce your kids to it, and get across the point that this is to be enjoyed but not abused."

In his landmark 1983 study The Natural History of Alcoholism, Harvard psychiatrist George Vaillant found that people who grew up in families where alcohol was forbidden at the table but consumed elsewhere were seven times more likely to be alcoholics that those who came from families where wine was served with meals but drunkenness was not tolerated.

Vaillant also looked at cross-cultural data, finding a much higher frequency of alcohol abuse in cultures that prohibit drinking among children but condone adult drunkenness (such as Ireland) and a relatively low occurrence of alcohol abuse in countries that allow children to occasionally sample wine or beer but frown on adult drunkenness (such as Italy).

Moderate exposure coupled with mature adult modeling is the key.

Vaillant concluded that teens should be allowed to enjoy wine on occasion with family meals. "The way you teach responsibility," he noted in a 2008 New York Times interview, "is to let parents teach appropriate use." 

Religious and cultural traditions that forbid-forbid-forbid often end up with more dysfunction per acre than those that teach and encourage moderation.

The Southern Baptists joke even amongst themselves about their hypocrisy regarding alcohol. My mother-in-law once went to a hotel that was completely filled with conventioneers – yet when she went to the hotel bar, it was completely empty.

"Where is everybody?" she asked the bartender.

"It's a Baptist convention," he said, "so they're drinking in their rooms."

Dale McGowan, Ph.D., holds degrees in the arts and sciences from UC Berkeley, UCLA, and the University of Minnesota. He is the editor of the 2007 book Parenting Beyond Belief: On Raising Ethical, Caring Kids Without Religion.