It was the look of disapproval on the 20-year-old waiter’s face that still makes me flush with embarrassment. “Do you have ID for your daughter?” came the question – a fair enough line of enquiry considering I’d just ordered her an Aperol spritz.
“Er, well …” Of course, I didn’t. She is 15, and in the UK the legal minimum age for drinking in a pub or restaurant (with food, in the company of an adult) is 16. She, or rather I, was bang to rights. Being called out for aiding and abetting an under-age aperitivo – by someone less than half my age – will go down as my most mortifying parenting moment. And believe me, there are plenty to choose from.
In hindsight, ordering a drink for my 15-year-old daughter was a mistake – a moment of misjudgment. So this is not a defence or a justification, merely some context. On a regular Saturday night she would usually be out at a party with friends, and I’m under no illusion they all stick to Ribena.
On a rare family Saturday night out together (we were out of town so no parties to pull my kids in other directions), I decided that rather than meet her request for a cocktail with disapproval, I’d give a little and allow one drink. While ordering outside of our home was a mistake (that’s where the legal age limit comes in), I’m unsure whether a straight “no” to drinking is right either.
There are real dangers for teenagers (and unfortunately, girls in particular) getting seriously drunk, so it’s not something I ever want to be flippant about. But at the same time I can’t pretend we’re in the prohibition era either. Although they’ve never seen me drunk, my children know I like a G&T every now and then, so a blanket alcohol ban seems out of touch too – and I fear would just lead to secrecy and rebellion.
What I don’t want is for my children to feel that naughtiness is never allowed in my presence, because I’d prefer some naughtiness right under my nose than to fool myself into thinking it won’t go on elsewhere. According to a YouGov survey, half of Brits have had their first drink by the time they are 15 and 81 per cent have had alcohol by 18. But balancing that ethos of openness while still enforcing some boundaries is a constant challenge.
Of course, when it comes to alcohol, there’s no one right path – what’s acceptable within one family framework may not be in another, whether on religious or cultural grounds. The French are more laissez-faire, bien sur. My French friend tells me they start kids as young as 12 or 13 with a little wine around the dinner table, although they sometimes water it down – sauvignon squash, if you like.
Does it mean French kids are more responsible drinkers in their teens and beyond? Studies suggest that this may perhaps be so. Even though the French consume more alcohol per capita than we do in the UK or in the US, there’s less binge drinking on university campuses in France than elsewhere.
Following a similar ethos, a friend tells me there was a bar for the sixth-formers at her all-girls boarding school. “The idea was for us to learn responsible drinking habits within a safe environment,” she says. And did it work? “Oh God no. Or maybe for the wrong reasons: we used to get so sloshed, I couldn’t look at a shandy for years afterwards.”
Another mum at the school gate recently hosted a post-GCSE party for her older daughter – she provided alcohol, but didn’t allow anyone to bring drinks in. “I wanted to be in control of how much was going around,” she says, but acknowledges the dicey line of hosting other children to drink at your house. “Luckily, I know most of my daughter’s friends’ parents, so we discussed it all beforehand. Most of them were just very grateful to me for having the party.”
Did it go smoothly? “One girl ended up throwing up in my flowerbeds.” But, she says, she’d rather have some funky fertiliser on the hydrangeas than worry about her daughter and friends being drunk somewhere where they are more vulnerable.
It’s a mentality I associate with. But is it a slippery slope? I’ll allow you to drink in front of me because I know you’re going to do it elsewhere. Does that mean I should allow my children to do everything I don’t want them to do right in front of me – just because they might do it elsewhere? Maybe when it comes to alcohol, I should stick to an official party line of “No drinking” – even if that means I have to turn the occasional blind eye.
But according to child psychologist Hannah Abrahams, “If we enter into this realm of saying you categorically can’t have something, then essentially you’re encouraging children to be much more secretive. So I think it would be remiss of you to say: ‘I will never allow my child to drink anything in front of me.’ ”
She is also not a fan of the “blind eye” approach and advises that, in adolescence, honest dialogue is key: “Because that’s the time when they need you. You want to be able to say: ‘You might go out and get yourself in an absolute pickle, but I’m here to be your safety net.’ ”
But does that not give them carte blanche to behave however they like? Abrahams believes not, if coupled with open conversations about limits and boundaries. “Explain that if you get really drunk then you are not as in control of your responses, your emotions, your input, your compulsions. It’s not about frightening the living daylights out of them, but giving them an honest view.”
And rather than always presenting ourselves as the picture of perfection, Abrahams suggests a little honesty in terms of our own misdemeanours: “In sharing experiences that you had in adolescence, you’re creating a link with them. And it might make them more likely to come to you if they need you.”
But before you go and traumatise your teenagers with stories of your adolescent escapades, Abrahams counsels being a little “selective” when it comes to one’s memories. I wouldn’t want to cast any aspersions on the Telegraph’s fine upstanding readership, but a few omissions may be advisable.