One unbearably hot day, deep in the heart of San Antonio, Texas, my sister and I wandered into a restaurant along the famous Riverwalk, seeking frozen margaritas.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a couple seated further down the bar. Between them sat their 3-year-old child. He was snacking on a pile of tortilla chips, spinning around on the barstool, while his parents enjoyed some adult beverages.
Being from the Northeast, I was shocked to see a child allowed to be in a bar. Even more shocking was when his dad propped up his beer bottle, and his son took a few birdlike sips. I couldn’t help but think of that famous line from Reese Witherspoon in “Sweet Home Alabama”:
“You have a baby… in a bar.”
I was surprised to learn, however, that in Texas, as well as in several other Southern states, having a baby in a bar — and yes, even allowing that baby a few sips of your drink — is perfectly legal. But while it’s legal, is it a good idea? Is a bar an appropriate environment for children?
According to Mayra Mendez, PhD, LMFT, a licensed psychotherapist and program coordinator for intellectual and developmental disabilities and mental health services at Providence Saint John’s Child and Family Development Center in Santa Monica, California, probably not.
“Children under the age of 12 benefit from open spaces, freedom to play, move, and explore, and thrive on social engagement, reciprocity, and companionship,” Mendez says. “The environment in a bar is typically dark, loud, stagnant, and lacking playful stimulation that promotes learning and social connections.”
If you’re looking for a place to spend time with your child while also responsibly enjoying an alcoholic beverage, choose a more family-friendly venue like a restaurant or outside eating area so your children can run around.
As parents, regardless of whether we personally consume alcohol or not, educating our children and encouraging them to have a healthy relationship with alcohol can be fraught with personal baggage. Some families, for example, have a history of addiction, which may lead us to fear addressing drinking with our children. Additionally, various cultural practices involve the consumption of alcohol, while others forbid it.
According to Mendez, being open and honest with your children and meeting them at their level of development is vital in being successful.
“Families that talk and communicate expectations clearly, logically, rationally, and with consideration to age-appropriate context for the child’s development level have a better chance of addressing drinking and alcohol consumptions in a way that promotes responsible behaviors,” she says.
Don’t employ scare tactics to sway them from experimenting with alcohol, but do tell your child about the risks of irresponsible drinking. There’s no reason to hide an alcoholic beverage from your child’s view. In fact, modeling responsible drinking in front of your child will contribute to a better understanding of alcohol consumption for them.
“Children may be exposed to appropriate, moderated use of alcohol at dinnertime or at a family gathering… Socializing children to alcohol is not only necessary for their learning social norms and cultural expectations about alcohol use, but an essential part of seeing socioculturally informed behaviors applied in day-to-day interactions,” Mendez says.
While appropriate modeling is always instructive, Mendez says, it’s particularly important for parents of teenagers. “The fact that alcohol exists and is used as a product of social engagement and integration should not be denied or hidden from teens,” she says. “Openly discussing alcohol use and the impact alcohol has on behavior provides teens with relevant facts and gives them a knowledge base to make discriminating and responsible choices.”
Regarding the physical impact of alcohol on children, parents should know that a few sips won’t cause much of an effect. So, if used for a religious ceremony, a little alcohol isn’t worrisome.
However, according to S. Daniel D. Ganjian, MD, pediatrician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, anything over one or two small sips is too much. “Long-lasting effects of drinking alcohol repeatedly can affect the liver, brain, stomach, and cause vitamin deficiencies,” he says.
Ganjian also cautions that consuming more than a small amount of alcohol can affect a child’s ability to think, judge, and even move, and that parents should keep in mind that various types of alcoholic beverages can have a stronger concentration of alcohol.
A 2016 study found that children who are allowed to take sips of alcohol are more likely to drink as teens, but they’re less likely to binge drink. The idea that our children may one day experiment with alcohol use is a scary one, but keep in mind that by modeling appropriate alcohol use, you’re laying the foundation for your child’s healthy decision-making.
Mendez recommends actively monitoring any alcohol experimentation, but to remember the foundation of trust you’ve built. “Children learn about how to manage emotions, how to navigate relationships, and how to apply cultural values and norms by first relating, engaging, and interacting with parents,” she says.
Modeling positive examples from early on will help your child — as well as your relationship with your child — in the long run.
Jenn Morson is a freelance writer living and working outside of Washington, D.C. Her words have been featured in The Washington Post, USA Today, Cosmopolitan, Reader’s Digest, and many more publications.