Monday, July 30, 2007

Family Values

When we were little, our parents got into a routine of having a glass of sherry in the evening. They'd be sitting in the family room, and my mother would typically say to one of us, "Go break a law, kid." Which meant, go pour us a glass of wine. It offended her that the government would decide that her kids could not touch a container containing alcohol, whether to carry it to her, to pour some for her, to hand her a glass, or whatever, in the privacy of our own home.

It was also traditional in our family to let the kids have a glass of diluted wine with holiday dinners, and a sip from an adult's beer at a party was considered a kind of treat. I get the feeling we weren't the only family like this.

This past weekend my 17-year-old son and I attended my niece's (his cousin's) wedding in Arizona. We went to the rehearsal dinner, which was held at a nice resort in the foothills of Tucson. The groom's family is from Connecticut, and they wanted the whole thing to be "Western" style, so it was like a dude-ranch thing; everybody was issued a straw hat and a bandana -- yellow for the bride's outnumbered family and blue for the groom's -- and at one point some actors dressed up like cowboys came and staged a hold-up, etcetera. Our side of the family all being from Arizona, we wouldn't have done it that way, but, whatever.

So the waiter came around with the wine, and I asked him to pour a glass for The Kid. He looked confused, then complied, and then came back and tried to card the boy. I finally said, "No, he's not twenty-one, if you don't want to serve him, don't." He was very apologetic and said he had "gotten caught." He was in trouble now for serving wine to a young adult, six feet tall, sitting with his father at a family-oriented private affair.

After a while one of the guys from the groom's side who were sitting with us -- our two new friends both had MBAs from Duke, where they were buddies with the very-Republican groom -- called the waiter over and said he hadn't tried the white wine, and could he please have a glass? He then passed that to me, and we poured it into my son's water glass, and everybody was happy.

Let me note, for the record, that the probability of this fancy-schmancy place losing their liquor license for serving a minor very closely approximates zero-point-zero. If the ABC were to start carding people at private dinners at resorts, they would be seen as undermining an industry that is probably the biggest money-maker for an area like Tucson, the tourism industry. It's one thing to check customers in a college bar, the fact is they just aren't going to make everybody in the bride's and the groom's families show ID while they're sitting at a banquet listening to sentimental speeches about the lovely couple.

By comparison, I was once sitting in a college pub in Essex, England, and I asked a friend, a professor, what the drinking age there was. "Drinking age?" he asked me, quizzically (think of that with an English accent).

"Yes," I said, "How old do you have to be to have a beer here?"

He looked at me like I was crazy. "Why would there be a 'drinking age?'" he asked me. I felt very American at that moment, worrying about whether the government would allow someone to do something that the English consider extremely ordinary. I think it has something to do with the concept of individual freedom.

Now the question here is not whether a seventeen-year-old is old enough to drink a glass of wine. Some may think so, some may not, people have been sharing wine with their young ones since the dawn of time, there have been teetotalers for a long time, too. I'm not asking whether you agree with my decision, I'm asking whether I should have the right to make it.

The question has to do with family values. In my family, we do share a sip of wine with the kids on special occasions. And the question is, should it be the government's place to tell us we can't do that?

So: family values, but not evangelical family values.

You know what I think. I don't think I needed the threat of government crackdown to decide whether it was appropriate for my son, sitting with me at a family function, to have a glass of wine or not. I consider that to be a decision for me to make, part of my responsibility as a father, and in this case I would decide to value family tradition over the restrictions of some law.

These days we have the Family Blah Blah groups arguing that America's "family values" are being usurped by the liberal establishment, etcetera etcetera. Now here's the real question. Do they really believe that people should practice their family values, or do they believe that people should live according to their values? (Noting preemptively that there is nothing at all in the Bible telling people to abstain from alcohol, in fact quite the opposite.)

I'm all for parents passing their values down to their children. I think the result is diversity, individualism, pride. I am against the government imposing values on families: I think the result can only be a kind of milquetoast homogeneity, weakness, and shame.

Curious to know if anybody else sees it my way, are we really talking about "family values," or is all of this a battle to make sure that one group's or another's specific values are forced by the government on everybody?


Blogger Tish said...

Jim, I would not have OK'd serving my son wine at the resort, because a glass of wine just isn't important enough to make trouble. I'm not against parents giving alcohol to their own children under certain circumstances, but bringing a commercial establishment into it is, in my opinion, not thoughtful to the establishment and not a very good lesson to my kids. There are things we do at home and things that we do not do away from home.

I literally cut my teeth on homebrew, as did my brother and sisters. My dad learned about beer and wine when he was a GI in Germany and his local friends just knew that a teaspoon of the yeasty residue from the bottom of the beer bottle not only calmed a teething baby, but was full of nutrients. I can't say whether the "truth" as they knew it was for real, but when my dad came home and married his sweetheart, he began making his own beer and we all got sips of the yeast when we were cranky.

After we moved to Maryland my dad stopped making beer, but when wine-making became legal (up to 200 gallons per year for home use) he made wine for a while and we participated in the process up to and including the tasting and blending of our final product before bottling. These activities were all in our home.

In Maryland a parent or guardian can give a minor a small amount of alcohol in a private setting. This means that it is legal for a minor to have wine at a Seder dinner, or to join a champaign toast, if the parent is there and consents. There are states (and DC) where it is not legal for anyone to give any minor any amount of alcohol anywhere. I don't think the latter is reasonable, but I wouldn't ask a waiter to serve my minor a glass of wine to protest the law.

One of my family values is to ask, "Is it reasonable to make a fuss about this?" When it comes to minors and drinking in public, my answer is, "no."

July 30, 2007 11:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Jim...

In my mind, one of the key factors here is that you are interacting with your son respectfully of his values. Conservative folks make the case, as well, that they are just being consistent with their best judgment and values when they try to 'fix' their lgbt kids.

On the alcohol side of the question, much of U.S. culture remains true to its Puritan roots. For a lot of folks, choosing to alter one's consciousness in any way is considered suspect. Those who have run into trouble with their drinking are not offered pragmatic help about moderating as often as they are advised to figure it out on their own; if that doesn't happen automatically, the advice shifts less often in the direction of evidence-based health care than to an ideological tradition (the 12 Steps) which has a limited success ratio.

So, I'm with you in valuing family influences and autonomy when respect and autonomy of the individuals is understood, but I'm not surprised any more when our cultural handling of substance-related issues is less than rational.

July 30, 2007 11:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jim, I'm an evangelical and completely agree with you. I don't know why you're slandering evangelicals though. While I do know some that don't drink, most evangelicals I know agree with and partake of alcohol in moderation.

When I was a kid, you could drink at eighteen, though I did so at family functions much earlier and with friends at parties even earlier.

The current state of our laws is more the result of the nattering nabobs of MADD and similar groups.

We don't need the government taking over the role of parents.

They aren't qualified.

July 30, 2007 11:26 AM  
Blogger Tish said...

Steve, I'm not quite understanding your point. You do know, don't you, that the "Puritans" as well as many generations of their New England descendants were a little bit tipsy most of the time, right? At all ages, they drank beer and hard cider all day long. They would have been pretty miffed if anyone had tried to pass a law prohibiting them from giving these drinks to their kids. So our current minimum-age and public inebriation laws show our puritan streak?

Your first and second paragraphs suggest that Jim is valuing his son's values, which include the desire to alter his consciousness. So then are we good parents if we support our children's desire to get drunk?

I'm not going to tell my child's life story on this blog, but with my daughter, who is now an adult and a responsible drinker, we went through a difficult period of alcohol mis-use when she was in her teens. She was, as many teens are, absolutely sure that she knew best, and that it was perfectly reasonable to drink for the purpose of, as you put it, altering her consciousness. If I had let her drink I would not have been respecting her values, I would have been abdicating my responsibility as her mother. We pulled back on our acceptance of her drinking at family occasions, making it clear that we were looking for signs of the maturity that accompanies responsible drinking. She did, in fact, grow up, and now shares our enjoyment of good wine in moderation. I am really proud of the fact that her "value" of drinking as she saw fit was not my guiding principle.

And how do the Puritans and the values of teens who want to drink justify getting a waiter into trouble by instructing him to do something you know is illegal? Did The Kid need his glass of wine more than that waiter needed his job?

Jim can give his Kid wine at home.

July 30, 2007 12:41 PM  
Blogger Dana Beyer, M.D. said...

The "nattering nabobs of MADD" (boy, does that date you and your teachers!) is to a large degree responsible for reducing the carnage on our highways. Who knows, maybe you and your family are alive today because of their efforts.

As for slandering evangelicals, Jim's point was only to distinguish family values, which we all have, from the particularist family values of the political right-wing evangelical crowd with respect to sex. He wasn't implying anything about alcohol or drug use.

July 30, 2007 2:03 PM  
Blogger Katie said...

Left leaning liberal here, but I don't think it's a family values issue. I think it's "what are you teaching your child about the law?" issue?

If the Mathew Shephard Act passes, can a family of homophobes trump the law by claiming their family values are different?

If you don't agree with the law, work to change it, but don't teach your children that it's OK to break it.

July 30, 2007 7:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

And one of my daugthers friends parents drink and smoke weed at home in front of their kids.

And those kids drink at home with their parents.

And that friend got in the car drunk on the first day she got her driver's license to head to mcd's with another friend of my daughters in the front seat and practically totalled the car - it is a darn good thing they won't both killed. My daughter was grounded that evening or she might have been with them.

So yes, if you teach them it is okay to have sex before marriage, and you teach them other laws don't count either ... you should be prepared to live with the consequences.

Somehow I am not at all surprised to hear you say that you don't mind breaking the law at home, Jim.

July 30, 2007 9:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"or is all of this a battle to make sure that one group's or another's specific values are forced by the government on everybody?"

Yes, that's why they're called dominionists / religious supremacists. Religious freedom to them includes the right to take it away from others, the right to be "tolerated" for their intolerance of tolerance itself, and the "democratic" right to create a theocracy.

It's mind bendingly perverse, thus their disdain for rational thought and truth, and thus the need for the government to impose their will, by law, onto the rest of us.

July 31, 2007 12:05 AM  
Blogger JimK said...

This has been a great discussion people, really interesting for me, even though I haven't had time to participate in it. I thought it would be interesting to try putting the shoe on the other foot, and it really has been. I knew we'd have different views about sharing alcohol with teenagers, and that's fine, everybody looks at it a different way, but that's not really the point here, at least it's not what I intended. My view on that subject is that people can learn to drink responsibly, but in our society young people learn to drink as much as they can when they get the opportunity -- other places aren't like that, and I think it's at least partly a reaction to the attempt at suppression.

The thing that struck me at the wedding dinner was the clash between the government telling me, well telling the resort to tell me, that I couldn't do what my parents did, and their parents before them. We hear the phrase "family values," and we take that to mean a certain thing, but some families have different values from those endorsed by the Family Blah Blah groups -- in fact, most of us have different values from those.

This was a situation where the decision has been taken away from the parents. As for putting the resort in jeopardy, there was no chance they'd be penalized for this, that's a straw man.

As for my ways, breaking the law in my own home [gasp], my mother also used to say, "Some rules are made to be broken." I don't think the law needs to come into my house to tell us how to live, short of any abusive situation.


July 31, 2007 12:40 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey guys, the second posting at 11:26am on July 30 should have been signed "Jor-el". Sorry, I elapsed inadevertently into anonymity. Must be innate.

The Dr above and also Jim in previous post have the erroneous idea that "family values" means the values of each family. I think, when the media uses this term, they are talking about values that tend to strengthen traditional families in general.

Also, Dr, I think you're wrong. Jim was trying to say evangelicalism advanced laws discouraging alcohol consumption. He may not have been thinking though. Most of the anti-alcohol sentiment in our society comes from elsewhere.

Dr, your "MADD" comments represent just the kind of thinking that is driving this country insane. We shouldn't feel we need to remove all risk from life. We could, for example, reduce the highway carnage even further if we reduced the speed limit on interstates to 25 mph. That's unreasonable though. Kids eighteen are old enough to endure death and dismemberment in Iraq but we can't trust them with a bottle of Corona? C'mon, that's just as unreasonable.

Finally, Jim, I like the libertarian angle. I might actually join TTF if you keep talking about stuff like that.

July 31, 2007 2:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jor-el writes:

"The Dr above and also Jim in previous post have the erroneous idea that "family values" means the values of each family. I think, when the media uses this term, they are talking about values that tend to strengthen traditional families in general."

One element in our society has turned the phrase "family values" into code for a particular set of "values" -- those that include, for example, opposition to acceptance and equal rights for gay people and and opposition to reproductive choice under all or nearly all circumstances. Of course, the family values of many families include full acceptance of gay people and the autonomy of women regarding reproduction.

What Jim has done here is to take a fresh look at that phrase as commonly used by the Right and the media and to reclaim the language. And he does that quite effectively.

July 31, 2007 6:15 AM  
Blogger Tish said...

JIm, when you were at the resort, you were not doing what your mother did. She taught you about alcohol by allowing you to have small amounts of it at home. I think that is the right thing to do. The way that she also made it clear that she was breaking a law that she didn't agree with is really about her personality, I think. You asked a waiter to serve alcohol to your minor in a licensed commercial establishment. That is not what you are telling us your mother did.

Maybe states don't pull liquor licenses, even when the laws say that they will. I don't know about that. However, you did, by your own account, get the waiter in trouble by instructing him to serve your son. Why are you trying to pretend that you caused no harm?

Many cultures have high alcohol consumption rates with much lower rates of alcoholism than we have in the US. We know that they "teach" consumption by allowing children to join in the drinking, but the conditions under which they drink are where the real education takes place. They drink mostly in the home, they drink slowly, allowing their bodies to keep up with the alcohol, they drink socially, they drink with meals, and they don't drink to get drunk. We can teach our kids these same things at home, and our parental rights are not being violated.

A recent story in the Washington Post contained this information: In most area jurisdictions, minors are allowed to drink in the presence of their parents. A Virginia law passed last year allows it. In Maryland, minors can consume alcohol in the presence of their parents at home. In the District, there is no legal exemption for parents to give alcohol to their children.

You and your family can be nudists at home, or naturists if you prefer, but the law prevents you from going to the grocery store naked, even if you believe that it is healthier to be naked. Are laws prohibiting public nudity infringing on your rights as a parent?

Our laws that essentially say, "don't touch alcohol until you are 21, but then go ahead and drink all you want and stay out of your car," are not working, and we all know that. That's not the issue. I'm completely with you on parents modeling and teaching responsible consumption. It's the matter of public consumption and involving a third party where you lose me.

You might be interested in this website, which advocates for a more thoughtful alcohol policy:

July 31, 2007 12:40 PM  
Blogger Orin Ryssman said...

Interesting discussion...though I think the connection Jim asserted with regards to "family values" groups is strained.

My experience with this subject is that not alot of people are truly rational about it.

I think I am with Tish on how I would approach the subject. My primary concern as a parent is to teach my children a thoughtful respect for rules, and the rule of law. And thanks for the State Univ. NY - Potsdam link; it looks like it has loads of useful information.

August 02, 2007 4:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The top story at the SUNY Potsdam website points out the benefits parents teaching their kids responsible drinking.

"Drinking with Parents Reduces Alcohol Abuse among Teenagers

Teenagers who drink alcohol with their parents are less likely to drink heavily, according to research among 10,000 students aged 15 and 16 in 130 schools in England. The investigators, from Liverpool John Moores University’s Public Health Centre, found that young people who were given some alcohol at home with parents were less likely to engage in the most dangerous types of drinking.

Dr. Mark Bellis, who led the study and heads the Public Health Centre, said “The majority of people who are drinking at early ages are not then going on to be problem drinkers later in life.” He said “The real issues are around people understanding alcohol, learning about alcohol, being set a good example by their parents.”

Dr. Bellis said that “The majority of people, by the age of 14, 15 or 16, have drunk alcohol. The question is are they learning to drink from their parents, in a socially responsible environment or are they learning behind the bushes in a park or in a bar where they shouldn’t be in the first place?” The health leader emphasized that “The chances are, if they are in the latter position, they are learning to binge-drink, they are hiding their drinking (from their parents).”

This finding is consistent with research in the United States funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. It also found that young people who drink with their parents are least likely to experience drinking problems.

These studies are also consistent with the experience of numerous countries and groups in which children learn to drink alcohol from an early age but who have low rates of alcohol abuse. These groups include Jews, Italians, Greeks, French, Spaniards Portuguese, among many others.

But doesn’t drinking at an early age damage the brain? Actually, there is no evidence that drinking in moderation at an early age causes any brain damage. In fact, students in these early-drinking groups out-perform U.S. students on standardized tests of math, geography, and other subjects.

The new research also found that teenagers who illegally bought their own alcoholic beverages were six times more likely to drink in public, three times more likely to be regular drinkers, and twice as likely to be heavy or ‘binge” drinkers. Other research has found that drinking in public is associated with the worst alcohol-related problems among young people.

In short, youths who drank with their parents exhibited the safest drinking behavior."

August 05, 2007 10:35 AM  
Blogger JimK said...

That's interesting, and thanks for posting it.


August 05, 2007 10:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You are using (abusing) your child to make a point - the rules for conduct of this type in a public restaurant are unambiguous - they should have called child protective services and had your a@@ thrown in jail.

September 18, 2007 12:25 AM  

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