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A pinky of wine for baby: Are you creating a future alcoholic?



For yesterday’s flight from SFO to Reagan Washington Airport I bought a New York Times, which always gives me a couple hours of good reading when I have the time—and what else is there to do on a long flight?

So in the Science Times section (sorry, no link—firewall!) they had an article called “Alcohol’s Parental Gateway.” Some inflammatory words in that header: must read! It dealt with the question of whether parents who give their young children even “a token sip of wine at Passover” somehow contribute to their children’s later drinking problems.

This sort of “gateway” issue has worried parents for decades. No mom or dad wants to suffer the guilt and pain of thinking they somehow contributed to their child’s mental or behavioral aberrations. Once upon a time, I don’t think parents even worried about this sort of thing, but in our post-Dr. Spock era (Benjamin, not Star Wars), they do. Books, academic studies reported in the media, talk radio and pseudo-scientific T.V. shows like Dr. Phil’s provide endless fodder to make parents wonder if they’ve done a good job or a horrible one raising little Johnny or Susie. The very difficulty of determining precisely what leads to a teen’s or adult’s drinking problem means that the answer is largely unknowable; hence, the never-ending proliferation of studies of the type the Times article cites, which—it seems to this childless adult—only pile on the confusion ever thicker. (It is the pH.D’s full-employment act.)

The Times’ writer, Perri Klass, herself an M.D., asks a lot of questions of the “what does it all mean?” genre, without venturing her own opinions. What does “early sipping” do? Is there a connection to “high rates of alcohol use in adolescents”? Is childhood sipping “a risk factor for a lot of other problem behaviors”? Some psychiatrists and other professionals quoted seem to imply answers in the affirmative.

Now, someone once said that journalism—even the kind of even-handed journalism practiced by good newspapers like the New York Times—cannot by its nature be objective. The writer’s biases, sometimes unconscious, sometimes barely concealed, shape the narrative: what questions get raised, who is quoted, what direction the article seems to point in.

And so it is here. A reader who knows nothing about this particular epidemiological issue would not be faulted for coming away with the impression that parentally-sanctioned childhood sipping is, if not overtly dangerous, at least ill-conceived. Dr. Klass even seems to debunk the European theory that by “providing sips of alcohol to children, we are actually protecting them against problem drinking,” which is the theory I’ve long heard and believed (and which Thomas Jefferson apparently subscribed to, especially when wine is not expensive).

My own feeling is that some academicians, perhaps in the thrall of publish-or-perish, make too much of this childhood-sipping non-issue. We’re not talking about unfit parents who put vodka into baby’s bottle; we’re talking about civilized, responsible parents who believe that, starting with the lick of a finger dipped into wine, and graduating upwards to a full glass by, say, the age of thirteen, a growing child will learn to respect wine—and all alcoholic beverages—and therefore to drink responsibly. I think that is true: do we really need more studies to prove it?

* * *

By the way, on the drive from Reagan International to my Bethesda hotel, we passed the spotlit United States Capitol, Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial. Truly beautiful and awe-inspiring.

  1. “post-Dr. Spock era (Benjamin, not Star Wars),”

    Star WARS? Now you’re just trolling us….

  2. katie bell says:

    In my experience raising teenagers (3 to be exact) I can assure you that the “pinky” of wine isn’t the problem—the problem is the parents who condone letting a group of teens get hammered in their basement on the questionable grounds that it’s safer than having the teens out and about while drinking. I have more trouble with lax parents than I have with their teenagers. For teens, wine at the table is not the same as cheap beer and a handle of vodka in the basement with fifteen of their friends.

  3. Bob Henry says:

    Here’s your link to Perri Klass, M.D.’s New York Times blog:

    “Offering Kids a Taste of Alcohol”

  4. Bob Henry says:

    I recall the anecdote (possibly from the Robert Balzer wine appreciation course?) that Robert Mondavi baptized his children with a token sip of wine.

    (I leave it to wine historians like Charles Sullivan to dig up that citation.)

    Responsible underage drinking is the norm in so many winery-owning families.

    From the St. Helena Star
    (published March 17, 2011, Page Unknown):

    “Next-generation winemakers: Jenny Wagner”


    “When Jenny Wagner and her brothers, Charlie and Joey, were growing up, wine was always on both their mom’s and dad’s tables. Wagner, who is now 23, said she was allowed sips of wine at dinner, which ‘sparked my interest in wine to a point. It is in my blood.'”

  5. Bob Henry says:

    Excerpt from the San Francisco Chronicle “Food & Wine” Section
    (published June 18, 2003, Page Unknown):

    “Robert Mondavi at 90;
    Charismatic, competitive — vintner does it his way;
    Mondavi helped make Napa Valley what it is today”

    By Carol Emert
    Chronicle Staff Writer

    “Robert Mondavi was born June 18, 1913, in the mining town of Virginia, Minn., the son of peasants from Sassoferrato, Italy.

    . . .

    “Like other Italian families, the Mondavis drank wine with meals, including watered-down vino for the kids.”

  6. Another “science” “fear” article. One sip and the kid dies! No sip and the little Nobel Prizewinner is saved! Well, a very small amount at a family holiday table is just fine at some point. Special occasion context! Especially when the family does not accept sloppy and obvious drunken behavior by relatives or friends and actually points out to the child that such behavior is wrong and unattractive.

  7. redmond barry says:

    70 % of published science is not repeatable. In the social sciences, more like 90%. Anyway, the studies DR. Klass cited concern kids and adolescents where there’s peer exposure to alcohol: it has nothing to do with giving your kid a sip at a seder. Sad click bait from the NYT. Klass’s bio says she is Professor of journalism and Pediatrics at NYU: the order of the realms of expertise isn’t the way I”d put it. I gather that she writes a lot.

  8. Bob Henry says:

    Elaborating on Redmond’s comment . . . from The Wall Street Journal:

    “Scientists’ Elusive Goal: Reproducing Study Results”


    “This is one of medicine’s dirty secrets: Most results, including those that appear in top-flight peer-reviewed journals, can’t be reproduced.”

    — and —

    “How to Keep Bad Science From Getting Into Print;
    ‘Irreproducible’ research is more often due to error than misconduct or fraud, but fighting it is vital.”


    “In 2015 more than one million papers in bioscience were published—more than ever before, and reflecting enormous progress in biomedical research. But a growing number of high-profile retractions have led to a widespread belief that the results scientists publish are increasingly irreproducible. …”

    [“Opinion” section piece from Dr. Jeffrey S. Flier, dean of the Harvard Medical School.]

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