It is early. 5:30 a.m. Dark o’clock. Bleary-eyed and slouched over my coffee, I am seated in a restaurant near my gate, contemplating breakfast. You are seated at the bar.
While I idly wonder why you are sitting there instead of sitting in a comfy booth, I hear the waitress tell you that she is forbidden to serve alcohol until 6 a.m. You look at your watches and say you’ll wait.
Then a young girl—about 9 or 10—appears and slides onto the stool between the two of you. From the way you interact, I guess that she is your daughter.
I watch her twirl on the barstool. She jumps up, crosses the aisle, and enters a newsstand. In a few minutes, she returns with a purchase and reclaims her perch. You check your watches.
I watch your daughter put her head down on the bar for a few moments. Chattering, she twirls on her stool again.
At 5:50, the server holds up ten fingers. At 5:55, she holds up one hand. At 6:00, she ceremoniously pops the tops of two large beers and pours one of you a shot. Your daughter twirls.
And then I wonder, irritably—and, OK, somewhat judgmentally—“What is going on here? What are you doing here at a bar at 6:00 a.m. with your impressionable young daughter at your side?” My next thought, in an effort to be more charitable, is “What happened that made you want to drink at a time and in a way that would likely raise a lot of eyebrows? Did you come from a different time zone, where our day is night? Did your airline provide such a harrowing travel experience that you are desperate to steady your nerves? Are you grieving a terrible loss, or overwhelmed by some kind of personal catastrophe?”
Adults, of course, are free to do as they choose. But you are here with your young daughter, and I worry for her. Has it crossed your mind that you are quite possibly influencing her future drinking behavior?
For better or worse, many life lessons are “caught” rather than taught. Kids have a way of learning the things we never get around to talking about with them—and they learn from watching us. From the time they are toddlers, our children are observing and imitating us. When they are older and see and call out adult hypocrisy, the message “Do as I say, not as I do” doesn’t cut it. The truth is that the best way to teach children any healthy behavior is to model it ourselves.
To the parents at the bar in the Minneapolis airport, you have an opportunity. With 10% of eighth-graders reporting that they drank in the last month, experts say ages 8–11 is the crucial time for influencing kids’ decisions about alcohol. Don’t miss this window. Kids your daughter’s age tend to like facts and learning about how things work. Take advantage of this interest and talk about alcohol and its effects on the body.
You could also talk about the effects of stress on the body, and provide your daughter with several different suggestions for dealing with grief or sorrow or for managing anxiety. It’s too easy for her to find examples of adults self-medicating or numbing emotional pain with alcohol. Avoid letting her hear you glorify or joke about drunken behavior—which may also send a mixed message.
You mean everything to that little cutie on the stool between you. At her age, your opinion still matters most to her. Help her develop healthy self-esteem by emphasizing her strengths and positively reinforcing her healthy choices.
To the parents at the bar in the Minneapolis airport, I do not doubt for an instant that you really love your kid. I know firsthand how hard it can be to be your best self when your kids are watching, which is pretty much always. But here’s the nudge I feel compelled to give you today: Look into the mirror hanging over that bar and try to see what I see—a beautiful young girl, seemingly happy, making a memory with you, watching you, and looking for clues on how to best live her adult life, which, by the way, will begin right around the next corner. You are her best-loved, most influential teachers. Teach her well.
Christine French Cully is the editor in chief of Highlights for Children, Inc., where she is responsible for shaping the editorial direction of all the magazines, online content and products the company develops for children and their families. She plays a strategic, ongoing role in the development of the Highlights vision and brand across all markets and channels/around the globe. Cully, a mother of two, resides in Honesdale, Pennsylvania.