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Let's talk about alcohol - the new birds and the bees

Cast of BBC series Outnumbered
Image caption The current guidance says that an alcohol free childhood is best

Parents are being asked in a new campaign to do more to delay their child's "first drink". But how do you start the conversation about alcohol?

Talking about the birds and the bees is something many parents dread.

But now it's not just sex, parents are expected to give their children a pep talk on a raft of modern hazards from gangs to obesity to internet chat rooms. And one old vice - alcohol - has become a pressing subject for parents in the age of the alcopop and teenage binge drinking.

"Why do Mummy and Daddy drink wine?" is not an easy question to answer. So how should you introduce alcohol to your child?

Offer them a sip of watered-down wine and a chat about its potent effects? Or cut your own intake, prohibit them from tasting it, and warn of its addictive properties?

A survey by Drinkaware, a charity funded by the drinks industry, and the website Mumsnet, shows that only 17% of parents have a planned conversation with their child about the perils of alcohol. Four out of five of those surveyed said they will "deal with it when it happens".

That may be too late says Virginia Ironside, the Independent's agony aunt. As with sex, parents need to prepare their children for alcohol before they begin experimenting. And as long as they pitch the conversation at the right level, the younger they talk about it the better, she believes. A truthful approach is the best. "Tell them that it's nice to have a bit and jolly dangerous to have a lot," she says.

A good approach is to point out drunk people in the street so that they can see alcohol's destructive effect, she says. But what if your four year-old asks you what that red liquid is in your wine glass? "You tell them you're drinking wine but that you don't drink too much of it because otherwise you'll get drunk," she advises.

While it's against the law in the UK to buy alcohol for those aged under 18, it is legal for children to drink at home or at a friend's house, the government's DirectGov website explains. So in theory parents are quite within their rights to offer an 11-year-old a sip of beer or a watered-down glass of Rioja.

But is this the right way to go? After years of being told that the French and Italian approach of letting children acclimatise to alcohol in a family setting, the tide is turning against childhood wine tasting.

In 2009, Sir Liam Donaldson, England's chief medical officer at the time, said that children aged under 15 should never drink alcohol. He based his findings on research suggesting that the earlier children began drinking, the greater the chances they would develop a drink problem.

Last year NHS statistics showed that 55% of 11 to 15-year-olds have never drunk alcohol, an increase on previous years.

Liz Fraser, author of the Yummy Mummy's Survival Guide, says parents need to think about their own drinking. She and her husband gave up alcohol during the week once their children became old enough to become aware of their surroundings.

"If children grow up in a household where a bottle of wine is finished off every night they'll think that's OK. And most health professionals would say it isn't." And it would be "ghastly" for your children to see you drunk, she says.

So at what point is it acceptable to offer your child a glass of wine? For Fraser, whose eldest daughter is 13, it's almost inconceivable. "I can't even think it'll ever happen. If you wouldn't offer your own child a cigarette then I don't know why you would offer them a drink or drugs."

The first time she can imagine handing her daughter a glass of wine would be after she'd started university.

The government recommends that 15 to 17-year-olds drink no more than once a week, and only under adult supervision. For some the health message has gone too far and fails to take account of the different ways that children can be introduced to alcohol.

Image caption Alcohol is a ubiquitous social lubricant

Frank Furedi, author of Paranoid Parenting, says he allows his 12-year-old son a "few drops of wine" with his Sunday meal. "The key thing is not to see it as an illegal drug. You explain what's good for adults and what's appropriate for children."

For too long the British approach has been one of two extremes - to keep alcohol as a secret from children or to let them have a free-for-all with no supervision. Far better that parents are setting a good example, he argues. "If children see their parents having a bottle of wine with their evening meal they'll realise it isn't just something you do to get plastered."

You need to back your action up with words, says Carrie Longton, co-founder of Mumsnet. Occasionally it may be worth admitting to one's own failings, such as when you have a terrible hangover, she says. But there is also something to be said for scaring your child about the dangers of drink, she argues.

What had most impact on her 12-year-old daughter was when she told her something she had read on Mumsnet about a drunk teenage girl who died surrounded by her friends after choking on her own vomit.

Longton admits the story may be apocryphal but says it is a useful way of getting the message across. "You use whatever tactics you can to keep your child safe."

Ironside strongly disagrees about exaggerating the risks. "They'll never believe anything you say again," she says. "They'll soon find friends who have been to hospital after having their stomach pumped and come out fine. It's like saying that after one puff of a joint you're addicted."

It's right that parents talk to their children about alcohol, says Times columnist David Aaronovitch. But it might not do much good. His youngest daughter, 14, has been to two parties recently that had to be stopped because of drunken behaviour and people being sick.

It's a reminder that your children are going to be mixing with lots of other people's children in a world that will often be beyond your control.

"I think it really depends on what kind of peer group your child is socialising with, also on their personality, and then just luck. Could anything have really stopped Amy Winehouse's slide into addiction?"

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