Beer and The Knucklehead

I like beer. This is a good time to like beer in America. Beer drinkers have never had so much choice available to them. Not just at the national and international level either, but at the local level, too. Probably you don’t have to go very far to find a microbrew, often one that uses local ingredients. Brewing has fallen into the hands of mad scientists, amateurs, gourmands, snobs, yokels, halfwits, artists, cranks, and entrepeneurs, and that’s a very good thing. This produces some astonishingly bad beers. But even a blind pig finds a truffle now and then, and you never know around which corner you’ll bump into the next really tasty brew.

I have to laugh every time I see one of Budweiser’s “Do you know who brewed your beer?” ads, because it shows how out of touch they are with real America. More and more of us really do know who brews our beer. My brewer’s name is Damien, and I’m likely to bump into him at the farmer’s market or the post office, because he lives and works in my town. And he’s always experimenting, which I know because I frequent his pub. More than one of these blog posts have been written there; Chris and Brynn have been kind enough to do some proofreading when it’s been slow. And they all know when I come in on Tuesday nights to write my weekly letter to The Knucklehead to set me up with something good and then let me alone for a while. I’m not one to extol the joys of small town life, but it’s good to have a local pub. It’s fantastic to have one with great food and drink.

Now, if you like beer, and you welcome a knucklehead into your life, there are a few basic decisions you have to make from day one. And you have to decide some things even if you don’t enjoy beer or wine or whiskey or sterno. There are adult pleasures and activities in this world that while they may or may not be acceptable for adults (smoking, cursing, R-rated movies, wearing dark socks with plaid shorts), most would agree are morally inappropriate for children. But before you even start sorting the vices into age categories, make sure you’re in agreement with the previous statement. Do you really believe there are things that are morally OK for adults that are not morally OK for children?

If so,* you need to clearly present that to your knucklehead. Because there are two things young children excel at: destroying cabinetry and sniffing out hypocrisy. If you’re telling your child that alcohol is bad, they’re going to want to know why you’re consuming it. If you’re lucky, they’ll directly ask you about that. Otherwise, they’ll just lock the question away in their knuckleheaded little hearts and leave it to themselves to figure out. But they’ll notice. They notice everything.

Take beer. The first thing you have to ask yourself is this: knucklehead aside, is this something that’s acceptable in my life? Is this something I would be OK with seeing my child enjoy when she hits adulthood? If not, your only choice is to get rid of it, no excuses. I made that call with cigarettes when my Knucklehead was still baking, and I knew that I had no choice. It wasn’t even that I was worried about the health effects (I wouldn’t have smoked around him anyway). I knew, knew, knew that I would never be able to hide it from him. And I didn’t want my son seeing me do something I was ashamed of. So the smoking went, and I found that Knucks had given me the strength to do something I hadn’t been able to do before: quit for good.

With beer and wine, I comfortably answered yes. Responsibly, in moderation, beer tastes good, feels good, is healthy, and makes me slow down and relax for a bit. There were two things I wanted to avoid: drinking to excess (I don’t like losing control, so that’s not too hard) and the “automatic” beers. What are they? Not being able to relax without a beer. “It’s not a ballgame without a beer.” “It’s not a Friday night without a beer.” “It’s not a [fill-in-the-blank] without a beer.” Even if the “automatic” beer is just one, that’s not a good habit to get into. For me, it’s looking for routines, and breaking them. Did I have a beer three night in a row this week? That’s OK. But I’ll go the next two nights without one. Did I hit the pub after a stressful day at work? That’s OK. But after the next stressful day I’ll hit a movie. Or a cheesy novel. Or a game of catch with The Knucklehead.

My point here is that if you’re engaged in an adults-only activity, you need to thoroughly understand yourself why that is OK for you, and under what circumstances. Because if you don’t understand it, there is no way you will be able to explain or model it to your knucklehead. This is why so many parents find it so much easier to hide adult activities. But I think that’s a mistake. Why? Two reasons:

1. The hypocrisy thing. Remember, the kid will smell it out, and then it will look like you were either hiding something you were ashamed of, or lacked the self-control to resist temptation. If you look like you’re guilty doing something, you’re probably going to feel guilty doing something, and a kid will zero right in on those feelings. If you don’t want your child to see you drinking, you probably shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.

2. We’re not raising our knuckleheads to be good children. We’re raising them to be good adults. Adulthood is (hopefully) where they’re going to spend most of their lives anyway, so setting good adult examples should be on the menu from day one. Literally. Chances are they may have a beer or two at some point in their lives. How else are they going to learn to be responsible drinkers if not from the examples set by the responsible adults in their lives? Show your knucklehead that you can enjoy one or two, then stop. Show her that an activity enjoyed with alcohol can also be enjoyed without alcohol. Take the mystery out of it.

It is essential to model appropriate adult behavior, but I don’t think that’s enough. Talk your knucklehead’s ear off about your decision-making. Let your kid know there is a deliberate thought process behind what you’re doing. That you don’t just “find yourself” drinking a beer, or not drinking a beer, or buying yellow peppers on sale at the supermarket, or a thousand other adult activities. Let your errands and journeys out together be a constant running commentary of how an adult looks at the world.

For instance, beer and baseball are, and always have been best friends. I don’t think you’d qualify as a drunk for having a beer at every ballpark you go to, but remember, I wanted to avoid those “automatic” drinks. So not only would I skip the beer at some parks, I’d let The Knucklehead in on the decision-making process. Example:

“It’s going to cost $7-8 to have a beer at the ballpark, and that’s a ridiculous amount of money to spend on a beer. But any food or drink is going to be more expensive, so to some extent you’re going to have to deal with that if you want to buy something at the ballpark. But I refuse to give that money to one of the Big Breweries. That’s no problem, because I won’t miss overpaying for watery, bad beer. But I don’t feel so bad if that overpaying goes to a local brewer, and I get a better beer anyway. So I won’t get a beer if they don’t have local beer. And tonight we’re at Nationals Park, but tomorrow we’re going to be at Camden Yards, and I know they have some great beer at the O’s game, to go with the great food, so I’m going to skip the beer tonight and save my beer money for tomorrow.”

And like that. The kid doesn’t have to follow the reasoning. The kid just has to see that some reasoning is going on.

Many ballparks, especially at the AAA level, offer family sections, where alcohol is prohibited. I always avoided those (they tended to be bad seats anyway, and filled with people committing the sin of Not Paying Attention to the Game). I liked to point out the drunks in the stands to The Knucklehead, especially when he was a wee little shaver. Nothing looks scarier or more disgusting to a little kid, than a sweaty big foul-mouthed drunk, especially in the middle of the day. “See?” I’d say. “That’s what being drunk looks like.”

“Ew. Gross.”

“Exactly.” Ballpark drunks are the best friends a knucklehead’s dad ever had. All the better if they were in your own section, threatening to topple over onto you.

There are as many ways to deal with alcohol as there are styles of parenting. My choices will not be yours; you are not me, and your relationship to your knucklehead is unique. Your choice will be based on your culture, your history, your own preferences. Your choice will be affected by your ethical, philosophical, or theological worldview. My point is not to sell my approach to someone who isn’t me.

My point is to make your choices deliberate. You are making choices about alcohol whether you are aware of it or not. You are every day teaching your knucklehead your choices about alcohol whether you are conscious of it or not. You are already directly instructing your child how an adult behaves in this world, and you are doing it more loudly and clearly than you have ever done anything in your life. Better be sure that the lesson you want to send matches the one you really are sending. Because your knuckleheads are sniffing out the true lessons plain as the snouts on their faces.

And then they’re going after the cabinets.


*If not, congratulations, you’ve grossly simplified parenting. You’re dismissed, see you next week.


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