What can we Brits learn from French families anointing children’s lips with champagne

Zut alors! Killjoy scientists have raised a very worrying alarm. Children who are given even a sip of alcohol by their parents at a young age are more likely to find themselves devastated by addiction later in life, says a new study.

Researchers at the U.S. Uniformed Services University in Maryland warn that regularly trying parental wine or beer with dinner creates “positive alcohol expectations” for children.

The NHS, meanwhile, now says alcohol shouldn’t be drunk until at least the age of 15.

Well, as a British expat who has lived near Montpellier for 12 years, let me tell you that my French friends will have plenty to say about all of this.

Children who are given even a sip of alcohol by their parents at a young age are more likely to find themselves devastated by addiction later in life, new study says

Children who are given even a sip of alcohol by their parents at a young age are more likely to find themselves devastated by addiction later in life, new study says

Eight years ago, when I was elected to our city council, I received an unusual gift: a bottle of wine, made by the children of our local elementary school.

But, as I soon discovered, I shouldn’t have been at all surprised by this.

Here, in the heart of wine country, eight-year-olds are given a pair of pruning shears every autumn. Then, they are driven to the school vineyard, right next to the soccer field, to pick the grapes under the watchful eye of their teachers. The younger pupils get to work designing labels for the bottles.

Not appropriate? Hardly. Alcohol, and especially wine, has a long and proud history in France, which has always included the young.

Indeed, serving wine to children in school cafeterias was only banned in 1956, a move denounced at the time as a crime against French culture.

Nowadays, as in the UK, the legal age to purchase alcohol is 18, while 16- and 17-year-olds can drink it in restaurants but only if accompanied by a responsible adult.

In general though, things are much more relaxed here in France than on the other side of the Channel.

It is traditional, for example, for families to celebrate the birth of a child with a bottle of champagne and ritually anoint the child’s lips with a sprinkle. (Literally, a baptism with alcohol.)

Then, from an early age, eau rougie, water reddened by wine, is distributed at dinner. Starting with a small drop, the ratio of wine to water gradually increases as children grow. When they are teenagers, it is not uncommon for them to be allowed a small glass of proper wine.

Not appropriate?  Hardly.  Alcohol, and especially wine, has a long and proud history in France, which has always included the young.  In fact, serving wine to children in school canteens was only banned in 1956, a move denounced at the time as a crime against French culture

Not appropriate? Hardly. Alcohol, and especially wine, has a long and proud history in France, which has always included the young. In fact, serving wine to children in school canteens was only banned in 1956, a move denounced at the time as a crime against French culture

Certainly, when I travel to my neighbors’ homes for various Christmas gatherings over the next few weeks, I have every expectation that drinking will be mandatory for everyone in attendance. It would be practically sacrilegious not to participate.

How come? Because it’s a necessary part of introducing young people to rich French traditions: great cheeses, breads, and even better wines. But it also has other advantages.

A more relaxed approach teaches children to drink responsibly and in moderation. It demystifies alcohol, meaning that when children inevitably reach the age where they want to start hanging out with friends, they don’t feel the need to drink to excess and develop binge drinking behaviors that could lead to alcoholism.

A few decades ago, things weren’t much different in Britain, before health and safety obsessives took over.

When I was at boarding school in Hampshire, my friends and I often sneaked down to the local pub after class to enjoy a half pint of shandy, or perhaps a weak cider (if you were lucky).

The older boys looked after the younger ones, making sure they didn’t have one too many. And, as long as you kept your head down and didn’t make a fool of yourself, the hosts and teachers turned a blind eye. According to them, it was part of our education to become young.

But since then things have changed drastically. And as the British nanny state grew in power, the consumption of alcohol became more and more regulated. So much so that particularly youthful-looking 18-year-olds can now make a living working as “undercover shoppers” helping to ferret out any establishment that doesn’t require ID to purchase booze.

Bartenders up and down the earth now break into a cold sweat as soon as someone who looks like a day under 30 approaches — and in many schools, illicit drinking is a punishable offence.

But what were the consequences of this cultural change?

It is traditional, for example, for families to celebrate the birth of a child with a bottle of champagne and ritually anoint the child's lips with a sprinkle.  (Literally, a baptism with alcohol)

It is traditional, for example, for families to celebrate the birth of a child with a bottle of champagne and ritually anoint the child’s lips with a sprinkle. (Literally, a baptism with alcohol)

A quick comparison of a Saturday night in Britain and France will give you the answer. In the binge drinking capital of the world, Blighty, drunks terrorize the streets until the wee hours of the morning, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake.

In France, meanwhile, you won’t find anything like this. Young and old enjoy civilized candlelit dinners, before staggering home along the cobbled sidewalks at reasonable times.

The data tells a similar story. A 2019 global survey found that the British get drunk more than any other nation in the world. The UK also came in second place (behind Australia) for the number of people requiring emergency treatment as a result of alcohol use.

Furthermore, while the volume of alcohol consumed per capita in France and England is quite similar, those on the continent suffer far fewer long-term health problems.

Since the 1970s, there has been a fourfold increase in deaths from liver disease in the UK. Over the same period, France has seen a decline in such deaths.

Much of this will come down to the stark difference between British and French “drinking culture”. While many Brits go to pubs with the explicit intention of getting boozed, the French mostly see alcohol as associated with meals.

Grimy British pubs and clubs are a world away from posh French cafes.

Much of British drinking also revolves around beer. While the French tend to drink more wine, which, due to its higher alcohol content, is enjoyed at a slower pace. (And where beer is drunk, it’s usually served as a “demi,” roughly half a pint.)

Now, of course, it would be naive to imagine that France is completely immune to alcoholism.

But, as someone who has spent a long time in both countries, I think it’s certainly true that young French people don’t seem to be as preoccupied with alcohol as their British counterparts.

So before health and safety workers take advantage of the latest research and impose even more regulations, perhaps they could learn a thing or two from the French example.

Alcohol is one of life’s great joys: French wine is perhaps the greatest. And children aren’t stupid; they know a good thing when they see it. Plus, we all know that America’s prohibition of the 1920s didn’t work, in much the same way that preaching abstinence never stopped young people from having sex.

So instead of telling kids they can never have a drink, we should help them learn to enjoy it responsibly. This strikes me as the best way to help reduce alcoholism – and surely we can all say hello to that!

Jonathan Miller is the author of France, A Nation On the Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown (Gibson Square).

What can we Brits learn from French families anointing children’s lips with champagne

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