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What we Brits can learn from French families who anoint babies’ lips with champagne

Zut alors! Killjoy scientists have sounded a very disturbing alarm. Children who receive even a sip of alcohol from their parents at a young age are more likely to be plagued by addiction later in life, a new study says.

Researchers at the U.S. Uniformed Services University in Maryland warn that regularly sampling parents’ wine or beer during dinner creates “positive alcohol expectations” in children.

The NHS, meanwhile, says alcohol should not be drunk until at least the age of 15.

Well, as a British expat living near Montpellier for 12 years, I can tell you my French friends will have a lot to say about this.

Children who receive even a sip of alcohol from their parents at a young age are more likely to be plagued by addiction later in life, a 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 children from our local primary school.

But, as I soon found out, I shouldn’t be surprised at all by this.

Here, in the heart of wine country, eight-year-olds get pruning shears every fall. Then they are escorted to the school’s vineyard, right next to the soccer field, to harvest the grapes under the watchful eye of their teachers. Younger students get to work designing labels for the bottles.

Inappropriate? Barely. Alcohol, and wine in particular, has a proud and long history in France – and one that has always included young people.

Indeed, serving wine to children in school canteens was not banned until 1956 – a move that was condemned at the time as a crime against French culture.

Today, as in the UK, the legal age to purchase alcohol is 18, while 16 and 17 year olds are allowed to drink it in restaurants, but only when accompanied by a responsible adult.

But in general it is much more relaxed here in France than on the other side of the Channel.

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

Then from an early age ‘eau rougie’ – water colored red by wine – is handed out during dinner. Starting with just a small drop, the wine to water ratio gradually increases as children get older. By the time they are teenagers, it is not uncommon for a small glass of fine wine to be allowed.

Inappropriate?  Barely.  Alcohol, and wine in particular, has a proud and long history in France – and young people have always been involved.  Indeed, serving wine to children in school canteens was not banned until 1956 - a move denounced at the time as a crime against French culture

Inappropriate? Barely. Alcohol, and wine in particular, has a proud and long history in France – and one that has always included young people. Indeed, serving wine to children in school canteens was not banned until 1956 – a move denounced at the time as a crime against French culture

Especially as I visit the neighbors for several Christmas gatherings in the coming weeks, I have every expectation that booze will be mandatory for all attendees. It would be almost sacrilegious not to participate.

Why? Because it is a necessary part of introducing young people to the rich traditions of France – from 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 kids inevitably reach the age where they want to go out with friends, they don’t feel the need to drink too much and develop the binge eating behaviors that can lead to alcoholism.

Things weren’t so different in Britain a few decades ago – before the obsessive health and safety obsessions took over.

When I was at boarding school in Hampshire, my friends and I would often sneak into the local pub after classes to enjoy a pint of shandy, or maybe a weak cider (if you were lucky).

The older guys watched out for the younger ones and made 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 landlords and teachers turned a blind eye. According to them, it was part of our training to become young men.

But things have changed dramatically since then. And as the power of the British nanny state grew, alcohol consumption became increasingly regulated. So much so that young-looking 18-year-olds in particular can now earn a healthy income by working as “undercover shoppers” and catching any establishment that doesn’t require ID for the purchase of alcohol.

Bartenders across the country are now breaking into a cold sweat as soon as someone who looks under 30 for a day approaches – and in many schools, illegal drinking is a criminal offense.

But what has resulted from this cultural shift?

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

For example, it is traditional for families to celebrate the birth of a child with a bottle of champagne, and ritually anoint the baby’s lips with a splash. (Literally, a baptism by 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 into the wee hours, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake.

You won’t find anything like that in France. Young and old enjoy civilized candlelit dinners before waddling home along the cobbled sidewalks at reasonable times.

The data tells a similar story. A 2019 global survey found that Britons get more drunk than any other country in the world. The UK also came in second (after Australia) for the number of people seeking emergency treatment after drinking.

In fact, while the amount of alcohol consumed per capita in France and England is quite similar, people on the mainland suffer far fewer long-term health problems.

Since the 1970s, deaths from liver disease have quadrupled in the UK. During that 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 the pub with the express intention of being plastered, the French see alcohol mainly as something associated with food.

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 is enjoyed at a slower pace due to its higher alcohol content. (And where beer is consumed, it’s usually served as a “demi,” about half a pint.)

Now, of course, it would be naive to suppose 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 French youths don’t seem to be as preoccupied with alcohol as their British counterparts.

So before health and safety workers seize the latest research and impose even more regulations, they may have a thing or two to learn from the French example.

Alcohol is one of life’s great pleasures – French wine is perhaps the greatest. And kids aren’t stupid; they know a good thing when they see it. Plus, we all know that the US Prohibition of the 1920s didn’t work – just as preaching abstinence never stopped young people from having sex.

So instead of telling kids never to drink anything, we should help them learn how to enjoy it responsibly. That seems to me the best way to reduce alcoholism – and we can certainly all say cheers to that!

Jonathan Miller is the author of France, a nation on the verge of a nervous breakdown (Gibson Square).

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