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My Friends (and LeBron James) Let Their Kids Drink Wine. Are They Crazy?

So what if the NBA’s greatest wine snob lets his 11- and 14-year-old sample $3,000 Cabs

LeBron James is a lot of things: a stellar athlete with a photographic memory; an innovator in public school education who speaks in the third person; a guy who can pull off a shorts suit. But is he also a Cool Mom? The kind who lets his kids drink at home, even though they’re only 11 and 14?

This week, James told reporters at a Lakers practice that he learns everything about pop culture from his tween sons. That’s because they’re old souls—so mature, in fact, that they already imbibe. “I’ve got very mature 14- and 11-year-olds,” James said. “My 14- and 11-year-olds drink wine.”

When pressed by reporters if he really meant it, he said yes. When asked if they prefer red or white, he said, “Whatever dad and mom’s having.”

Many people thought it was not cool:

Others managed to turn it into some sort of partisan divide:

Others suggested it’s nowhere near the chill attitude it sounds like:

Yet others thought it was nothing to fuss about:

But to answer my question at the start, maybe LeBron James is just a Cool Mom. You know, one who is hip to the kids and is always there to offer advice, talk shit on the friends you hate and provide condoms.

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And if you’re going to drink—which you are—the Cool Mom would rather do it here with you at home:

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That said, LeBron’s scenario doesn’t appear to be a case of the Cool Mom. For starters, James is a bit of a wine snob. He decided at age 30 to get into wine, researched it, studied it and has gotten up to speed on it in about three years. (Again, it should be noted that James’ memory skills are legendary.) He regularly humblebrags his expensive (and sommelier-approved) wine purchases on Instagram.

In other words, it’s more likely he’s exposing his sons to his wine tastes over dinner in small amounts to pass on his bougie cred.

Which brings us to the dilemmas all parents face. When it comes to overseeing kids drinking, there are two debates:

  • Debate No. 1 is whether or not to host your kid’s drinking so they don’t get hammered somewhere else where you can’t control it. Inevitably, teenagers will interface with drinking culture, and some parents see it is a there-or-here proposition. If they’re going to drink, you may as well have all the kids here, take their keys, let them get soused and sleep it off safely.
  • Then there’s Debate No. 2 (the LeBron debate): Should you allow children limited exposure to alcohol in responsible settings at home so that you, in effect, remove the taboo for it later? The thinking here is that by letting them get a handle on how it feels and tastes—and how to drink properly, like a grown-ass adult—they will in effect bypass the risk of overcompensating for their abstinence and binge-drinking in high school and college.

I put the question to parents online to see if any of them let their kids have a little sip now and then as a kind of limited exposure therapy. One woman said her son and daughter were allowed a glass of wine at special dinners as teens. Now 20, her son has “no fixation with drinking because there was no mystique around it or connotation of it being a milestone. My daughter is 15 and on the same program.”

Another woman who isn’t a parent said her parents let her have a small glass of champagne and sips of beer for special occasions, and had a full liquor cabinet left unlocked. “I drink socially now and definitely binge-drank in college but never struggled with or felt like it was some mystery,” she wrote.

Another parent said she does for her kids what her parents did for her—let her have sips of adult drinks and the wine at their Episcopalian church. “I was allowed to have small amounts of beer or wine as a kid, and although I did my share of drinking a bit too much in college, it was never a fixation for me,” she wrote. “The 7-year-old hasn’t expressed an interest in alcohol at all, but we have let the 12-year-old have sips of our drinks. Also, we’re Episcopalian, so they get real (if crappy) wine at church every Sunday and aren’t hearing sermons about the Evil of Drink.”

Another parent said she’s been giving her 8- and 10-year-old “sips of beer and wine since they were preschoolers.” Even though they think it’s disgusting, she continues to have them try it, because she believes “taking the mystery out of it will be beneficial in the long run.”

Another man without children said his parents let him drink at home as a teen, which helped him understand the difference between binge-drinking and a cocktail later on. “Very helpful,” he wrote. “Kept me from becoming a rookie lush as a college freshman.”

And one father said he’s always let his kid have some of whatever they’re having if he wanted. “As he got older, he has had drinks on all vacations, but not to excess,” he wrote. “Now a month away from 17, he doesn’t care for booze, while some of his friends who had more strict/traditional childhoods drink themselves silly. I can’t take all the credit; he may have turned out the same regardless. However, I know for sure that alcohol has no taboo for him and I think that can’t hurt.”

However, recent research doesn’t appear to support any of the above thinking. Earlier this year, researchers studied some 1,900 Australian schoolchildren from ages 12 through 17 to see what difference it made when parents provided alcohol for their children, whether by sip or glass.

Researchers say they found little distinction between the amount parents gave and later outcomes, and the later outcomes weren’t good. The research, published in The Lancet Public Health Journal, concluded that there is “no evidence to support the view that parental supply protects from adverse drinking outcomes by providing alcohol to their child. Parents should be advised that this practice is associated with risk, both directly and indirectly through increased access to alcohol from other sources.”

In other words, giving kids a little or a lot of booze at home is associated with later binge-drinking or dependence. The risk of alcohol abuse or harm-related outcomes was higher for kids whose parents drank with them in any amount than kids who didn’t get alcohol from anywhere else. But it was highest for the kids who got it from peers only, and not parents. “Parental supply was associated with double the odds of other supply, compared with no parental supply,” the researchers write. “This was true both of supply of sips and standard drinks.”

The kids who drank at home definitely drank elsewhere, too. But associated with doesn’t mean caused. In other words, drinking at home with your kids doesn’t mean you made them go out and drink by teaching them to drink. It could mean that most kids will find their way to booze and binge-drinking one way or another. It’s possible you’ve normalized it for them, as opposed to scared them away.

The problem is, most parents don’t want to bank on the hope that their kid will never come into any offer of booze, and if so, that they can always say no until they’re old enough to handle it. So then what?

Are we going for full abstinence, or are we arming our children to at least have a handle on things, assuming they’re going to drink anyway? Given that most kids get booze by stealing it from their own parents, their friends’ parents or older kids, it seems naive to think they won’t get their hands on some Boone’s Farm eventually.

An important caveat: Australian culture is notoriously hard-drinking, and even they think so—a recent poll found that some 78 percent of Australians believe they have a drinking problem. They also rank 10th around the world for biggest drinkers, compared with our 49th, according to the World Health Organization.

Still, we’re not too far apart in terms of being a binge-drinking culture, too, which means we should still take note of how big drinkers beget big drinkers. To that end, I’d like to see research examining one more factor in this equation. Did any of the parents who supplied sips of alcohol (versus a whole glass) also talk about drinking responsibly? Or monitor teen friendships? Discuss the risks of alcohol? Ensure safe behaviors when drinking was involved later? Remain heavily engaged and present in their children’s lives?

Is it possible to do all of the above? Assume they’ll drink, expose them to drinking responsibly and keep an open door and dialog to mitigate the worst of it?

There isn’t an easy answer here, and any approach seems risky, including hoping they never touch a drop until they’re 35. But that doesn’t mean that LeBron James or the parents I spoke with are trying to be Cool Moms in the slightest. They’re just trying to be pragmatic.

My own motherly advice: For the love of the good booze, if you want to be a Cool Parent, heavily discourage drinking, even if you’re going to show them how to do so responsibly. Don’t throw drinking parties for your kid. But if, and when, they get themselves into a drinking bind, be the one person who will come pick them up.

And to James’ credit, if your kid is going to drink, at least teach them to drink the good stuff in moderation.