One of the good things about working with primary school children is that I’m spared the stress of dealing with substance abuse. I have come across very few incidents over the last 30 years – a Yugoslavian immigrant in Year 6 who brought a flask of red wine for lunch, the odd child smoking behind the shed and some entrepreneurial year seven-year-olds selling their older brother’s foils in the playground – these are a few that come to mind. I certainly haven’t come across any alcohol abuse. Despite my sheltered life with the students I cannot claim such innocence when dealing with their parents. I have seen many children seriously affected at school by alcohol abuse by their parents at home.

As part of our Health and PE programs, we teach children good nutrition and lifestyle habits. I believe that education about alcohol needs to be a part of this and it needs to begin in primary school, but it has to be presented on the children’s wavelength. We really must be aware of how children think on this one. I would suggest a good knowledge of psychology is essential.

Simply telling children that smoking or drinking are bad for them and will harm them is not enough. In fact, it may be counter productive. Telling someone that something is forbidden often makes it even more enticing. For some children, telling them they can’t do something is akin to issuing a challenge. We must also be aware of the strong counter forces working against us. How do you teach children about the health risks of smoking or alcohol abuse when they go home and see their parents smoking and getting drunk?

Forbidden fruit
I remember back in Year 1, Mother Superior, in all her regalia, gold tooth catching a glint of fading sunlight, stroking the tuft of hair on her chin with one hand while wielding her enormous wooden rosary beads in the other, telling us the story of Adam and Eve and how they ‘had it all,’ but couldn’t resist eating from the forbidden tree. Now they would burn in hell and all their children would be damned.

It certainly scared the proverbial out of me and I wouldn’t go near an apple for quite a while. But, I was six years old! It didn’t take me long to figure out that, quite simply, human nature got the better of them. As I got older and heard that story a few more times I was jealous of Adam and couldn’t wait to get that apple, myself.

If scare tactics worked, smokers who watch the anti-smoking ads would give up smoking, especially when they see the pictures of the cancerous lungs and blistered lips.

Surely, if we see the TV image of the crippled young man in hospital after his drink-driving accident we would no longer drink and drive?

We need to be smarter than this if we are to reach our children. It is my experience that, even at a young age, children aren’t put off by the bogeyman.

I’m curious about the current ad that shows dad asking his son to get him a beer from the fridge. When he returns, the child is now a dad and repeats the procedure asking his son to get him a beer. In this ad there is no evidence that the men standing around the barbeque are abusing alcohol. There is nothing wrong with having a few beers around the barby. If they were to get in their cars or fight or become abusive that would be different. I’ll be interested to see if these ads progress beyond the barby.

Role modelling is one of the strongest determinants of a child’s behaviour. In my own Italian upbringing the attitude to alcohol was as follows… For as long as I remember, there was always wine at our dinner table. My sisters and I would always have a little glass with each meal. My father always poured out the wine. At some stage, probably around 16 or 17 years of age, we were allowed to fill our own glasses. I never saw my father or my two sisters drunk or suffering the ill effects of alcohol abuse.

What my father taught us was that a glass of wine was as much a part of our meal as bread. He would have a few drinks after a hard day’s work or when friends visited, but he always made sure no one drank to excess and I often heard him say in his deep baritone voice, “No more. You’ve had enough.” He could have been a complete wowser and banned alcohol from the house altogether, but why should he?

It is my personal belief that, just as sugar, fried chips, red meat, etc., are harmful in excess, they are fine in moderate quantities and bring pleasure and enjoyment to the human diet.

I’m sure that many psychologists would be shocked that my father introduced his children to alcohol. I’m also sure that, in some European households where similar practices occur, some children grow up and abuse alcohol. Certainly, there would be children who grow up in households where alcohol is abused who don’t become alcoholics, themselves. I’m not a researcher, but, in my experience, I believe my father’s way was the right way.

So, what does this mean for teachers? Should we serve the children a little Shiraz at the tuckshop? (It may be better than the sweet fizzy drinks that make them ‘hypo’ after lunch!)

I think we need to teach the children that wine and beer are processed foods. They belong at the top of the food pyramid and, as such, they should be used in moderation compared with foods at the bottom. Just as too much sugar can affect your behaviour, alcohol can affect your behaviour and, if taken excessively, can impede your ability to make good decisions.

Just as women become affected by alcohol more quickly than men, children are affected even more easily. Children can only tolerate very small amounts of alcohol compared with adults.

As for the children we have to counsel who are abused or neglected due to alcohol-affected carers – what do we tell them? I don’t think we should frighten them with clichés like, ‘see what alcohol does. It ruins lives.’ Electricity ruins lives if you stick you finger in a live power point. Is electricity bad?

Unfortunately, when parents acknowledge their alcoholism and get treatment there is no responsible alcohol consumption. Usually, they have to give it up completely. Some people can’t eat peanuts or eat shellfish. Some people can’t drink alcohol. Should we tell these children that they must never drink alcohol or they will end up like their parents? Likewise, would we tell those children of divorced parents never to get married?

The social scene
I mentioned counterforces at the beginning of this article. Peer pressure is an extremely potent force. I think the current problem we have with binge drinking is a bit like the Ashram cat. A cat wanders into a Buddhist monastery and, despite being thrown out many times by the head monk, continues returning until the monk gives up and decides to feed it. The other monks don’t question this and think the cat must have some sacred significance and continue to revere the cat long after the head monk is gone.

I think young people just accept that, in order to have a good time you must need to get blind drunk. They don’t know why. It’s just what you do. They just copy each other for no valid reason. We can educate children at school about alcohol and they may even be lucky enough to have a father like mine, but once they are on their own we just have to keep our fingers crossed.

I think we need to get away from the ‘men behaving badly at a barbeque’ model and focus on positive role models, e.g. an elite sports person having a few drinks after a game and then catching a cab home. Perhaps through the media or the already stretched education system we could mount a sustained campaign of showing young people enjoying themselves without using excessive amounts of alcohol. Find another Ashram cat! The Ashram cat is a metaphor for culture.

I think society, in general, is extremely hypocritical. The government pays millions for anti-smoking ads and anti-drinking, but receives millions in return by way of tax revenue from cigarettes and alcohol.

They just raised the tax on the pre-mixed drinks popular in binge drinking sessions. The result? Not reduced consumption, but increased government revenue. People still smoke despite the hefty tax on cigarettes. We provide clubs and liquor outlets 24 hours a day in our cities and then complain that our children are binge drinking. That’s like hand feeding the sharks at the aquarium and complaining when one bites off your arm.

I can’t sort out the ills of society, but in my small primary school world I do my best by trying to keep it simple. Think like the kids do. Forget coercion and scare tactics. Provide lots of positive role models. Be open and honest when they ask questions. Don’t give them a list of reasons why they shouldn’t. Instead, give them reasons why they should.