Monday, September 19, 2005

The Debate Over Kids' Beer

A Japanese company has come out with a new product called "Kids' Beer" which is basically soda packaged in a beer-like bottle. Loads of people are just horrified by this product and dearly hope it doesn't come to our neighborhoods. They believe that having this product will encourage kids to drink real beer and turn them all into horrible drunks. And they pull out all the science and statistics that prove that kids drinking alcohol is bad.

I do not dispute those facts. I think beer drinking is bad for kids. Personally, I think it ain't too good for some adults, either. But I think these well-intentioned people are overlooking a few key points here.

First, the stuff is not beer. It's soda. And while soda isn't the healthiest thing for kids to be drinking either, nobody's yet argued that it causes brain damage and car accidents. That is, until it came packaged in a beer bottle. So while it's important that the public be aware that beer can be very damaging to adolescents, it does not magically morph into an argument that soda is that damaging just because the soda comes in a beer bottle.

Second, I have never heard of a single study-- not one-- that shows that drinking soda, even drinking soda out of beer-like bottles, increases teen drinking rates. In fact there already are several sodas on the market that are sold in beer-like bottles (not to mention the fact that up until recently all soda was sold in bottles, or the fact that beer is now sold in cans but somehow canned sodas don't lead to beer drinking). My favorite, IBC Root Beer, even has the word "Beer" on the label! And somehow nobody objects that IBC Root Beer increases teen drinking rates.

Third, there's the issue of what kids do in fantasy play versus what they actually grow up to do. By the anti-kids'-beer logic, we should never let kids dress up as pirates, because it will encourage them to piracy, and piracy (as we all know) is morally wrong and a drain on the economy. There goes Halloween, folks. We don't want our kids growing up to be zombies or ghosts! Kids do all sorts of stuff as a way of acting out fantasies and exploring their world. I used to jump around the swingset wearing my moon boots and pretending I was flying space fighters. I used to build houses out of Legos. Notice that I as an adult am not involved with the aerospace or construction industries. I also used to try on my daddy's shoes, but I'm not a cross-dresser.

Fourth, kids love imitative play. They have play kitchens, play workshops, and dress-up clothes for a reason. They enjoy the feeling that they're "just like Mommy" or "just like Daddy." Even older kids like that feeling. Now if Mommy and Daddy drink beer, then they want to feel like they can too. To exclude them from adult activities only increases the mystique of those activities and makes them more inclined to see them as "coming-of-age" activities-- and it's those "coming-of-age" activities that teens lean toward to prove their independence. We provide imitative play activities for kids because they are "safe" versions of adult activities-- we don't, for example, send them out into the corporate world to make a living, but we do let them put on ties and Daddy's shoes, drag a play briefcase, and pretend they're coming home from work. We give kids allowances as a simulacrum of earning money. We give them toy cars and let them drive them around in the driveway, even though driving is one of the most statistically dangerous activities we do on a day-to-day basis. We let them engage in all sorts of kids' versions of adult activities.

Fifth, I don't know what the soda tastes like, but I dearly hope it tastes as close to beer as possible, because if it does, it'll have a negative effect on kids' beer drinking. I have never had beer myself, but I'm assured that it tastes truly horrible and it's definitely an acquired taste. One sip of a Kids' Beer that tastes like beer, and those kids will make a beeline for the 7-up.

The bottom line is, those thirteen-year-olds drinking beer are not doing it for the taste, and they're not doing it so that they can have a certain shape of bottle in their hands. They are drinking beer, and especially binge-drinking beer, because of the alcohol buzz and because they see it as a coming-of-age activity. It's failing to discourage that sort of activity, not drinking soda out of bottles, that is dangerous. The attitude that it's a good idea to drink yourself silly drunk is the problem. And that does not come from a bottle full of soda, nor does it come from adults modeling responsible alcohol use.

The single biggest influence on what kids decide to do in real life, as opposed to fantasy play, is the actions and attitudes of the people around them, not what props are available to them or what fantasies they have. When we were kids, my siblings and I used to play "Las Vegas." We sat at the bar in the kitchen, on the barstools, playing blackjack, smoking candy cigarettes, knocking back shots of apple juice and saying Las Vegas things like "Hit me" and "Give me a double." Even after my parents discovered us doing it, they did not switch over to grape juice or get rid of the cards or barstools. So far none of us has become a smoker, drinker, or gambler. The main reason why we didn't grow up to live the Las Vegas fantasy is that our parents taught us something different to do with our lives.

If your kids are so vulnerable to the influence of Demon Liquor that you think Kids' Beer Soda would drive them to drink, then you have much bigger problems in your family than can be cured by banning the soda. What? Your kids would be fine? Then whose kids are you worried about? Is this about "The Children?" Because that kind of nanny-statism would be the topic of a whole other post.