Back in 1993, basketball star Charles Barkley made headlines when he starred in a Nike commercial in which he declared:
“I am not a role model. I’m not paid to be a role model. I’m paid to wreak havoc on the basketball court. Parents should be role models. Just because I dunk a basketball doesn’t mean I should raise your kids.”
Barkley and Nike raised a lot of eyebrows with their 30-second pitch for sneakers, and whether or not athletes should be role models for children was a hot topic that was debated ad nauseum in the media. The general consensus seemed to be that athletes don’t really have a say in the matter, because kids choose their role models, and just because you don’t want to be one doesn’t mean you’re automatically off the hook.
But all that said, the most important line in that commercial was this one:
“Parents should be role models.”
Kids might get to choose their role models, but kids don’t get to choose their parents. And like it or not, parents are the number one influencers on their children’s behavior. This is true in so many areas, including alcohol and drug use.
When ways we can prevent kids from using and becoming addicted to drugs or alcohol are discussed, a lot of focus is put on education. Kids should be taught at an early age about the dangers of substance use. We need more resources in schools so we can get the message across to our youth. Etc. Etc. Etc. But the absolute best way to help keep children from going down the wrong path is to have their parents serve as good role models.
If you have kids and don’t think there’s anything wrong with drinking alcohol heavily on a regular basis, you should think again. In his book Clean: Overcoming Addiction and Ending America’s Greatest Tragedy, David Sheff writes: “One of the greatest risk factors for a child is growing up in a family in which one or both parents abuse alcohol or use drugs. If one parent is a heavy drinker, the child’s chances of becoming a heavy drinker increase two to three times. Children of heavy drinkers have been found to ‘drink more frequently, more heavily, and more often alone’ than children of parents without alcohol problems.”
Sheff also cites a study by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry that found that “children of alcoholics were four times more likely than other kids to become alcoholics.” The study also showed that “kids who have seen their parents drunk are five times more likely than kids who haven’t to get drunk one or more times a month.”
Those numbers are alarming. And even though alcohol is a huge and accepted part of our culture, maybe it’s time to take a good hard look at how our behavior is influencing our children’s behavior.
As someone who grew up with an alcoholic father, I was always very aware of the negative things drinking could do to a person. Even so, I started experimenting with alcohol early on in my teenage years. Later in life, I made a conscious effort to limit my drinking. After all, I didn’t want to end up like my dad.
Fast forward to 2008. When my teenage son was struggling with an addiction problem, I started drinking more to try and numb myself and forget about his issues. I won’t lie: I was worried about where I was heading. And I often wondered if I had a drinking problem. I never really thought I did, but in hindsight the old adage that says, “If you wonder if you have a problem with alcohol, then you probably do” was most likely right.
It was September of 2008 when I quit drinking. The family therapist at my son’s rehab said, “Be the change you want to see in your son,” and that was all I needed to hear. If I could be a good example for my son—a role model, if you will—I was going to do it. And if that meant swearing off alcohol, that was the least I could do. It’s been almost nine years now, and I have absolutely no regrets.
I’m not saying everyone out there needs to totally quit drinking or using substances (although, I don’t think that would be the worst thing in the world, either). I just want you to be aware that YOU have a hell of a lot of influence over your kids’ behavior. If you drink heavily or get high regularly, don’t be surprised if somewhere down the road your teenager starts doing the same thing.
The “Do as I say, not as I do” line doesn’t work with parenting. Children watch their parents like a hawk from a very early age, and eventually mimic the behaviors they see. It’s just what kids do. So, if there’s a behavior in your repertoire that you don’t want your kids to pick up, then maybe you should think about doing something about it. (Note: I quit smoking nearly 27 years ago when I noticed my infant son watching me intently while I was smoking on the porch one day.)
When it comes to addiction, there are a lot of other factors that can come into play and potentially cause a young person to start self-medicating with alcohol or drugs. Things like genetics, mental health issues, and childhood trauma can play a role, for sure. But parental behavior is a huge influence. And if you can help lessen the chances of your son or daughter having an addiction problem, isn’t that something you’d want to do? Maybe think about that the next time you feel like having an extra after-work cocktail or “just one more” beer at your next family get together.
"We should never permit ourselves to do anything that we are not willing to see our children do. We should set them an example that we wish them to imitate." --Brigham Young
Originally published in 2017.