LeBron James recently admitted that he allows his 11- and 14-year-old sons to drink wine with him, citing the behavior as proof they are “advanced.” The statement created a minor controversy among pearl-clutchers and sports aggregators, but the parent shaming didn’t start in earnest until Mothers Against Drunk Driving stepped in on Twitter, suggesting LeBron was likely damaging his children’s brain development and setting them up for an “alcohol disorder.” Though alcohol is bad for kids when consumed at any volume, there are many things worse than a glass of red wine (many plastic toys, for instance), so it was fairly clear from the get-go that MADD wasn’t really particularly concerned about the James kids. What MADD was doing was trying to stir the pot in order to push a fairly extreme agenda. The group believes that no child should ever drink before the age of 21, a stance that neither research nor common sense supports.
LeBron’s comment about his kids drinking wine was ambiguous but hardly alarming. Did he say his kids drink wine every night at dinner? No. Did he say they were drinking full goblets? No. Did he say that they prefer the fuller, richer flavors of a Chilean Carménère? No. He said they’d drink “whatever mom and dad are having.” Then he pointed out that this was his decision. “Don’t put it on mom, though,” he told reporters.
Whether or not you, as a parent or human, think that letting kids drink wine is problematic, there’s nothing extremely worrisome here. This is what geologist call a molehill. Nonetheless, MADD strapped on crampons.
We still have a long way to go to educate parents about dangers of underage drinking. Early age drinking is assoc w/dev of alcohol use disorder later in life+alcohol can alter brain dev that continues well into 20s. Many reasons to support 21 drinking age! https://t.co/se0gJ7WHFP
— MADD (@MADDOnline) October 10, 2018
MADD objects to kids drinking any alcohol. And, let’s be clear, that’s not because they believe 11-year-olds are going to get behind the wheel of dad’s Bentley and mow down pedestrians. The reason they are concerned is that they’ve been wildly successful in reducing Drunk Driving (Hurrah!), which was the core of their original mission. That puts them in an unusual situation for a non-profit. They need to justify the $46 Million they pull in annual donations, but there are diminishing returns precisely because they’ve been so effective in the past. How has the organization handled this? They’ve adjusted their mission. They now advocate for complete alcohol abolition for anyone under 21. It’s a fairly bizarre pivot given the laws on the books.
To be absolutely clear, the data that MADD cites is fairly obviously flawed. On one hand, studies looking into underage drinking facilitated by parents don’t suggest that early access to alcohol leads to more responsible attitudes towards alcohol consumption, the most common justification for sharing. But there’s also this: The data also doesn’t suggest that a dad offering his spawn a tipple will lead to “alcohol disorders.” Causality here is pretty hairy. Parental permissiveness and genetic and psychological factors all determine whether or not kids become problems drinker. And these things are not entirely independent variables. The issue is, in short, complex. The stakes are, in short, unclear.
So when MADD gloms onto the news of LeBron’s wine-drinking kids, it’s pushing an agenda that may or may not make sense. A large non-profit that has done admirable work in the past is participating in very public parent shaming. And it’s not only shaming LeBron. It’s shaming any parent who has given a child a small glass of wine at Thanksgiving — any dad who has offered a kid a sip of his beer while watching a game. These are largely benign practices. Should they be encouraged? Probably not. There’s no good reason to suggest it’s a good idea. Should they be shamed? Not at all.
An omnivorous news cycle tends to wolf down the day’s events and turn out crappy takes. The MADD take on LeBron’s parenting is a particularly potent example.
That’s a problem because we do have a celebrity culture and it would be better for all concerned if celebrities could be honest about their lives without being made into punching bags. By asking to be lied to, parent shamers eliminate the possibility of a genuine, open conversation ever taking place. Consider Wiz Khalifa being shamed for having his kid ride the bus to school. Look at the outrage that Chrissy Teigen has endured for pumping breast milk. Read the comments about the length of Justin Timberlake’s son’s hair. People have opinions. Most of those opinions are really dumb. For a large organization like MADD to try to get in on that game for the sake of publicity undermines their own ability to advocate for their position in the context of honest discourse.
So, what should MADD do? Probably just calm down and focus on more pressing issues. I understand this texting while driving thing is getting out of hand.