Little Kids with Big Drinking Problems
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Little Kids with Big Drinking Problems

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If you think you have problems, try and be grateful that you don’t have a nine-year-old child who is an everyday drinker. Although, when you hear about a young kid who is yet to even go through puberty having the desire and ability to get wasted every day, it’s hard not to look at the parents.

Different Countries, Different Approaches to Addiction

There are roughly five million children between the ages of seven and 13 living in South Africa, which may make the number 242 not sound very impressive. But that number earns a lot for gravity when you learn that it’s the amount of kids under 13 who—this year alone—were referred to the South African National Council on Alcoholism (SANCA) because of issues related to alcohol and drugs; 69 of them are currently being treated for alcohol abuse. But that means a very different thing in Gauteng, one of the nine provinces of South Africa, than it does in the United States. Researchers and professionals in the field of addiction and psychotherapy have pointed to the divorce rate and the shifting of family values in the United States as a contributing factor to our growing alcohol and drug abuse problem. And South Africans share this theory about their own statistics; but while Americans are in the habit of involving parents or, depending on the circumstances, removing them from the process, it seems the parent protocol in South Africa is much more hands off. For example, while Michael, the nine-year old boy who is the primary focus of the Times piece, is in outpatient treatment and attending weekly counseling sessions with his social worker, his parents are home drunk. In America, we are taught that alcoholism is a self-diagnosed disease and it’s considered taboo and in poor taste to label those who haven’t already labeled themselves alcoholics. But the Times has absolutely no problem calling Michael’s parents alcoholics and implying that they’re likely his main suppliers; yet he is still in their custody, even as he seeks his own help.

By the sounds of it, the attitude towards alcoholism in South Africa is that it’s an inevitable next step for kids like Michael who start drinking at such an early age. Of course, this could be the case—a seven-year-old with a bottle of Jack Daniels in his hand doesn’t look promising—but from what I have been taught about alcoholism, it’s not necessarily true. Perhaps I am being too PC about this but I am of the belief that if a kid like Michael gets the help he needs now, he has a good chance of becoming a normal drinker later on. But if he has to come home after a long day of treatment to two wasted parents, that chance probably greatly diminishes.

Don’t Expect to Get Carded in South Africa

South Africans also seem to be a lot more lax when it comes to the legal drinking age, which is technically 18 but underage children are allowed to consume alcohol if it is administered or supplied by a parent or adult guardian in their presence. So under federal law, Michael and his parents haven’t done anything illegal. However, Michael has reportedly substituted smoking weed when he hasn’t been able to get his hands on his morning beverages, which is still 100% illegal in South Africa. In a chart that breaks down the reasonable alcohol consumption guidelines in South Africa, I was at first glance a bit taken aback to see that they consider 21 units per week—50% more than the United States—to be safe and moderate drinking. However, upon further investigation, it seems that a bottle of Budweiser equals 1.5 South African units, making the parameters for moderate alcohol consumption actually a bit more conservative than they are in the US.

As jarring as this is to hear about a nine-year-old in treatment (we still haven’t quite recovered from Drew Barrymore), I suppose it is somewhat relative. Kids probably grow up a lot faster in countries like South Africa, where the average life expectancy is only 50 years old. Even so, it’s not like America is that much better off. While the latch key kids in South Africa turn to the bottle, the ones here turn to the computer, TV and refrigerator, as our alarming child obesity rates make clear. So while we might be currently looking at an average life expectancy of nearly 80 years old, with the way things are going, who knows where we will in the near future.

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About Author

Danielle Stewart is a Los Angeles-based writer and recovering comedian. She has written for Showtime, E!, and MTV, as well as print publications such as Us Weekly and Life & Style Magazine. She returned to school and is currently working her way towards a master’s degree in Marriage and Family Therapy. She loves coffee, Law & Order SVU, and her emotional support dog, Benson.