Q: We have a 1-year-old daughter, and we don't know whether we can have a drink with dinner or if we shouldn't drink in front of her at all.
-- Leah Jewell, Fresno, Calif.
A: The best thing you can do is to be a role model. "If the parents have wine or beer with dinner, this is how the child is going to learn to use alcohol responsibly," says Kathy Seisdedos, a reader from Healdsburg, Calif. "She will be seeing how to drink, where and when to stop."
Alcohol consumption is an emotional issue in American culture, and decisions should take into account the family's moral, ethical and religious beliefs as well as the cultural background.
"There is an abnormal aura surrounding alcohol in the United States because there is a clash of several cultures," says Dr. Ruth Engs, a professor of applied health sciences at Indiana University in Bloomington who researches drinking patterns among college students.
"In this country, there is not always a consensus about what responsible drinking is."
According to the federal government's guidelines, responsible drinking means no more than two drinks a day for men and no more than one per woman, says Jeffrey Hon, director of public information for the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.
"And no alcohol use under age 21 except during religious observances," says Mr. Hon. Ms. Engs adds that the alcohol should be consumed as part of a meal.
At age 1, a child is obviously not making a distinction between parents drinking alcohol and anything else. But many parents are confused about what they should say when the issue does arise.
"Answer your child's questions honestly and openly," Mr. Hon says. "The earlier you can point out how alcohol changes a person's behavior, the earlier your child will be aware of the potential problems of alcohol."
The explanation also needs to include the fact this is something grown-ups can do that children can't, says Lorrie Ganon of Hollywood, Fla., a family therapist in private practice.
Once the child is old enough to understand, Ms. Ganon suggests pointing out that alcohol can be pleasant as long as it is kept under limits. If the family has a history of alcoholism, the point needs to be especially stressed.
Several parents called Child Life to suggest that parents should conceal their drinking in various ways, such as pouring the alcohol into a coffee cup.
Don't do it.
"Hiding the alcohol gives it the aura of something secret or special," Ms. Engs says. "It teaches the child that consuming alcohol is not OK, that it is something that should be done in secret, and that type of behavior can trigger abuse."
Ms. Engs warns parents not to set alcohol up as a forbidden fruit.
"Research shows that children who do not have their curiosity satisfied are more likely to get into trouble with alcohol," Ms. Engs says. "If the curiosity is fulfilled, there is no longer any interest or allure."