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Come on, kids. Let’s grab drinks.

By Alyson Krueger New York Times

The first time Tom Mathe, head bartender at L’Avenue in New York City, saw a child order a mocktail, he didn’t know what to think.

“There was this initial impulse of, ‘Wait, is this OK?’ ” he said. “I wouldn’t explicitly target children as a demographic when I make any kind of drink.”

Yet more and more he has noticed children asking for nonalcoholic drinks. “It’s not exactly daily, but more than weekly,” he said.

The restaurant, which sits inside Saks Fifth Avenue, has two spirit-free concoctions on the menu. Most children get the “Mr. Tastee,” Mathe said, which comes with coconut, vanilla, bergamot orange and soda. It makes sense, he added, considering that he created it with his own childhood in mind: “It reminds me of waiting for an ice cream truck.”

He ultimately decided that while it still feels a little strange to serve the sophisticated beverages to children, it felt satisfying to contribute to family dining experiences “in an interesting way.”

As nonalcoholic cocktails, wines and beers have become staples on bar menus across America, some children – people way under the legal drinking age – have begun to partake.

Technically, there is no reason they can’t. Though some contain small traces of alcohol – or at least mimic the taste of alcohol – many nonalcoholic beverages are made solely of juices and other kid-friendly ingredients.

But parents and hospitality professionals alike are asking whether this trend is problematic anyway – financially, ethically or for health reasons.

In a recent Reddit conversation, some parents compared serving their children spirit-free drinks to giving them candy cigarettes (not OK, according to some of the participants), while others said it was more like serving fake chicken to a vegan (totally acceptable, others concluded).

For Amy Wildenstein, 43, a pediatric physical therapist in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, going out for drinks with her 8- and 9-year-old children has become a fun family outing.

“Down here there are a lot of breweries, so we will all go out to one, and the kids will ask for a craft soda,” she said, adding that there are also local wineries that do flights of nonalcoholic wine – a white grape, red grape, sparkling red and sparkling white. She added that one local restaurant serves mocktails with candy and toy fish in them. “The kids will sit with the adults and do their thing. They love it.”

She loves that her children can participate in adult activities. “We don’t have our family around us, and we don’t have a ton of babysitters. This lets my husband and I do the things we want to do and still have our kids with us,” she said.

As a result, her children are developing sophisticated palates. “My kids like steak, sushi, mocktails,” she said.

Wildenstein also uses these outings as an opportunity to talk to her kids about alcohol. “As the kids get older, we talk about the side effects, about the pros and cons, and how to be responsible,” she said. “I kind of hope that drinking these nonalcoholic cocktails will make them not be as rebellious when they are 14 and 15.”

Dr. Meredith Grossman, a psychologist with a private practice in New York City who works with teenagers, is skeptical. “The majority of kids are going to drink,” she said. “I don’t think giving kids mocktails is what is going to make or break them.”

She does, however, say she likes the idea of entire families drinking mocktails together. “I think if parents are going out and ordering mocktails and their kids are getting mocktails, that is great,” she said. “It’s showing kids that you can go out and have fun without alcohol.”

But that lesson doesn’t necessarily work if the parents are ordering alcohol while their children go spirit-free, she continued: “If parents are drinking alcohol and having so much fun, that’s modeling to children that you are having fun because you are drinking alcohol and that is the lesson they will learn.”

From a restaurant’s perspective, creating family-friendly cocktail programs makes sense, at least financially.

“It’s easy money on the table when you can elevate the nonalcoholic side just as much as you do with the cocktails,” said Brian Evans, director of bars for Sunday Hospitality Group, which includes Sunday in Brooklyn and Hotel Chelsea.

“I am also just happy that fewer children are drinking high fructose corn syrup Coca-Cola,” he added.

The ambiguous etiquette around the practice has prompted some parents and industry professionals to draw up their own rules about what is acceptable.

Julie Mountain, an owner of the Granola Bar, a restaurant with seven locations in Connecticut and New York, said at lunchtime high schoolers come to the Upper West Side location and order mocktails. (“We become an extension of the school cafeteria around 11 a.m.,” she said, laughing.)

“This is a generation that likes to ‘adult’ quicker,” she said. “The kid who is sitting down to an avocado toast for lunch is ordering a strawberry ginger lemonade mocktail,” she added. “They are also taking a picture of everything on the table.”

She said she was happy to see teenagers order her restaurant’s mocktails because they don’t have nonalcoholic spirits in them, nor are they trying to emulate adult cocktails. (They are made of craft sodas and juices.) If they did, she would feel uncomfortable.

“There are places using bitters and different things to make a drink that tastes like an old-fashioned, and that is not what we are doing,” she said. “I wouldn’t want to promote drinks that taste like alcohol to the youth and tell them it’s cute and sexy and appealing.”

Josh Friesen, 33, who works in marketing and communication and lives in Portland, said he was comfortable giving his children, 8 and 4, mocktails at home. “Every now and then I will whip up something that either has Lacroix or kombucha, and I’ll put a little cocktail cherry and make it fancy with a toothpick and a lime wedge,” he said.

But he doesn’t let them order them in restaurants.

“I feel like these places that make these nonalcoholic spirits and these places that serve mocktails, they don’t do it for kids,” he said. “I don’t want my kid co-opting this thing that is meant for an adult not drinking alcohol.”

Jed Bennett, 50, a children’s book marketer who lives in South Orange, New Jersey, said his teenage children, who are 17 and 15, are constantly asking for nonalcoholic cocktails. “There is a mocktail menu pretty much everywhere we go, whether we are eating dinner in the city, the ’burbs, or we spend summers in Montauk,” he said.

Bennett said he felt a little conflicted. “Part of me is like, ‘I don’t know if we want to be introducing this world to kids at this age,’ ” he said. “Is it a quicker pivot to actual cocktails when they are older? It rubs me the wrong way a little bit.”

One of his other reservations is the price of these drinks, which can hover in the $20 range in New York City.

“The kids are like, ‘We want a virgin mojito or a virgin piña colada,’ and the next thing you know I am paying $18 for each,” he said. “What happened to the Shirley Temple for $3.50?”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.