I was at a party once in which parents were invited to bring their children. I was chatting with an old friend when her niece wandered over and asked for a drink of her aunt’s cocktail. Without hesitating, the aunt gave the nine-year-old a small sip. The girl’s face twisted in disgust, and she ran off to join a large group of children on the dance floor.
My face must have twisted in disgust as well, because my friend found it necessary to defend her actions. “Give it to them when they’re young,” she informed me, “and they won’t abuse it when they get older.”
Apparently my friend is not alone in her belief. A full 25% of mothers believe that allowing younger children to taste alcoholic beverages will discourage teenage drinking. What’s more, a study by RTI International and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that 32.8% of third graders admit that they have had at least a taste of beer, wine, or other spirits. What is the average age of third graders? Nine. By age twelve, over half of American children have had at least a small taste of an alcoholic beverage.
The mothers in the study gave numerous reasons why they believed early alcohol exposure was beneficial, but certain trends emerged. Most believed that forbiddance of occasional drinks made alcoholic beverages more appealing to children. Some believed that letting kids taste alcohol at an early age would result in less experimentation in middle school. Still others felt that allowing children to taste alcohol at home would result in a better resistance to drinking-related peer pressure during the teen years. The overarching belief of the mothers in the study was that early drinking provided a form of protection against alcohol use and abuse later on.
Scientists are split
One would think the research vehemently opposes early sips, but that’s not necessarily the case. A survey conducted in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, reveals that kids who imbibe in small sips before the age of twelve are no more likely to be involved in risky behavior, such as binge drinking, drug use, or delinquency, during adolescence. The lead scientists suggest that permitting early sips of alcohol allows children to learn about alcohol in a safe environment. This “normalizes” it, which supporters maintain is the approach adopted by European parents.
Other researchers aren’t so quick to give the go ahead for early alcohol ingestion. More studies have found that children who are allowed to drink alcohol early don’t feel like their parents care about the child’s alcohol consumption later on. They feel they have their parents’ blessing to drink because they’ve been taught about it at home. Moreover, children who taste prior to age ten are statistically more likely to consume an entire alcoholic drink before age fifteen. As you may be aware, alcohol consumption during teen years is associated with engaging in risky behaviors.
The bottom line
One undisputed fact is that drinking at home does not ensure children will not drink outside the home. In fact, parents who allow sips may have given themselves a false sense of security. Because of their nonchalant attitude toward underage drinking, their children feel comfortable drinking outside the home as well. This runs counter to the intentions that most parents had when allowing tastes of alcohol in the first place.
Not all children who have a sip before age twelve will engage in risky behavior, but there’s no way to foresee who will and who won’t. Perhaps my friend’s niece’s disgust will be enough to keep her away from alcohol for a long time. Or perhaps she’ll keep searching until she finds a drink that doesn’t taste as bad. With the research so conflicted, allow sips at your own risk.