Many parents who consume alcohol have questions about the best way to expose and teach their children about responsible drinking. They want their children to know alcohol can be dangerous, and help raise adults who will make intelligent decisions to either abstain or consume within moderate limits. Part of this means avoiding underage drinking, even while children will naturally be curious to see their parents and other adults drinking things they can't have.
Some parents have made the decision to give their young children "just a sip" of beer or wine, in hopes this carefully controlled tasting will discourage them from experimenting away from adult supervision, where they are at much greater risk of drinking heavily or engaging in risky behavior.
However, a recent study has suggested this conventional wisdom may be flawed. In fact, allowing a young child to sip alcohol may in fact encourage reckless underage drinking.
Researchers at Brown University's Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies have published their study in the March 31, 2015 Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs. Using a progressive study of 561 students in Rhode Island, they found that 29.5% had first consumed alcohol before sixth grade, taking a sip under the encouragement of a parent.
They found that, by the time those in the sipping group entered the ninth grade, they were as much as five times more likely to be consuming a full drink, four times more likely to get drunk, and 3.7 times more likely to be drinking heavily on a regular basis.
In addition, people from the sipping group were more likely to experiment with other substances. This study is corroborated by a 2011 study of Swedish 13-year old girls and a 1994 study of U.S. sixth graders, showing that children offered alcohol by parents were more likely to later initiate alcohol use on their own.
While this study suggests an association rather than proving a direct cause, there are some possibilities as to why compromising the message that alcohol is never for kids may be unwise. The researchers feel that their data suggests it is better to "provide clear, consistent messages about the unacceptability of alcohol consumption for youth," making a clear distinction that alcohol should be avoided for all people under age.
At their early development stage, children often are unable to make distinctions between degrees of rule following, such as the difference between acceptable drinking and binge drinking, and so it may be better to have a more clearly established rule. Discouraging drinking, and then offering a sip is simply a very confusing message that undermines your ability to community good choices to your kids.
Children's and young teens' bodies are also less able to metabolize alcohol, meaning they will feel the effects of alcohol far more strongly, and are more at risk for developing any number of health risks, including dependency.
Ways parents prevent underage drinking
The central way to encourage your children to make responsible choices with regard to alcohol is to both communicate clearly with them, and to model responsible behavior yourself. In addition to establishing clear boundaries or rules about drinking, be very open and listen to youth's struggles, and the ways they might be tempted to drink.
Talk about the problems that alcohol can cause, and suggest alternative ways for relaxing, enjoying life, or fitting in with friends soberly. In addition, day in and day out, you should strive to model responsible behavior, to show how you do not need alcohol to have a good time, but can choose to do so within responsible limits. In this way, you can help to prevent the many tragedies that are caused by underage drinking.