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Harmless or not? When parents offer kids a sip of alcohol

Some parents offer their children a sip of wine or beer on occasion, thinking it's harmless or they're teaching a lesson.

Is it really so benign?

A new University at Buffalo study joins a small but growing body of work whose conclusions strongly question the popular practice, finding that even infrequent tastes do not remove the aura around alcohol or subtly promote a healthy attitude toward drinking.

Instead, parents who allow their young children to sip wine or beer may be contributing to an increased risk for alcohol use and problems later in adolescence, the researchers found.

“Early sipping and tasting is predicting increased drinking behavior in young adulthood,” said Craig Colder, lead author of the study in the journal Addictive Behaviors.

Introducing children to alcohol early was associated with the negative consequences related to drinking, such as "being hungover, getting into trouble, arguing and fighting," said Colder, a UB psychology professor.

Over seven years, the study compared two demographically similar groups of about 380 families each in Erie County, with children ages 11 to 12 at the start of the project. The researchers found that about one-third of all children before the age of 13 tasted alcohol with their parent’s permission, roughly four or five times a year.

The study could not establish a cause and effect, but those early sips were associated with more frequent drinking and more alcohol-related problems in late adolescence. Early sipping did not predict a probability of alcohol use but rather how much a person drank in late adolescence.

Colder said  the results were not related to deficient parenting, dysfunctional families, or parents with alcohol problems. Rather, children permitted to sip generally came from families with less restrictive rules about alcohol use in the home and lax parental attitudes about underage drinking.

"These were not bad parents or parents with alcohol problems. But they tended to talk less about the potential risks of alcohol and drug use. They were less likely to punish children for underage drinking," he said.

The study intended to examine aspects of initiation and escalation of alcohol use in young people. Colder said he didn't expect the practice of occasional sips to be important. But it was.

His message to parents: Think about the message you are sending to children by offering a sip. Early sipping represents what is often a child’s first direct experience with drinking. Unless the taste is accompanied by an informed conversation about drinking, the practice may convey that underage drinking is acceptable, he said.

The study, which was funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, has limitations. For instance, it did not assess the context of the alcohol tasting, such as at religious services, family celebrations, or cultural traditions. It leaves unanswered whether the amount of alcohol consumed is important, or where sipping may fit in the cascade of factors that lead a child to alcohol problems later in life.

Little research so far has examined the long-term impact of early sipping and tasting alcohol with parental permission. Still, the findings parallel the work of others.

A 2012 study in Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, for instance, found that at least 1 in 4 mothers believed that sipping will deter alcohol abuse because children will not like the taste. About 40 percent of the parents surveyed believed that not allowing children to have alcohol will only increase their desire to have it. The researchers said the findings indicated that many parents mistakenly expect that the way children drink at home, under parental supervision, will be replicated when children are with peers.

Children examined in a 2015 study in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs who had sipped alcohol by the sixth grade were about five times more likely to have a full drink by the time they were in high school, and four times more likely to binge drink or get drunk.

There is also a 2016 study in the journal Pediatrics that estimated 60 percent of adolescents have tasted alcohol by age 13, with parents being the supplier often in the context of sips at family gatherings. The researchers warned that lenient alcohol rules at home likely increase the risk that someone will start drinking alcohol early in life.

What should parents make of all this?

The vast majority of children who sip alcohol don't end up being alcoholics, yet the findings show there is a real effect, and suggest a cautious attitude, said Kenneth Leonard, director of the UB Research Institute on Addictions.

Some parents see sips as part of family culture, he said, with an attitude that if worked out OK for me, it can't be bad for my child. But the data suggest the practice may not be so inconsequential.

"The research is causing us to rethink these things, and it would be a mistake to dismiss it," Leonard said.

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