Kids often get their first taste of alcohol from a parent, sipping a little from mom or dad’s glass to find out what the big deal is about.
It seems harmless, but researchers are increasingly scrutinizing the practice, concerned it might push a child to become more interested in alcohol — and potentially develop a drinking problem down the road.
The latest study on the subject finds 22% of children who are 9-11 years old have sipped alcohol — most frequently beer and most often a drink that belonged to their father.
Those children had more favorable expectations about drinking than kids who hadn’t tried booze. They were more likely to agree with statements such as “alcohol makes people want to have fun together” or “alcohol helps a person relax, feel happy, feel less tense, and can keep a person’s mind off of mistakes at school or work.”
The responses suggest an increasing interest in alcohol, said Joshua Gray, co-author of the paper and an assistant professor of medical and clinical psychology at Uniformed Services University in Bethesda, Maryland.
“Bottom line, parents should not be giving their kids sips of alcohol,” Gray, who researches addiction and alcohol use, told TODAY.
“Those who’ve had a sip are more likely to report thinking that alcohol has positive effects, and that's important because we know that the thoughts about the effects of alcohol are related to starting up drinking and ultimately drinking more heavily.”
The findings, published in the April issue of the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence, are based on responses from more than 4,800 children who were part of the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development study of U.S. kids. Those who only sipped alcohol in a religious setting were not included in the paper.
Previous research has also warned against the practice of families letting kids try booze.
Parents who allow a child under 13 to sip or taste alcohol may be contributing to an increased risk for alcohol use in his or her late adolescence, a study published in 2018 in the journal Addictive Behaviors found.
“If I say a kid sips or tastes an alcohol drink a couple of times a year, few people would bat an eyelash,” Craig Colder, the lead author and a psychology professor at the University at Buffalo, said in a statement.
“But the data strongly suggest that such infrequent tasting in early childhood is not a benign behavior.”
Another study, conducted in Australia and published in 2016 in Pediatrics, found parents who suspected their teen’s friends already drank were more likely to offer sips of alcohol — perhaps because they thought it would protect or “inoculate” their child from unsupervised drinking.
“However, they may be wrong in their belief” and prematurely introducing their kids to risky behavior, the authors concluded.
Some parents believe they’re removing the “forbidden fruit appeal” of alcohol by giving a child a sip, but there’s no evidence to suggest it's protective to let them try it, Gray noted.
Advice to parents:
Almost one-third of high school students, 29%, drank alcohol during the past month and 14% reported binge drinking, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Many, many factors” contribute to whether a child goes on to abuse alcohol in adolescence, and the findings of the latest paper don’t mean everyone who has had a sip of beer as a kid is going to have a problem, Gray said.
But since research suggests there’s a link between early exposure to alcohol and a higher likelihood of starting binge drinking earlier, the goal is to put off the exposure for as long as possible, Gray said.
“This isn't about successfully keeping them from drinking altogether until they're 21. It’s good if they're interested in that, but being realistic, you just want to delay it,” he noted.
If a child asks for a sip, “I would just say, ‘No. This is something adults occasionally do, but it's not recommended for kids and you can try it when you’re older if you’re still interested,’” he advised. “Certainly, talk to them about it. You don’t have to pretend alcohol doesn't exist.”
There should be plenty of conversation about the safe use of alcohol and its dangers, said Dr. Claire McCarthy, a pediatrician at Boston Children's Hospital and an assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School.
Parents should also behave responsibly when it comes to drinking and model the behavior they want from their kids. She believed the context of the sip is far more important than the sip itself.
“I think that it’s less about sips and more about the overall messages that parents give to their children,” McCarthy said.
“When parents drink to get drunk, or talk about drinking with friends as something fun, that’s what children pay attention to — that’s where they get those favorable messages about alcohol making people want to have fun together.”