Parents, offering your kids sips of booze may backfire

At the dinner table, Erica Zidel and her husband often have wine together. On occasion, their 6-year-old son has had a taste too.

“I feel it's very important to set an example of responsible drinking for him -- that alcohol is something to be enjoyed in moderation,” says Zidel, who runs an online babysitting service in Boston. “We explain to him that it's a drink for grownups and, as he gets older, he can have a very small amount on special occasions.” Although her son hates the taste of alcohol and never requests any, Zidel will set the table with three wine glasses and pour apple juice in his.

Public health analyst Christine Jackson and her colleagues read hundreds of comments online by parents who share similar beliefs as Zidel’s. People were certain that offering kids sips of booze at home would encourage responsible drinking behavior later in life. But despite their best intentions, these moms may be mistaken.

“It is possible that an early introduction to alcohol, even when it is limited to sips and even when it is meant to discourage child interest in alcohol, could backfire and lead to more drinking later on,” said Jackson, who is based at the research institute RTI International in North Carolina and worked with colleagues from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on a study published in Monday’s issue of the Archives of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine.

Forty percent of the 1,000 mothers surveyed in North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee believed that forbidding alcohol would only spike their kids’ desire to have it.

At least one in five moms in the study said they believed that children who sip alcohol will be better at resisting peer pressure to drink and less likely to experiment with risky drinking in middle school.

“This finding indicates that many parents mistakenly expect that the way children drink at home, under parental supervision, will be replicated when children are with peers,” said Jackson. Recent studies, she points out, have shown that’s not the case—kids disregard the norms they see at home when they’re out partying with their peers.

“Even though a couple of other studies have found that it is common for school-aged children to have tried alcohol, it was surprising to see that 33 percent of the third graders in our study had already had beer, wine, or other alcohol,” Jackson said.

In fact, in the last decade, scientists have learned that the earlier young people begin to drink, the more likely they are to develop dependence, says Ralph Hingson, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism’s Division of Epidemiology and Prevention Research. “The safest thing for parents to do is to try and delay exposure to alcohol for as long as possible,” he says. 

More evidence may be building that it's not the best idea to let your kid share your chardonnay -- but you shouldn't shun the subject of alcohol entirely, either, experts say. 

"We can prepare our kids by talking with them about what they might encounter with drugs and alcohol and how they can deal with those encounters,” said Philip Hirschman, chief clinical officer at CRC Health Group, a provider of addiction treatment programs. 

Parents can follow a few guidelines to broach the subject of drinking with their children, advises the Partnership for a Drug Free America. First, start the conversation with your children about alcohol by showing them you’re open-minded. Ask questions like, “Do you know anyone who drinks? What do you think about that?” Be clear with kids that you don’t want them drinking. Set limits, make rules and consequences clear to children. Finally, be honest about your own drinking history.

For parents who are looking for other ways to help their kids prepare for parties and other experiences with alcohol in the future, check out the Mothers Against Drunk Driving site, The Power of Parents.

What’s your drinking policy at home? Do you let your kids sip your alcoholic beverages? If so, what age is too young for a taste? Join the conversation on the TODAY Moms Facebook page. 

Corey Binns writes about parenting, health and science. You can follow her @coreybinns.