Will a wee sip of alcohol immunize or encourage your wee one?

Parents who indulge in an occasional cocktail around their kids have all been there: You’re drinking it and they want to try it. “No, it’s a drink for grown-ups,” springs to your lips. But then you ask yourself, “When I cast alcohol as the forbidden fruit, doesn’t that just make it more alluring?”

If you’ve ever been stuck on the horns of that dilemma, you have company. In a recent survey of “pro-sipping” attitudes among mothers of young children in North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee, 1 in 4 expressed the belief that allowing a child a sip of an alcoholic drink would likely deter him or her from further drinking because either the taste would discourage it or because alcohol’s cachet would decline when it comes with a parent’s permission. Meanwhile, 4 in 10 moms said that not allowing a child to taste would simply increase his or her desire to have it.

This is one of those parental moments when a little research evidence would come in handy. Assuming that you want to prevent or minimize underage drinking -- and certainly problematic drinking at any age -- what do you say? Does saying yes in the home encourage children to model their drinking patterns after the (hopefully) moderate ones they see there? Does having tried alcohol at home help kids to withstand peer pressure to begin risky drinking as early as middle school?

On these questions, the authors of the study -- one of the first to explore the parental dilemma surrounding alcohol permissiveness at an early age -- rely on established studies. For starters, they note, “early-onset is a known primary risk factor for problem drinking during adolescence,” and cite three studies (one from 1996 by UCLA researchers, another from 1997, another conducted in 2001, that converge on such findings. Beyond that, they write, the expectation that a child will imitate his parents’ drinking styles when out with his posse is refuted by a pair of studies (one from 2006 and the other from 2007) that suggest that when it comes to risk-taking, adolescents’ brains have such underdeveloped “brakes” that they’re more likely to follow drinking patterns modeled by their peers than imitate their parents.


The latest study, published online this week in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, did find that children whose mothers had “pro-sipping” attitudes were highly likely to have sipped and to remember having done so with some clarity: One way or another, they tended to remember the experience. The study also found considerably higher “pro-sipping” attitudes among more highly educated mothers and mothers who worked outside the home.

It’s too late for me: I have already cast my lot and, apparently, placed my children at risk of early alcohol abuse. How about you? Have your kids asked? And what did you say?