Should Parents Let Kids Try Alcohol?

Why allowing kids to sip alcohol doesn't prevent underage drinking

alcohol and kids - man and son in tux wit beer
Kids may be curious about alcohol but letting them try sips can do more harm than good. s0ulsurfing Jason Swain/Getty Images

When it comes to the question of whether or not parents should let kids try sips of alcohol to prevent underage drinking (presumably to satisfy their curiosity and let them be put off by the taste), there's quite a bit of confusion and different opinions among parents. Some believe allowing kids to try alcohol at home, in the company of parents, will keep kids from being curious and trying it with friends.

Others think that it'll only encourage kids to keep wanting alcohol or that it'll only make alcohol more alluring. And many parents aren't sure whether letting kids sip alcoholic beverages will have any bearing at all on kids' underage drinking. 

Recent research sheds some light on this issue and puts the answer to the question of "to let sip or not to let sip" firmly in the "no" column. A 2012 study of more than 1,000 mother-child pairs that tracked 3rd graders for 4 years showed that allowing elementary school-age children to sip alcohol not only doesn't prevent underage drinking but is associated with a greater likelihood of alcohol use among kids. The study, which was led by Christine, Jackson, Ph.D., senior research scientist at RTI International, a nonprofit research institute, also showed just how common this erroneous thinking is: Many parents—as many as 15 percent to nearly 40 percent—believed that early exposure to alcohol makes kids better at resisting peer pressure to drink.

Why Early Alcohol Exposure Doesn't Work—and What Parents Can Do to Prevent Underage Drinking

Parents who let their kids try a few sips of alcohol here and there often have the best intentions, and truly believe that it'll be an effect deterrent against underage drinking. But research clearly shows that kids continue to be curious about alcohol (which isn't surprising because it's everywhere, in movies, on TV, in ads, and in real life when their parents and other grownups drink at dinner or at parties and social gatherings).

And, most importantly, what parents are trying to accomplish by allowing kids to try alcohol at home doesn't translate into the experience they'll have with friends, and "a huge amount of research" shows that recklessness goes up when kids are with friends, says Dr. Jackson. "The parts of the brain that govern reason aren't developed yet in kids, and it's different when peers are around than sitting at the family table," says Dr. Jackson. "When adolescents get together, they're more likely to get drunk and be silly and have the goal to get drunk." That, in turn, increases the risk of sexual behavior, alcohol poisoning, drunk driving, and other dangerous and negative outcomes. The reality, says Dr. Jackson, is that being curious and taking risks is a part of growing up.

Communicate with your child and let him know that he can talk to you about anything, but be firm about not drinking until they are older. "Say, 'When you are older, you will have the maturity to know when to stop drinking and be less swayed by peers and aware of the dangers of alcohol,'" suggests Dr. Jackson.

Some other tips to prevent your child from engaging in underage drinking:

  • Make it clear that alcohol is something kids do not drink. Restrict alcohol the way you would other things that aren't appropriate for kids, like porn. "Think about healthy media use habits," says Dr. Jackson. "We limit how much they use and what they see." Alcohol should be similarly out of bounds for kids.
  • Monitor your children. Know who their friends are, where they spend their time, and what they do. Research shows that warmth and support in conjunction with monitoring is the winning combination when it comes to reducing a child's risk for underage drinking.
  • Be aware of the socialization component of alcohol. "Children learn about smoking way before their first puff," says Dr. Jackson. Kids are constantly exposed to messages about alcohol—that it's fun, cool, a way to relax, used in celebrations, etc.—not only in the media but in real life.
  • Model the behavior you want. If your child sees you text while driving, that is the example she will likely follow when she gets older. Think about your own behavior when it comes to alcohol use. Do you say things like, "I had a tough day and I need a drink," or do you have wine with dinner every night? Do your parties and celebrations with friends and family always involve large amounts of alcohol? Do you get drunk in front of your child regularly? Take a hard look at your own behavior and know that you are the role model for your child. And try to limit your own consumption and make other things, such as games or fun non-alcoholic drinks, a focal point of your parties.
  • Remember to keep the conversation going. This is not a topic you address once and call it done. Talk about the risks and consequences of alcohol use and help your child see the messages about alcohol all around you and why they're often not accurate and misleading.

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