Just a Sip: The Risks of Letting Kids Try Alcohol
Among parents, there is a debate about letting their underage children drink alcohol at home. Some think it’s safer for kids to drink at home in a secure environment. Others believe that offering sips makes alcohol appear less alluring, and teaches kids to drink responsibly. They often point to Europe, where the drinking age is typically much lower, as an example of how alcohol can be normalized at a young age, supposedly without any adverse consequences.
These beliefs are rooted in culture and misconception, and often align with parents’ own experience with alcohol. But they are undermined by research, which strongly suggests that allowing kids to drink at home, even sips at holiday parties, carries risks
What do the experts think?
“Child sipping is related to earlier initiation of drinking, which is a risk factor for a lot of other problem behaviors,” including binge drinking and drug use, according to John E. Donovan, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh as quoted in The New York Times. His recommendation is that “parents should not be providing alcohol to their kids.”
Indeed, allowing kids even small sips can be viewed as implied approval in the eyes of teenagers. By normalizing alcohol use, and even providing a space to drink, parents risk making drinking a regular event. Research discussed in our report, Adolescent Substance Use: America’s #1 Public Health Problem, shows that teens who are allowed to drink at home are more likely to drink outside of the home than other kids, and drink more when they do.
And for those who believe that providing alcohol at home stops kids from drinking without their parent’s knowledge, studies don’t support that conclusion either. Kids will often drink secretly no matter how accepting their families are of the practice.
A “drink responsibly” message simply does not work with children. While many adults can drink in moderation, the same cannot be said for many teenagers. Teenagers don’t have the same self-control and knowledge necessary to drink responsibly; they also experience alcohol differently. Teens are less sensitive to the negative effects of alcohol (sedation, a hang-over), and are more sensitive to the rewarding effects. This combination can be related to binge drinking.
What’s equally worrisome is that these risky behaviors aren’t limited to drinking. Children who get sips at a young age are likely to use other substances at higher rates when older, and be involved in a number of dangerous behaviors – frequently related to their alcohol consumption.
But what about Europe?
Many countries in Europe do in fact have either no minimum legal drinking age, or a very young minimum age. And it is, and has been, common to let kids take sips with their families in Europe. This busts another myth about the safety of exposing kids to alcohol early. It turns out that teens in Europe binge drink at much higher rates than teenagers in the U.S.
Though the research on providing younger children sips at home is still relatively new, given the consequences, it’s much safer taking a conservative approach. We recommend telling your child, “No alcohol until age 21.” There is research to support this practice: individuals who drink for the first time later in life are less likely to develop a drinking problem or to use substances in a risky way.
Max Dorfman, MA
Max is a Science Writer at Center on Addiction