It's been 30 years since the U.S. raised its legal drinking age to 21, a rule that's led many a college student astray of the law. And it's often broken in homes across the country, as kids get their first sips of beer or wine from a parent's cup.
But even though I had my first taste of wine on a Christmas Eve long before I was legally old enough to drink, I haven't yet let my own kids try it. And if you look at most of the studies about underage drinking, it looks like I might be right to hold off. Several studies have shown that allowing your children to drink when they're underage may make them more likely to binge drink later on—especially if they're girls. But as with anything, there are studies that contradict that idea—including a 2004 study that showed that children who drank with their parents were nearly half as likely to say they had drank in the past month and about one third as likely to admit to binge drinking in the past two weeks.
So what's a parent to do? Right now, I'm sticking to my no-sips-allowed policy, and modeling responsible alcohol consumption for them (ensuring that you have a designated driver, and enjoying without overindulging). And since my 10-year-old was scandalized that the Catholic Church let her friend sip wine at her First Communion, I hopefully have a few more years before she's really tempted to try it.
But there's also a big difference between providing beer for your teen's party and offering a glass of champagne to celebrate a special event. The studies that show the decreased rates of drinking in teens were in families where the teens were allowed to drink alcohol in family or religious settings. And if I decide to change my no-sips policy, I'd only be doing it in the context of a family gathering or special celebration—a sip of champagne at her high school graduation, for example. (So friends of my daughters—don't be expecting a kegger in your honor!)
But I'm realistic. The odds of my daughters waiting until they turn 21 to drink are pretty low. And so I'm laying the groundwork now so that they'll at least stay safe when they do it. I've already stressed the importance of not driving with someone whose drinking (and already told them I will always give them or a friend a safe ride home, no questions asked), and explained what drinking too much does to you—and why you may want to avoid that. (Hangovers and nausea = no fun!) And hopefully, they'll heed my advice, and avoid a few of the mistakes I made along the way.
Tell us: Have you let your kids drink alcohol? Why or why not?