Letting Kids Sip Alcohol May Lead to Heavy Teen Drinking

Allowing your child to sip a glass of Chardonnay at the next family gathering may not be as harmless as you once thought. The latest research suggests that children who are allowed occasional tastes of alcohol are more likely to start drinking once they're in high school.

Research was collected from 561 Rhode Island students who were periodically surveyed over three years, beginning in sixth grade (approximately 11 years old). At the start 26 percent of the children said they had sipped alcohol, and that it was commonly provided to them by a parent. And about 40 percent of kids were first introduced to wine while 35 percent were introduced to beer.

The study, which was conducted by Brown University and published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, concluded that children who had sipped alcohol by sixth grade were five times more likely than their peers to consume a full alcoholic drink in ninth grade, and four times more likely to have binged on alcohol or been drunk. Surprisingly, even when variables like problematic child behavior or a parent's heavy drinking habits were controlled, the same patterns still existed.

The US has one of the highest binge drinking rates in the world, while Europe has a more casual, social attitude toward drinking. Experts usually chalk this difference up to cultural differences, but these findings clearly dispute the European-based beliefs that introducing alcohol in a calm, family setting at a young age will lessen the forbidden-but-tempting nature of alcohol later on.

Professor David J. Hanson, who has researched alcohol-consumption behaviors for over 40 years, told TODAY, "It isn't the fact that alcohol went down their gullet [that caused teen drinking]. It's what meaning the alcohol has to them and what their expectations are about it. These are really important things."

If you do let your kid sample your drink in the future, avoid being too lenient about experimentation, which can lead to mixed messages and confusion. Instead, deliver very clear and consistent messages about alcohol by asserting that kids follow the rules for drinking legally at age 21.

Caitlin St John is an Editorial Assistant for Parents.com who splits her time between New York City and her hometown on Long Island. She's a self-proclaimed foodie who loves dancing and anything to do with her baby nephew. Follow her on Twitter: @CAITYstjohn

When it comes to talking about alcohol, be straightforward. Betsy Brown Braun, author of "Just Tell Me What to Say," offers guidance on how to have a simple conversation.

Image: Girl grabbing alcohol via Shutterstock

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