One in four mothers believe that letting young children taste alcohol may discourage them from drinking in adolescence and 40 percent believe that not allowing children to taste alcohol will only make it more appealing, according to a new study by RTI International and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The study, published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, explored whether parents purposefully introduce children to alcohol at a young age and, if so, why. It also examined parenting practices that impact children's opportunity to try alcohol.
"The idea that early exposure to alcohol can discourage a child's interest in drinking has a strong foothold among some parents of elementary school aged children," said Christine Jackson, Ph.D., a social ecologist at RTI International and the study's lead author.
The study is based on data collected from interviews with 1,050 mothers and their third-grade children. The participants were recruited for a four-year intervention trial that will examine the long-term implications of children's early sipping experience.
Adult participants in the study were asked about their alcohol-specific attitudes and practices as well as their opinions on providing tastes of alcohol to their children.
At least a quarter of the mothers said allowing their children to taste alcohol would discourage their curiosity in it because they would not like the flavor and because it will remove the "forbidden fruit" appeal of it. Forty percent of the mothers interviewed felt that not allowing children to have alcohol would only increase their desire to have it.
Twenty-two percent of the mothers believed that children who taste alcohol at home with their parents would be better at resisting alcohol-related peer pressure, and 26 percent thought it would make them less likely to experiment with risky drinking in middle school.
"These findings indicate that many parents mistakenly expect that the way children drink at home, under parental supervision, will be replicated when children are with peers," Jackson said. "More research is needed to understand how parents acquire these ideas and to understand the relationship between early sipping and alcohol use in adolescence."
The children who participated in the study were asked whether they had tasted beer, wine or other drinks containing alcohol and whether their parents had ever given them a sip of alcohol. Nearly 33 percent of the children participating in the study reported having tasted beer, wine or other alcohol.
The researchers found a strong association between parents who were in favor of allowing their children to taste alcohol and children's reported alcohol use. According to the study, this finding is noteworthy because early introduction to alcohol is a primary risk factor for problem drinking during adolescence.
- Jackson C, Ennett ST, Dickinson DM. Letting Children Sip: Understanding Why Parents Allow Alcohol Use by Elementary School–aged Children. Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, 2012; DOI: 10.1001/archpediatrics.2012.1198
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