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Does providing alcohol to our children teach them to drink responsibly?

October 27, 2014

It is so hard for parents to know the right ways to help our children stay safe and out of trouble. It seems like everywhere we turn there are more tough influences for us to confront. Electronics invade our children’s sleep time, social time, and study time. Drugs, both illicit and prescription, are readily available. Sexually transmitted diseases are potentially life-changing, if not deadly, and are transmitted at younger ages at increasing rates. The list is long. But one of the big culprits is the same stuff we dealt with as kids- the age-old problem of alcohol. We know the mistakes we made. We know the potential consequences of excessive alcohol intake: automobile accidents, drowning, unintended pregnancies, alcoholism, even death. We want to teach our children to navigate the hazards of this culturally accepted drug so that they end up safe and sound in adulthood.

It’s clear in what we want to do: teach our children well. Often what is unclear, however, is how to do it. They don’t come with instructions. One idea is to learn from the experience of others. Along those lines, many parents think that providing their children with alcohol in a controlled manner may teach their children to drink more responsibly. For example, in some European countries where alcohol consumption at younger ages is culturally accepted, there are lower rates of alcohol abuse in young people.

Could it be that teaching your younger children to drink responsibly at home might keep them from drinking dangerously?

Recently released data from a study done in Australia suggests NO.

This study done by the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre in Australia followed almost 2,000 parent-child pairs over four years to look at many aspects of parent behavior and their effects on the behavior of their children. These included parenting styles, substance use, and others. The researchers originally thought that parents who provided alcohol to their children in a controlled home environment might indeed create more responsible drinkers. They were shocked at the results. Here is some of what they found:

  • Nearly one in six children in the study reported having been given alcohol by their parents at ages 12 and 13 years. It is hard to believe that this is the age at which responsible alcohol consumption should be taught. This seems to me to be foolhardy and reckless at best, and negligent at worst.
  • More than a third of the children reported having been supplied with alcohol at age 15 and 16 years. Not as hard to believe. One would hope then that this proved to be protective.
  • Teens whose parents provided them with alcohol in the early teen years were three times as likely to be drinking full servings of alcohol at age 16 compared to children of parents who did not supply them with alcohol in the teen years. In fact, in this study group, parents were the major suppliers of alcohol to teens under age 18 years, more than their peers, older siblings, or unrelated young adults.
  • The biggest predictor of drinking alcohol in 10th grade was parental supply of alcohol through school grades 7 through 9.The study also suggested that those children who were supplied with alcohol by their parents were more likely to seek alcohol from additional sources.
These results were revealed in international media recently through interviews with Dr. Richard Matticks, one of the principle researchers at the Centre. The article itself is not yet available online for review, but it got me thinking about how to make sense of these bits of information. Were these families having family dinnertime together and providing their children with sips of wine as a part of the meal (I imagine that this might be the successful European model)? Or were they holding teen parties in their home, supplying the alcohol and the designated drivers in order to try to keep it within their own walls, so that children would be supervised and “safe” in their drinking. One could argue that parents might consider this a safer alternative to having their children out somewhere with friends finding their own alcohol supply. On the contrary, it sounds like this FAILS.

We know that underage drinking is associated with multiple health risks as I described above. My pediatrician gut and my parent gut tell me that supplying your high-school aged child with alcohol cannot be a good thing. This study seems to suggest the same. It may be “cool” to serve “supervised” alcohol to your teens. It may feel safer than wondering what they are doing when they are out with their friends. It certainly may be easier than being the “heavy” and preaching abstinence and saying “no” to our teens. But we should not be mistaken in thinking that supervising our teens’ alcohol consumption is protective.

Our best intentions may be hurting our children. It is tougher to teach them to abstain, and some will drink and get into trouble despite our best efforts, but serving our children alcohol will likely not help them to become “safe and smart” drinkers later on.