Kids allowed sips of alcohol are more likely to drink in high school, study says

Story highlights

  • Kids allowed to sip alcohol are more likely to have a full drink by ninth grade, a study found
  • Study: Sippers are more likely to binge drink or get drunk by high school
  • Kids given sips may be getting mixed messages from parents, the co-author said

This story was originally published on CNN.com in 2015.

Kelly Wallace is CNN's digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. Read her other columns and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter.

(CNN)If you've already allowed your kids to take a little sip of your beer or wine from time to time, you probably won't be pleased when you hear the findings of a new report.

The study, published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, found that children who had sipped alcohol by the sixth grade were about five times more likely to have a full drink by the time they were in high school and four times more likely to binge drink or get drunk.
    "I don't think parents need to feel that their child is 'doomed,' " Kristina Jackson, one of the co-authors of the study, said of parents who already let their kids have sips of alcohol.
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    She noted, in an email interview, that only a quarter of the sippers reported consuming a full drink by the ninth grade and that less than 10% said they got drunk.
    "I think the most important thing is to make sure that children know when drinking alcohol is acceptable and when it is not," said Jackson, a research associate professor at Brown University's Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies.
    The study involved surveys of 561 middle school students in Rhode Island over a three-year period. A little under a third of the students said they had sipped alcohol by the start of middle school, with most of those saying they got the alcohol from their parents at a party or on a special occasion.
    Even when factoring out issues that could encourage problem drinking down the road, such as how much their parents drink, a history of alcoholism in their family or having a risk-taking personality, the children who sipped were more likely to be drinking in high school, said Jackson.
    Twenty-six percent of the kids who had sipped alcohol said they had a full drink by the ninth grade versus under 6% for the kids who never sipped alcohol, the survey found. Nine percent said they had binged on alcohol (had five or more drinks at one time) or gotten drunk versus under 2% for the non-sippers.
    "I would say that it is advisable not to offer your child a sip of your beverage, as it may send the wrong message -- younger teens and tweens may be unable to understand the difference between drinking a sip and drinking one or more drinks," Jackson said.
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    This latest study follows a report last year, also in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs (PDF), that analyzed a number of studies all coming to the same conclusion: Offering even small amounts of alcohol to children could lead to negative outcomes.
    A 2011 study in Sweden of 13-year-olds found that when children were offered alcohol by a parent, it was associated with a higher likelihood of heavy episodic drinking in girls but not in boys. A 1997 study of fourth- and sixth-graders in the United States found that when parents offered children a small amount of alcohol, the children were more likely to initiate alcohol use on their own.
    In addition, another study compared seventh-graders in the United States with Australia, where adult supervised drinking for teens is allowed. About 36% of the Australian teens had problems with binge drinking, compared with only 21% of American teens, according to the 2011 study.
    However, one study that was done over a decade ago seemed to come to the opposite conclusion. It found that early introductions to alcohol could actually reduce the likelihood of binge drinking later on.
    That study, conducted in 2004 and reported in a lengthy Time magazine story in 2008, found that children who drank with their parents were about half as likely to say they had alcohol in the past month and about one-third as likely to admit to binge drinking than kids who did not drink with their parents.
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    "On initial glance the findings seem to be in contradiction, but the important difference between the two studies is the comparison group," said Jackson.
    She said she believes that earlier study compared children who got alcohol from their parents with kids who got it from adults who were not relatives or from underage friends or acquaintances, or who took it from home without permission.
    "Our comparison is with children who did not drink at all," she said.
    When I did a story last year on whether it's OK to drink with your kids, I heard from plenty of people who strongly feel that introducing their children to alcohol while they are young will lead them to have a healthier attitude about alcohol when they get older.
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    But this new study -- along with the previous research -- could give some of those parents pause, because it does seem to raise concerns about letting children have casual sips of wine and beer, or any other alcoholic drink.
    The issue may be the messages we don't realize we may be sending our children, said Jackson.
    "One theory is that some of these children are getting a message that drinking is okay, especially when it is offered by the parent," she said.
    Do you think letting children sip alcohol is a good or bad idea? Share your thoughts with Kelly Wallace on Twitter @kellywallacetv.