I was in the sixth grade when I had my first taste of alcohol. My mom offered me a glass of our neighbour's sweet (and quite boozy) homemade fruit wine and I downed it. When her back was turned, I continued to sneak glasses of wine until I felt giggly and lightheaded, and then nauseous and tired. I guess you could say I had my first hangover at 11 years of age. This is not a confession that makes me proud.
I'm not sure why my mom let me try alcohol when I was that young. Maybe that's how she was raised, or perhaps she believed I wouldn't like the taste and be turned off. If it was the latter, it worked—the horrible feeling from that hangover stuck with me for a long time. Whatever my mother's rationalization, though, that experience is the biggest reason why I refuse to let my eight-year-old son and five-year-old daughter try a sip of alcohol at all.
Call me old-fashioned, but I don't think kids and booze should mix, despite the common thinking that giving kids a sip or two will teach them restraint. It's been dubbed the "European model" —the idea that introducing kids to alcohol at an early age will teach them responsible drinking habits and lessen the overall appeal—and there are examples of parents and children toasting a meal with a glass of wine all over social media in the name of this approach. The practise is often brought up by my husband who thinks it's OK to let the kids take a sip of alcohol. But a recent report published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs suggests that kids who try alcohol before the sixth grade are five times more likely than their peers to have been drunk by the time they reach high school.
Researchers from the Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies at Brown University looked at data from a three-year web-based study to see if they could find a correlation between when students first took a sip of alcohol and their drinking habits in later years. Of the 561 Rhode Island middle school students involved in the study, almost 30 percent reported they'd tried alcohol before the sixth grade. The statistic that alarmed me, however, was that those same kids were five times more likely to have had a full drink by the time they reached the ninth grade and four times more likely to have binged or been drunk by the time they reached high school. In contrast, less than two percent of non-sippers had ever been drunk or binged.
Despite these findings, there's no proof that these early sips of alcohol are to blame. "We're not saying your child is doomed," says lead researcher Kristine Jackson in a press release. She also stresses parents shouldn't panic if they've already let their child have a taste of alcohol. "We're not saying it's OK or not OK for parents to allow this," says Jackson, whose team also looked at other factors that influence underage drinking, including parents' drinking habits and any history of alcoholism.
Jackson does worry, however, that those early sips send a mixed message about alcohol. "At that age, some kids may have difficulty understanding the difference between a sip of wine and having a full beer," she explains. She believes her findings show the importance of providing kids with "clear, consistent messages" about drinking.
Rather than hoping a taste of my favourite bitter and hoppy beers is a deterrent to my kids sneaking their own sips, I'd much rather take Jackson's advice and model responsible alcohol use. My husband and I talk about the dangers of drinking and driving with the kids and we don't refer to having a glass of wine as a way to relax (there's no "mommy needs her wine" jokes in our house). I'm not naive enough to think that my kids will be teetotallers until they're adults, but I see no reason for any child to drink, especially in light of this research.
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