Half of all ten-year-olds have tasted alcohol without their parents’ knowledge, reported the New York Times recently. A survey published in the January issue of Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research is one of the first to track experimental tasting of alcohol by young children. The survey by University of Pittsburgh and University of Michigan researchers was conducted via phone conversations with 214 boys and 238 girls between the ages of eight and ten. Surprisingly, 35 percent of eight-year-olds and 48 percent of ten-year-olds had sipped an alcoholic beverage, but only 6 percent of kids had consumed a whole drink. The sipping occurred at church or family gatherings and was not given typically by the parents. As one would expect, the children most curious about alcohol were those raised in homes where parents drink, and especially those where the mother drinks. African-American children were less likely than white children to have tasted alcohol by that age, but neither gender nor mother’s education related to sipping status. One in three parents had no knowledge their young children had ever tasted alcohol and expressed surprise to learn they had.
Now, the real question is whether early sippers will later become teens in trouble? It’s hard to say. Experts explain there is no evidence that early sipping of alcohol leads to teen drinking, and there are those who believe that wine at dinner make children less afraid or less inclined to binge drink later. I’m not sure. I raised my son from birth to age three and a half in America where it is typically frowned upon to ever offer a child a sip. Here in London, however, I am constantly surprised by how often babies are given a sip of beer. I’ve seen parents (mainly dads) dip pacifiers into beer to give their babies a “taste” for it—like that will ever be an issue in Britain! European neighbors let their eight- and ten-year-old children have sips of wine at dinner or on special occasions. My son is exposed to a stronger drinking culture in London where men especially are in the pubs just after work for three or four pints a night before heading home. Clearly, the drinking culture concerns me. I fear that my son may see alcohol as cool and fun and want to taste it sooner. When we have friends over and my son sees us drinking wine, I worry it glamorizes it. I later make a point to tell him that having too much can make you sick and it’s not healthy to drink every day, etc. It’s a delicate balancing act.
DivineCaroline’s pediatric expert, Mitchell Rubin, MD says the best approach may be to talk about it earlier rather than later.
“My feeling is that the all-too-common teenage and collegiate risk behaviors associated with alcohol abuse would be lessened with earlier onset education.”
H. Scott Swartzwelder PhD, a professor of psychiatry at Duke Medical Center and the author of many books, including Just Say Know: Talking with Kids about Drugs and Alcohol, co-authored with fellow Duke Medical Center professors, Cynthia Kuhn and Wilson Wiklie, PhD, agrees whole-heartedly with Dr. Rubin.
“It’s interesting how oblivious parents are. If you survey parents of high school kids about alcohol, 25 percent (of the parents) will say yes, their children have tried it. But in fact, 75 percent of kids say they drink. There is a huge gap in what teenage kids actually do and what parents think they do,” explains Dr. Swartzwelder .
The best way to prevent problem drinking for teens is to open the lines of communication when children are young.
“Communication is the key. I argue that you should start a dialogue as soon as your child can actually talk—so as early as age two. … You plant the seeds. You find teachable moments to talk about health and their body—to build upon to later discuss alcohol,” he explains.
Dr. Swartzwelder says parents can find many opportunities to do this. For example, he says if a child falls and cuts his knee and is crying and worrying over the blood from the scrape, a parent can then bring up the topic of the role of blood. A parent can say: “Can you imagine that this blood actually flows throughout your whole body? It carries nutrients from what you drink and eat throughout your body and even to your brain.”
These sorts of talks can expand as the child gets older and is watching football and sees a beer ad or after a child may see an adult or relative behaving erratically after drinking at a wedding. Dr. Swartzwelder points out in his book many examples of how to bring up topics of alcohol in non-threatening, relaxed ways—to ensure that lines of communication continue to stay open in later teen years.
The important thing to remember is that children are sponges—they absorb everything they see or hear. Dr. Swartzwelder made it clear that he’s not saying parents should never drink—but that they should be aware of when and how they drink and how they behave, as their children will take note.
“It matters much more how you model drinking alcohol in your home than whether you do … Children will note: ‘Oh, they drink wine with dinner, so it’s like food.’ Or they may see that mommy drinks wine and afterwards she gets happy—so they begin to think wine makes you happy,” he says.
So while your preschooler or kindergartner may be a bit too young to understand or talk frankly to about drugs and alcohol, it’s never too early to set the stage for the conversation. Not addressing it at all, and waiting until they are already teenagers to do so, may be too late.
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