Parents think allowing children to taste alcohol discourages later use, study finds

September 28, 2012
A new study by researchers at UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health and RTI International finds a surprising number of parents believe that allowing children as young as 9 years old to take sips of alcohol at home may help curb their interest later. The study, published online in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, is the first to investigate pro-sipping beliefs among parents of elementary school-age children and the relationship between these beliefs and children’s reports of having initiated alcohol use.
 
Forty percent of mothers interviewed felt that not allowing children to have alcohol would only increase the children’s desire to have it. At least a quarter of the mothers believe that allowing their elementary school-aged children to taste alcohol would discourage children’s curiosity about it, as they would not like the flavor and/or because experiencing alcohol would remove the “forbidden fruit” appeal of it.
 
Researchers caution that this approach may have unintended consequences.
 
Dr. Susan Ennett

Dr. Susan Ennett

“Parents are children’s greatest source of learning, and letting children have sips may signal approval to them of alcohol use,” said Susan Ennett, PhD, professor of health behavior and health education at UNC’s public health school and co-author of the study. “But we know from other research that adolescent beliefs about their parents’ approval of alcohol use are related to early use.”

 
Ennett and her team found a strong association between parents who were in favor of allowing their children to taste alcohol and children’s reported alcohol use. In fact, nearly 33 percent of children participating in the study reported having tasted beer, wine or other alcohol. This finding is troubling, as early exposure to alcohol is a primary risk factor for problem drinking during adolescence.
 
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,” said Christine Jackson, PhD, a social ecologist at RTI International, and the study’s lead author. “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 study is based on data collected from interviews with 1,050 mothers and their third-grade children. Participants were recruited for a four-year intervention trial that will examine 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.
 
Previous research has shown some parents of older adolescents believe that allowing alcohol at home may be a strategy for preventing risky drinking. However, Ennett said she and her team did not expect to find similar sentiments among so many parents of younger children.
 
Other study authors, both from the UNC public health school’s Department of Health Behavior, are research associate professor J. Michael Bowling, PhD, and adjunct instructor Denise M. Dickinson, MPH.

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UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health contact: Linda Kastleman, communications editor, (919) 966-8317 or linda_kastleman@unc.edu.