When a child asks for a sip of dad's beer, what's a conscientious parent to do?
For Cameron Wallace, 36, the answer is clear: "My four-year-old son gets very small sips of my homebrew."
Those early tastes will be the first step in his ongoing education about the pleasures and risks of drinking alcohol, said Wallace, who works in computer-based mapping at an engineering consulting firm in Vancouver.
Wallace is convinced that forbidding children to try alcohol only increases its appeal. When teenagers who are not allowed to drink a drop finally leave home, he said, "they're the ones who go the craziest."
Parents who introduce small sips of alcohol to their young children reason that they are better off learning how to drink in moderation at home. The approach is in line with what they perceive to be a civilized European tradition, where children are served small glasses of wine, along with cured meats and pungent cheeses. But a growing body of research shows that this image of European moderation may be outdated and the family-based approach, known as the "European drinking model," is no longer having a protective effect. In fact, when it comes to thwarting binge drinking among young adults, even tiny sips may send mixed messages to impressionable minds.
Given the potential harms related to underage drinking, there is no reason for parents to allow children to try alcohol before their teen years – "even the occasional sip," says Dr. Jurgen Rehm, a scientist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto who researches strategies to reduce alcohol-related harms.
University binge drinking has reached record highs, despite zero-tolerance approaches to underage drinking. Health authorities advise against allowing a child to drink before the legal age of 19, or in some provinces, 18. But the law, if followed, practically guarantees that a teenager's first drink will be at a bar or frat party, not in the family home.
In light of this, some parents are trying a reverse-psychology approach.
Helena Vosges, a Vancouver mother of two, said her daughter had champagne on her first birthday. Now, at 4, "she gets beer in a little shot glass now and then."
Vosges grew up drinking small amounts of alcohol at home. She remembers her grandmother, who was of mixed Chinese descent, giving her a glass of beer at the age of 6 and saying, "Drink this, it's good for your blood circulation."
Vosges said that, unlike her peers, she never had the urge to get drunk in high school or college. "I associate alcohol more with family time." She describes herself and her husband, who is French, as light drinkers who want their kids to consider alcohol a normal part of life. "I feel like it's a safer way for me to rear my children."
But parental influence only goes so far. And in cultures where "getting wasted" is synonymous with having fun, early tastes of alcohol may not be harmless, researchers say.
In a three-year study of 561 Rhode Island students – kids who were allowed to sip wine or beer from their parents' glasses "now and then" before the age of 11 – were four times more likely to binge drink in high school. The link remained even after researchers accounted for parents' drinking habits, family history of alcoholism and poor impulse control in students. Letting young children take a sip on special occasions may send a "mixed message," concluded the study, which was published in March in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.
An earlier study found that children of parents who strongly discouraged underage alcohol consumption were less likely to binge drink in college. But this association may be due to religious beliefs – a protective factor against alcohol abuse – and may not apply to all families, said Rehm.
He noted that the case against early sipping is not as strong as iron-clad evidence showing that the earlier a child is intoxicated, the greater the risk of alcohol-related problems later on. Not enough research has been done to conclude that the age of first drink is a predictor of alcohol problems, according to a 2013 analysis in BMJ.
Alcohol is damaging to the developing brain. Long-term effects may include impairments in memory, learning and decision-making – a risk that remains high until the brain is fully developed at the age of 24.
Canadians who have travelled in Europe may remember seeing children enjoying small glasses of wine at the family table, along with cured meats and pungent cheeses. Many argue that Europe has a more civilized approach to teaching children the fine art of social drinking. But recent surveys suggest this image of European moderation is as outdated as the notion that French women don't get fat.
Canadian parents may have misconceptions about the family-based approach, known as the "European drinking model," Rehm said. Traditionally, European children were seldom offered alcohol before the age of 10. They did not sip from their parents' beer cups during hockey games or backyard barbecues. "They were also told very clearly that any sign of intoxication was completely taboo."
The European model stopped working in the 1980s and '90s, when social constraints on teenage drunkenness began to break down, he said. European teens, like American youth, are now bombarded with pop songs and media images that glorify binge drinking and mention brands of tequila, vodka and American beer by name. Learning about alcohol is no longer a family or regional affair. "It's globalized."
In countries such as France, Denmark and Britain, more than 44 per cent of 15- to 16-year-old students reported binge drinking within the past month, according to a 2011 survey conducted in 36 European nations. Binge drinking was defined as five drinks or more on one occasion. But in the United States, where the legal drinking age in most states is 21, only 15 per cent of their American counterparts had reported binge drinking over the same period.
An earlier edition of the European survey concluded, "There is no evidence that the more liberal policies and drinking socialization practices in Europe are associated with lower levels of intoxication."
The counterintuitive findings have given some parents pause. Nicole Spencer, a registered dietitian in Vancouver, said she does not want to demonize alcohol for her children because "the more you think you shouldn't have something, the more you're going to want it." In her line of work, "I see that all the time."
In the past, Spencer has allowed her two-year-old daughter to taste trace amounts of wine or beer. But that was before she became aware of the research showing that early sipping may be linked to harms. Spencer and her husband plan to re-evaluate whether to allow their children to try alcohol at a young age, she said. They may tell their kids that alcohol is for adults, not for children, "just the same way as Mom and Dad drive the car, but kids don't."
Parents tend to overestimate their influence on a teenager's decisions about alcohol, said Rehm. In Canada, more than 40 per cent of Grade 12 students have consumed at least five drinks in one occasion, whether their parents know it or not.
Nevertheless, parents can play a role in their children's attitudes about alcohol by modelling moderate drinking habits and communicating their values and expectations about alcohol use, said Dr. Shimi Kang, a psychiatrist at the University of British Columbia who specializes in addictions and childhood development.
Children are at greater risk if parents are either too laid-back about drinking – allowing access to alcohol with few rules – or too rigid, said Kang, author of The Dolphin Way: A Parent's Guide to Raising Healthy, Happy, and Motivated Kids, Without Turning Into a Tiger.
When a teenager gets drunk at a party, for example, a child who is terrified of his parents' reactions may end up drinking and driving instead of calling them for help, she said. As for allowing younger children to taste alcohol, Kang advised parents to follow their intuition. Parents should consider whether the family has a healthy psychological and social connection to alcohol or a history of alcohol abuse. "Alcoholism is a highly genetic condition."
In general, the research suggests the odds are stacked against children who start drinking young. But chances are a child won't suffer if he or she doesn't get an early sip.