Research News

Study shows letting kids sip and taste alcohol is a risky behavior

Parents and children toasting with wine.

Early sipping represents what is often a child’s first direct experience with drinking.

By BERT GAMBINI

Published February 21, 2018

headshot of Craig colder
“Sipping and tasting alcohol in childhood with adult permission is associated with more frequent drinking and an additional drink per drinking episode.”
Craig Colder, professor
Department of Psychology

Parents who allow their young children to occasionally sip and taste alcohol may be contributing to an increased risk for alcohol use and related problems when those kids reach late adolescence, according to a new study by a UB psychologist.

The findings contradict the common belief that letting kids sip and taste alcoholic drinks is harmless, and might even help to promote responsible drinking later in life.

But these beliefs run counter to new findings which appear in the journal Addictive Behaviors, according to the study’s lead author, Craig Colder, professor in the Department of Psychology.

Colder says sipping alcohol with adult supervision in childhood, so often viewed as innocuous, can be harmful when kids get older and age into peak periods of heavy drinking.

“Early sipping and tasting is predicting increased drinking behavior in young adulthood,” says Colder. “Sipping and tasting alcohol in childhood with adult permission is associated with more frequent drinking and an additional drink per drinking episode.

“It’s not only how often they’re drinking and how much they’re drinking in late adolescence, but the negative consequences related to drinking increase as well, like being hung over, getting into trouble, arguing and fighting.”

Roughly a third of all children before the age of 12 will taste alcohol with their parent’s permission. Though common in practice, that sipping and tasting still happens infrequently, perhaps four or five times a year.

“If I say a kid sips or tastes an alcohol drink a couple of times a year, few people would bat an eyelash,” says Colder. “But the data strongly suggest that such infrequent tasting in early childhood is not a benign behavior.”

In fact, Colder says, his findings support educational interventions already developed by other researchers to reduce sipping and tasting among children.

Early sipping represents what is often a child’s first direct experience with drinking, yet little research has examined the long-term impact of this behavior, in part because most studies do not measure early sipping and tasting alcohol with parental permission.

“Alcohol use without parental permission is typically initiated around age 13 or 14,” says Colder. “The early sipping measured in this study was prior to age 13, before most kids initiate alcohol use without parental permission.”

Colder, who conducted the research with co-authors Kathleen Shyhalla, a UB research assistant, and Seth Frndak, a graduate student at the university, annually interviewed two demographically representative community samples, each consisting of approximately 380 families, for seven years. He says the data clearly show these were average kids who were not growing up in problem families, yet these kids who engaged in early sipping and tasting were embedded in a social context that supports drinking.

Colder says there is no evidence the sipping and tasting that occurred within the two samples was in any way related to deficient parenting and/or poor family functioning. It was limited to what he calls alcohol-specific socialization.

“These are not alcoholic families, but families that have more laissez-faire attitudes about underage drinking. The kids are also interacting with peers that have pro-drinking attitudes. We know that,” he says. “When we statistically control for these contexts, this early sipping and tasting behavior is still predictive of these long-term outcomes.”

READER COMMENTS

In all of Europe and many other countries, including underdeveloped ones, it is acceptable and allowed, only in this country are you crucified for allowing a young person to sample alcoholic beverages. If this study is true, then maybe it should be expanded to the opioids in medicines as the gateway to the latest abuse outbreak.

 

Bryan Sweeney

I see the phrase "associated with" and "predictive of" but no claim of causation. Isn't it possible the parents who let their kids sip alcohol at a young age are more permissive in general, more likely to be the same parents that host drinking parties for their high school kids and that leads to more drinking down the line?

 

Correlation is not causation. I don't see any claim here that the early sipping causes some biological response that leads to higher drinking later in life. Let's not scare responsible parents. The headline "It's risky to let kids sip alcohol" seems sensational and not supported by this study.

 

I wonder also how taking wine during Communion was handled in this study.

 

David Hemmer