What's the harm in giving a four-year-old a tiny little itsy bitsy sip of Guinness, right? It's not like they're going to get drunk off of half a mouthful of the stuff. Europeans do it, and everyone knows that they've got everything right. And at least it's not like you're giving infants double Americano IV drips like those psychotic Bostonites.
Those innocent tastes of Chianti at the Thanksgiving dinner table could morph your child from a sweet, sober cherub into a bleary-eyed teenage booze-guzzling ne'er-do-well.
New research in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs has found that children who sip alcohol as youngsters have an increased likelihood of becoming drinkers by the time they reach high school. In a long-term study by Brown University of 561 students in Rhode Island, researchers found that those who had tried even small sips were a whopping five times more likely to have tried a whole beer or cocktail by the time they reached ninth grade, and four times more likely to have gotten rip-roaring drunk.
Roughly 30 percent of the students said that they had tasted alcohol when in sixth grade (aww, tweenhood), mostly due to exposure from their parents while at a party, on vacation, or in other special circumstances. Of that group (the "early sippers"), 26 percent reported having consumed a full alcoholic drink by ninth grade, while only 6 percent of non-early-sippers had experienced the pleasures of an ice-cold Natural Ice or homemade Screwdriver. And at that same age (roughly 14-15 years old), 9 percent of early sippers had gotten totally trashed, while only 2 percent of those with less-loose parents had.
Lead researcher Kristina Jackson, PhD, is quick to point out that parents, or even the boozy sips themselves, are to blame for the correlation. "We're not trying to say whether it's 'OK' or 'not OK' for parents to allow this," Jackson said in a press release. However, she does argue that parents who think that exposing their children to alcohol early on and in safe environments will somehow make them less likely to down an entire bottle of peach schnapps and jump naked into their friend's swimming pool. Turns out, it's actually the other way around. Give the kiddies a taste of liquor, and it'll wet their chops—or at least falsely build their personal sense of worldliness—for an adolescence of brown-bagging behind the bleachers.
But Jackson also believes that other factors correlate with these numbers, in addition to the "early sipper" factor. Parents' drinking habits, a family history of alcoholism, and general personality and behavioral characteristics also have strong impacts on the boozy worldviews of children and teenagers. But being permitted to try alcohol at a young age could send the message that drinking is more acceptable or less dangerous
But if you've already let your kindergartener get loose on a swill of your IPA, don't panic.
"We're not saying your child is doomed," Jackson says. There are plenty of other ways to screw up your children, and this isn't even close to the worst of them.
Just allot for some additional groundings when they reach their first day of high school, though they'll learn soon enough that a terrible hangover is the worst punishment of all.