Editor’s note: This story is part of a series on the 30th anniversary of the National Minimum Age Drinking Act, passed by Congress on July 17, 1984.
I probably think about the dangers of drinking more than the average person because there is alcoholism in my family.
As a parent, I am slightly obsessed with figuring out what I can do to make sure my children, 6 and 8, don’t have problems with alcohol when they get older.
So, on this the 30th anniversary of the national drinking age being raised to 21, I’m asking myself the following question: Am I better off never letting my girls drink around me, at home or at family celebrations, until they reach the legal drinking age or does it make drinking less taboo and alluring if I let them start drinking at home, maybe with sips of wine and beer, during their teenage years?
If you look at the scientific evidence, it seems more studies point to a negative consequence of parental offers of even a small amount of alcohol.
A recent report in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs highlighted two such studies: One in 2011 in Sweden of 13-year-olds found that when children were offered alcohol by a parent, it was associated with a higher likelihood of heavy episodic drinking in girls, but not in boys; and a 1997 study of fourth- and sixth-graders in the United States found that when parents offered children a small amount of alcohol, the children were more likely to initiate alcohol use on their own.
In addition, another study compared seventh-graders in the United States with Australia, where adult supervised drinking for teens is allowed. Some 36% of the Australian teens had problems with binge drinking compared with only 21% of American teens, according to the 2011 study.
“I think the evidence would suggest to me you are not playing your best hand if you provide alcohol to your kids,” said Dr. Ralph Hingson, director of the division of epidemiology and prevention research for the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, in an interview.
“It may be that nothing’s going to happen, but it’s like if you’re driving a car too fast in a residential neighborhood that the likelihood of being in a car crash is increased because you are taking an unnecessary risk.”
But, there’s at least one study that shows that drinking with parents can lead to positive results.
The study, published in the 2004 Journal of Adolescent Heath and showcased in a 2008 Time magazine story, found that children who drank with their parents were about half as likely to say they had alcohol in the past month and about one third as likely to admit to binge drinking (having five or more drinks in a row) in the previous two weeks.
Stanton Peele is a psychologist, addiction expert and author of several books on addiction, including “Addiction Proof Your Child.”
The New York City father of three said he allowed his children, now in their 20s and 30s, to have a few sips of alcohol during meals in their teenage years and then around 16 let them have a full glass of wine.
“The chances that children are going to go to college … and not consume alcohol are infinitesimal,” said Peele, who also provides online addiction treatment and support.
“And so the question every parent has to ask themselves (is) … ‘Who is going to teach them how to drink?’ ”
Brian Gresko of Brooklyn, New York, a Babble.com contributor, says he and his wife are already teaching their young son about drinking.
In their house, alcohol is part of the family culture, said Gresko, who says he and his wife always have a cocktail, glass of wine or beer while cooking dinner and during the meal.
“We don’t hide this from our 5-year-old son. Felix knows the guys at our local wine store, and he sometimes asks me to make him ‘mocktails’ when we drink cocktails,” said Gresko, editor of a recent anthology of 22 novelists writing about fatherhood called “When I First Held You.”
“Alcohol is a part of life, and I would rather he begin to form a relationship with it under my supervision instead of in secret with his friends, where who knows what could happen.”
Elena Sonnino, a wellness writer, social media strategist and founder of the site Live.Do.Grow., also wants her 9-year-old to feel comfortable enough to talk with her about anything, but she takes a different approach.
She recently scaled back from having a nightly glass of wine to having one just once a week for wellness reasons and doesn’t believe she’ll let her daughter have sips of alcohol until she can legally have them.
“We won’t offer her tastes because we’re trying to show her that drinking wine is a responsibility,” said the northern Virginia mom. “You have a responsibility when you start drinking anything, wine or whatever it is, and you need to be able to make good decisions and until you’re 18, 21, your brain isn’t fully formed.”
Melissa Moog, a mom of three and founder of Itsabelly Baby Planners, a new parent and baby safety consulting service, also won’t be letting her kids enjoy sips of wine and beer.
“I think a legal drinking age was established for a very good reason,” said Moog of Portland, Oregon. “If I allowed my daughter at 16 to try a sip, I would be nervous that she’d think subconsciously that I was OK with her drinking before the legal age limit because I let her take a sip of my drink.”
While I admit I am still as confused as ever about what I will do when my girls get older, there are a few things I am pretty certain of that are backed by strong evidence.
I won’t ever get drunk in front of my kids, with studies showing that children who see their parents drunk are more likely to get drunk themselves.
And I will talk to my girls about alcohol as they get older. That’s the focus of the #TalkEarly online campaign by the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility, encouraging parents to have conversations early so as children get older, the topic of drinking is not taboo.
A big focus is also encouraging parents to watch what they say and do in social media, including making jokes about needing a glass of wine.
“Avoid transmitting the ‘I need a drink’ message after a long day or stressful situation, and talking about what it feels like to get drunk,” said Micky Morrison, a mom of two and founder of BabyWeight TV.
Michelle Staruiala, a mom of three in Saskatchewan, who said her kids rarely see her have a drink, is proof good communication can lead to positive results.
She has always talked with her kids about everything, she said, and recently asked her 16-year-old son why he sometimes doesn’t go out with his friends.
“He’s like ‘Mom, some of them are drinking’ … I don’t feel comfortable being around those situations.’ ”
“He’s really, really listened to our talks and he, to this day, never has had a drink in his life. So being 16, nowadays that’s kind of a rare thing,” she added with a laugh.
Do you think drinking with your kids is a good idea? Share your thoughts in the comments below.