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Did I Turn My Child Into a Teen Drinker by Letting Her Taste Alcohol?

I have a confession to make: I started drinking alcohol in high school. It's probably not that shocking. A lot of teens do, right? My friends and I had a fondness for cheap, bad wine and two-liters of wine coolers, and we drank them pretty much every weekend, often straight from the bottle. Sooooo classy. Our parents didn't know about this—until we got caught with it on school property during a school dance. Not the smartest thing I've ever done, but I don't regret it, the punishment I got, or the drinking in general. No one got hurt—luckily—and I learned about drinking before I went off to college, making my freshman year on my own a lot less hazardous than it was for some of my dormmates.

As I am now the mom of an 8-year-old daughter who will be a teenager in just five short years, this puts me in a hypocritical situation. I wouldn't condone her drinking, but I would certainly understand it. Frankly, I expect it. And, apparently, her father and I may have unwittingly increased the chances of our kid becoming an early drinker.

According to a report in the "Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs," children who get a taste of their parents' wine now and then may be more likely than their peers to start drinking by high school. Researchers found that, of 561 middle-school students in a three-year study, those who'd "sipped" alcohol by sixth grade were five times more likely than their peers to down a full drink by the time they were in ninth grade. And they were four times more likely to have binged or been drunk. Even after accounting for their parents' drinking habits, any history of alcoholism, and the kids' personal tendencies to be impulsive or risk-takers, a connection still existed between early sipping and risky drinking by high school.

Before I heard about this study, our third-grade daughter asked to try a sip of beer and we let her. It just didn't seem like a big deal. If she wanted to try a sip of coffee, we'd let her do that, too. Those are both "adult" beverages in our minds and not good for her growing body in larger amounts, but a small taste isn't dangerous, right? I can't say we had any theory in mind behind letting her try it. It wasn't like we were following the European model of introducing kids to alcohol at home to lessen its taboo appeal or teach about responsible drinking. For us, it was just akin to letting her try caviar or chocolate-covered ants. We thought, why not?

Our daughter hated the taste of beer, which we expected. I also hated beer when I was a kid. I can't remember if I actually sipped it, or if just the smell wafting out of the cans my dad drank was enough to turn me off. My dad also sometimes relaxed after dinner with a glass of dirty sock water—I mean Scotch—and I certainly had no interest in sipping that. I don't remember trying wine either, or the gin and tonics my mom set on the sink vanity while putting on makeup for a night out with my dad. But, oh, the sweet sips of a fuzzy navel, though, that brings back memories. For a short time, the women in my family had a penchant for drinking this magical blend of orange juice and peach schnapps at holiday get-togethers, and somehow I was allowed a rare sip.

Did those tiny tastes of fuzzy navel lead to me being a high-school drinker? To me, it seems like a stretch to draw that conclusion, but based on the results of this recent study, I suppose it's possible. The researchers say it's not so much the physical consumption of the tiny amount of alcohol that likely leads to teens drinking, but the "mixed message" that it sends from parents: "Don't drink until you're 21! But here's a little taste." That sort of makes sense, but I'm not sure the first part of that message is one my parents gave me, or that I'll be sending to my daughter anyway.

Whether it's because of that fateful sip of beer we recently gave her or some other reason, my daughter will likely drink a full alcoholic beverage long before she's 21. I won't be the one giving it to her, but it's probably going to happen, so I'd rather give her realistic advice. I'd rather she be prepared for a world with alcohol than pretend it's something she won't encounter or will abstain from until she reaches the legal age. That just seems naive.

The messages I plan on sending about underage consumption are:

  • Never drink and drive.
  • Never ride in a car with someone who has been drinking.
  • Realize that you are breaking the law and there could be serious consequences for that.
  • Understand the effect alcoholic beverages will have on you and don't end up in a situation you can't handle.
  • Don't drink unless it's really your choice.

If I'd heard about the study linking early sips to teen drinking, that probably would have changed my mind about letting my daughter try a tiny taste of beer. We won't give her any more sips. But my message to her about drinking won't change. Maybe she'll end up being a teen drinker like I was—and I'll deal with it, just like my parents did with me.

Ellen Sturm Niz is a New York City-based editor and writer. Follow her on Twitter and Pinterest.

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