Just a Sip?

My partner and I have a pretty laid back parenting style, and we try not to sweat the small stuff with our 3 and 5-year-old boys, but we’re butting heads over an issue that we just can’t seem to figure out. Is it OK for them to have occasional small sips of our beer or wine at dinner time?

His view: Children are naturally curious, and it’s perfectly normal and healthy for them to sample what adults are eating and drinking. If we make some things “forbidden fruit” they’ll only want them more, and will be at greater risk of becoming binge drinkers as teens. If we let them try it, chances are they won’t like the taste — end of story.

My view: They’re called “adult beverages” for a reason. We might as well start early teaching the concept that some things are OK for grown-ups, but not for kids. What if they DO learn to like the taste? Aren’t we playing with fire? I also have some history of alcoholism in my family, and I know that it puts my boys at greater-than-average risk. I don’t want to start taking chances when they’re so young.

Who’s right?

Thanks for helping,  Anna

Great question, Anna, and it’s one we get pretty often. You do a good job of laying out the two positions on the subject, and both sound pretty reasonable, right? Let’s take a step back and look at how each approach supports the work of parenting, and maybe we can bring things into clearer focus.

As parents, your job is to raise happy, heathy kiddos who have respect for themselves and others, a solid dose of social responsibility, and a sense of joy in this life. You want every lesson you teach to be more or less in service to that goal, and that’s a tall order.

It may sound trite, but your guys really are little sponges — they absorb everything around them — and every one of the thousands of actions you take with them each day sends a message. So what message does Dad’s way send? What about yours? Most important; how can the two of you stop butting heads and understand the messages you’re sending to each other.

From a health perspective, alcohol in any amount offers no benefit to your kids and it can be particularly harmful. Drinking is discouraged during pregnancy for good reason, so why expose your little guys to something you wouldn’t expose a fetus to? The effect of alcohol on child-sized bodies and brains is obviously greater than on adults, and it only takes a few gulps to get a 30 pounder over the legal limit of intoxication.

Alcohol can lower blood sugar, cause irritability, confusion, and even seizures. It has direct effects on the brain, and since most brain growth happens during the first few years of life, repeated exposure to alcohol may interfere with development and intelligence.

Small, curious sips of it over time may make the taste more palatable, and some kids even come to like it.  So while that first taste may result in one of those funny YUCK! faces, the 5th might not seem so bad. After all, grown-ups learn to tolerate it and kids can too. Is that what we’re going for?

When you offer nourishment to kids, they rightly assume you want them to have it. Whether it’s sugar-loaded cereals or fruits and veggies, you’re saying “eat this”. It gets confusing when you say “drink this, but just a little bit, and only when I say so, because it’s not really for kids, and you probably (I hope) won’t like it anyway.” That’s a message that would be hard for anyone to follow.

On the other hand, when you set clear boundaries it’s easier for kids to know where you (and they) stand. There are some things in life that you have to be patient and wait for. You can’t drive a car at 3 or go to college when you’re 5. You’re just not ready. The same goes for alcohol. So be honest and explain that beer and wine in moderation are for moms and dads, but not for kids. Don’t shy away from the dangers, and discuss examples of people you know who were harmed by drinking too much (in age-appropriate language, of course). And make sure you’re both modeling responsible use.

Some folks will tell you about all the European families who serve wine to children at an early age without ill-effects. Well, that age is typically around 12, not 3 and the alcohol involved is literally no more than a few drops diluted heavily in water and served as part of a meal. Don’t fall for that line.

Finally, sit down with Dad and talk about your fears based on your own family experience. The research shows that a close family history of alcohol abuse increases your children’s risk at least two-fold. And this risk is even higher if they begin to drink at an early age. This does NOT mean your boys are destined to be heavy drinkers, but it does mean it’s something to be aware of and cautious about.

It’s also clear that when parents talk openly about drinking and drugs it has the greatest impact on prevention. Yes, parents are more important than peers when it comes to drinking behavior. Surprised?

So get together and come up with a strategy that makes sense to you both. A big part of your strength as parents comes from being a team. When you’re running the ball in the same direction you’re sure to score.

Good luck!

~ The Mamas

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Rachel Zahn, MD is a pediatrician turned health writer who had three kids during medical school and pediatric training—crazy, huh?

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