What Happens When Kids Are Given Alcohol at Home?
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What Happens When Kids Are Given Alcohol at Home?


Hey, did you know that July 17 marked the 30-year anniversary of the National Minimum Age Act, which Congress passed in 1984? It’s true! The seminal law required all states to raise their minimum purchase and public possession of alcohol age to 21. While 21 sounds really young to me now (as an old lady of 37), in reality it’s fairly late, especially considering the fact that lots of other countries around the world permit their citizens to start imbibing at the effervescent age of 18.

So what does this mean for parents of kids here in America? Should they drink openly around their kids, trying to protect their offspring from ever seeing them drunk, sloppy or stupid? Or should they adopt the more European approach and allow their kids to have small amounts of wine from a young age, effectively helping to demystify the stuff? A writer for CNN wrote a piece all about these issues—how, as a parent, he’s obsessed with figuring out a way to ensure that his six- and eight-year-old kiddos don’t become alcoholics later in life.

They’re Probably Gonna Drink Regardless

So, is he better off not letting his girls ever drink around him—even at home or family gatherings—until they reach the legal drinking age? Or will keeping them entirely sheltered from the taboo beverage only add to alcohol’s illicit allure, making them more likely to gravitate toward drinking later on?

Apparently, most studies indicate that there are potentially hefty consequences of a parent offering an underage kid even a tiny bit of alcohol. One 2011 Swedish study of 13-year-olds found that when children were offered alcohol by a parent, that was “associated with a higher likelihood of heavy episodic drinking in girls, but not in boys.” In a similar vein, a 1997 study of American fourth- and sixth-graders revealed that when parents offered children a small bit of alcohol, the kids were more likely to initiate alcohol use on their own.

Just Maybe Not Binge Drink

But that’s just two studies; there are always others, some of which contradict the findings mentioned above. For instance, a 2004 study, published in the Journal of Adolescent Heath and featured in a Time magazine story four years later, discovered that “kids 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-plus drinks in a row) within the previous two weeks.

It’s Still the Law

“I think a legal drinking age was established for a very good reason,” said one Portland woman interviewed in the CNN  piece. “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.”

Personally, I’m fine with the drinking age, and with the idea of parents letting their kids have small amounts of alcohol from a young age, just to help demystify the stuff and make them possible less likely to “rebel” by drinking profusely later on. Whether that’s actually likely to happen remains to be seen.

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About Author

Laura Barcella is a documentary researcher, author, freelance writer and ghostwriter from Washington, DC. Her writing has also appeared in TIME, Marie Claire, Salon, Esquire, Elle, Refinery29, AlterNet, The Village Voice, Cosmopolitan, The Chicago Sun-Times, Time Out New York, BUST, ELLE Girl, NYLON and CNN.com. Her book credits include Know Your Rights: A Modern Kid's Guide to the American Constitution, Fight Like a Girl: 50 Feminists Who Changed the World, Popular: The Ups and Downs of Online Dating from the Most Popular Girl in New York City, Madonna & Me: Women Writers on the Queen of Pop and The End: 50 Apocalyptic Visions From Pop Culture That You Should Know About…Before It’s Too Late.