Many adults trace their first taste of alcohol as a child to festive family dining occasions such as Thanksgiving. Is it is wise to let a child have a sip of wine or another alcoholic beverage? Might an early taste immunize against problematic adulthood drinking, or does such a taste signal parental consent for an activity that can escalate into a life of drunkenness?
Camp One: Tasting a drop or two of an alcoholic beverage under parental supervision has no adverse effects for a pre-teen and removes the lure and temptation of at least one forbidden fruit from the growing up equation. Camp One parents may believe that such tastings make grade school students less likely to sip on their own, whether snatching a swig or two at home when nobody is looking or experimenting with alcohol outside the home.
Camp Two: Parents worry that childhood tastings can backfire by accelerating earlier and heavier intake down the road by signaling early parental approval.
While parents in Camp One obviously need to instill the difference between tasting a drop or two of an alcoholic beverage under parental supervision and a blanket approval for tasting in other circumstances, parents in both camps owe their children an education about the potentially harmful effects of alcohol.
“As a parent, I think the more you try to hide something, the more desirable or interesting it becomes for the child. Both my 12- and 16-year-olds have tasted alcohol and thought it was fairly disgusting,” says Dr. Terry Cummings, a Tulane pediatrics and internal medicine specialist. She practices at University Square in Uptown New Orleans and was on the New Orleans Magazine Best Doctors list last August.
“As a physician, I tell parents not to make a big deal out of it. A taste, along with a discussion about alcohol, is in order for the child curious enough to ask. I certainly wouldn’t counsel against a sip or two under supervision, but I did read somewhere recently that early sippers may have earlier alcohol problems later on,” she adds.
The study Dr. Cummings references came out of Pittsburgh. Prior research by this same group showed over a third of surveyed children living in Pittsburgh had tasted or sipped alcoholic beverages by age 8, two-thirds by age 12 and 96 percent by age 18. And those who tasted or sipped before age 15 were earlier consumers of a full drink, usually on the sly and not under parental supervision.
“First sipping isn’t an early indicator of issues that would be of concern to parents,” wrote one of the psychologists in an August 2014 press release about an updated look at the same group of children. They showed that taking the first sip before age 12 correlated with a family’s permissiveness towards alcohol rather than predicting that a child was slated for abuse problems in young adulthood. There is no evidence that earlier sippers have more alcohol dependence, delinquent behavior, marijuana smoking, misuse of other illicit drugs, risky sexual behavior, car crashes or interruption of planned schooling than the late sippers.
Even so, the Pittsburgh researchers are adamant that “the jury is still out on whether or not sipping alcohol is problematic for children. The fact that the majority of early sippers are not problem children, and that the majority of them don’t go on to early regular use, isn’t evidence supporting the early introduction of drinking with family as protective. Its long-term effects remain still to be charted.”
So what do other local pediatricians say about all this? Finding a pediatrician by phone on a weekend can be a tough task, as any parent knows firsthand. Dr. Cummings was the only one of 12 pediatricians pulled from the recent Best Doctors list that I was able to reach on the Sunday afternoon I was pounding out these words. And I have a bag full of tricks to find doctors after hours.
A few decades ago, busy physicians craving a weekend rest were guarded by protective spouses, then came answering services (I still remember the number of Doctors Exchange Whitehall 9-4141) and now there’s voicemail, usually starting with “If this is an emergency please hang up and dial 9-1-1.” It is even hard to get an answering service to answer without leaving a recorded message first. And now nurses from out of town services often take “first call.”
After talking to Dr. Cummings, I did get a call back the next evening responding to a message I had left on a doctor’s home answering machine. It was Dr. Hans Christoph Andersson, a Tulane colleague of Dr. Cummings who is also included on the Best Doctors list. He also gets an award for the most child-friendly name of any pediatrician in my memory.
“I’m a clinical geneticist and take care of children with genetic defects. I certainly don’t want to go on the record in favor of children having alcohol, so I don’t think I’m the right person to answer your question,” says Dr. Andersson.
The bottom line: While childhood alcohol tasting statistics are soft and pliable, an informal asking survey of a couple of dozen patients in my adult internal medicine supported the obvious. New Orleanians who had parents in Camp One would overflow the Superdome, while parents in Camp Two would hardly fill a streetcar.