Friday is the first night of Passover, which means Seders, which means (if my family was any indication) a rather relaxed attitude toward youthful drinking. The ritual, after all, involves the downing of four cups of wine, and it’s something of a tradition to allow kids in on the fun, even if it’s just a sip of sickly sweet Manischewitz here or there.
Is there a downside to letting children sample alcohol years before they’ll be able to legally buy it? There’s some folk wisdom that says this is actually a good idea: It teaches kids to drink responsibly and de-stigmatizes the act, potentially making kids less likely to go overboard when they start drinking in unsupervised settings. But there’s also research suggesting otherwise, including, most recently, a study published in the March issue of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.
For the study, a team led by Dr. Kristina M. Jackson of the Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies at Brown University used several surveys to examine the drinking behavior of a group of 561 Rhode Island students in sixth, seventh, or eighth grade. They were most interested in whether early sipping — that is, before sixth grade — could be linked to potentially risky drinking (and other substance-use) behavior by the time a kid reached ninth grade. (The study actually excluded religious rituals from the analysis, but many of the social dynamics tied up with family drinking — which will be explained a bit below — may still apply in these contexts.)
Even when the researchers controlled for a bunch of other factors, including parents’ drinking history and kids’ tendency toward risk-seeking behavior, having sipped alcohol by sixth grade was, in fact, correlated with potentially problematic drinking later on. All things being equal, a kid who had sipped alcohol before sixth grade was five times more likely to have ever consumed a full drink before ninth grade, about four times more likely to have been drunk before ninth grade, and about two and a half times more likely to have smoked cigarettes, weed, or used “illicit drugs” by the end of the fall of their ninth-grade year.
So why does this connection exist? The researchers aren’t sure, but they have some theories: For one thing, kids who haven’t been exposed to alcohol before may be able to feel — and enjoy — its effects from just a few sips. Plus, the sipping is taking place in a fun, convivial setting, which could cause youth to “perceive positive social reactions to consuming alcohol from peers and adults,” leading them to want to drink more.
Now, the study leaves out a potentially big part of the story: It can’t tell us what the effects are when kids take their first sips of alcohol at a slightly older age. Maybe if a kid is 14 rather than 11 when they do so, for example, it’s less likely to lead to negative effects down the road. There’s no way to know.
In the meantime, while one study can’t prove anything about how kids react to their first tastes of alcohol, it might not hurt for parents with preteens to delay the Manischewitz-introduction a year or two.