Should Parents Give Underage Kids Alcohol?

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It’s no secret to anyone that I drink alcohol. I write about it. I do reviews of wine, beer and spirits. I dabble in creating cocktail recipes. Boxes with booze get delivered to my house on such a regular basis that the delivery drivers ask what I’m getting this time. There is no way I could ever keep from my boys, who are both teenagers, that mom imbibes.

A 2014 CNN Parents piece asked, “Do you think drinking with your kids is a good idea?” In the piece, two different scenarios were brought up. The first is allowing your underage teens to have sips of alcohol with your supervision. The second is letting your children see you drink alcoholic beverages.

I was surprised by the second scenario. Hiding the fact that you drink alcohol from your children seems like a self-defeating idea. The message it would send would be that alcohol is bad and should be drunk in secret. That is the exact opposite of what I want to teach my kids.

I believe in the communal sharing of alcohol — especially wine. Opening a bottle and sharing it with lovers, friends or family is an intimate, joyous practice. Sharing beer can do the same. Some of my closest adult friendships have been cemented while sitting around a bonfire late at night while the beer flows. My boys have often been there when the communal sharing of drinks has happened, and I’ve never once thought, “Oh, they shouldn’t be seeing this.” Instead I’ve thought, “I hope when they’re adults they’ll have experiences like this.”

What age is appropriate to introduce alcohol?

When should my boys start participating in the communal sharing? That’s much more difficult to answer. Is it a good idea to give kids sips of alcohol before they’re of legal drinking age? And is it okay to start doing it at 10? At 16? At 18?

I don’t have the definitive answer. I do know this. My boys, for several years now, have been given a shot glass full of champagne on New Year’s Eve. They’ve had sips of wine and beer. They both think all of it is mostly gross. I don’t let them try hard alcohol, and I don’t have a scientifically backed reason why I’ll let them have a sip of wine or beer but not spirits. It’s just what I feel is right at the moment.

What are the consequences of introducing alcohol early?

I don't claim to be an expert on what's right for other families. There have been several studies that seem to support both sides of the argument.

A 2017 study followed 1,900 Australian teenagers for six years and found that minors who consume alcohol at home are more likely to drink when they're older and suffer from alcohol-related problems. The study also noted there was no difference between parents giving their children sips of alcohol or full servings. "Giving whole glasses is probably worse than giving sips," Richard Mattick, professor of Drug and Alcohol Studies at University of New South Wales, told USA Today.

The CNN piece discusses studies that found contradictory results when it comes to kids who drink sips with their parents’ permission and those who aren’t offered alcohol at home. Some of the studies say kids who are offered alcohol at home are more likely to binge drink. One study says kids who are offered alcohol at home are a third less likely to binge drink. So the studies don’t seem to be much of a help when it comes to deciding what is right for your family.

I think that’s the best rule of thumb – do what is right for your family. For my family, alcohol is part of more days than it is not. The boys have seen their dad and me share bottles of wine, drink beers around bonfires, and mix cocktails in the kitchen. They’ve seen me pour a small glass of wine at 10 a.m. on a Friday morning because I’m sitting down to write about that specific wine, and I need a few tastes to write a description. They know alcohol is part of our family culture, and they are part of our family. Sips, with permission and supervision are permitted.

Establish clear rules with your children

There are also expectations. I’ve talked to my sons about them already. What are those expectations?

  • Alcohol consumption is not permitted outside of parental permission and supervision.
  • They are NEVER to get into a car where the friend driving has had anything to drink. (This is just starting to come up with my teenager.)
  • If they ever need to leave somewhere because alcohol is being served or they need a ride because the driver has been drinking, mom or dad will come to get them. Even if they’ve screwed up and had a drink themselves, they are to call for help getting home. We were teens once, and we understand.

I informally polled my Facebook friends, and 80 percent of those who responded said they would allow sips under parental supervision. Their reasons ranged from believing it was a safe way to introduce alcohol and take away the taboo of drinking to introducing the children to quality beer or wine. A sense that parents are more able to control their kids’ drinking when they allow it in the home also was mentioned several times.

Getting back to the CNN piece, one addiction expert, psychologist Stanton Peele, who allowed full glasses of wine during meals by the time his kids were 16, said it comes down to the fact that “the chances that children are going to go to college ... and not consume alcohol are infinitesimal and so the question every parent has to ask themselves (is) ... 'Who is going to teach them how to drink?' "

In my family, the answer to that question is their parents. We'll teach them both the enjoyment and the responsibilities at the times when we think it's right for our family.