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Does offering kids sips of alcohol turn them into boozy teenagers?

Many parents think that an early taste of wine or beer will make their children less likely to binge as teens. Think again, warn health experts

Most parents are anxious to steer their kids away from drug and alcohol abuse. But what's the best way to do it? A new study by public health analyst Christine Jackson of the research institute RTI International, along with colleagues at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, found that an unexpectedly high number of mom and dads think they can avoid raising kids who become irresponsible drinkers by exposing them to small amounts of alcohol — a sip of beer, a little wine — at a young age. Is that really a good idea? Here, a brief guide:

How many parents believe in introducing their kids to booze in tiny increments?
Jackson and her fellow researchers surveyed 1,000 mothers and their third-grade children in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee, and found that 40 percent of moms believed that forbidding alcohol would only make their kids more rebellious. One-fifth of the moms believed the occasional sip of wine or beer at dinner would "help inoculate young kids against the lurking dangers of peer pressure," says Doug Barry at Jezebel, making them less drawn to experimenting with risky, heavy drinking in their teen years.

Are these parents actually giving their young kids booze?
Many are, according to Jackson. One-third of the third graders the study examined had already tried beer, wine, or, in some cases, even hard liquor. The study suggests that their parents — at least, those who know about the drinking — think the kids will take the responsible drinking habits they learn at home, under mom and dad's watchful eyes, out into the world. Not so fast, health experts warn.

What does early drinking really do to kids?
Numerous studies over the last several years have found that "early-onset" drinking is a "known primary risk factor for problem drinking during adolescence," the researchers write. And remember, teenage brains have underdeveloped "brakes," making teens more likely to mimic their peers' dangerous behavior when partying, rather than the moderate drinking styles of parents at the dinner table.

So what's a mom or dad to do?
"Try and delay exposure to alcohol for as long as possible," says Ralph Hingson, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism's Division of Epidemiology and Prevention Research. Jackson says even a few sips could be enough to put a kid at risk, although some health experts aren't so sure. The most important factor is "the age at which kids first get drunk," says Tim Stockwell, director of Canada's Center for Addictions Research of British Columbia. "That predicted far more than the age at which they first had a drink and I'm thinking that would apply to a sip. All the worries about alcohol are not about sipping."

Sources: CBC, Jezebel, Los Angeles Times, Today

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