Parents who subscribe to the “European model” believe in introducing children to alcohol at an early age in order to teach them how to drink responsibly and lessen the “taboo” appeal of alcohol. A recent study conducted at the Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies at Brown University has found that children who are allowed to “sip” their parents’ alcoholic beverage at an early age often end up becoming the first of their friends to have a full drink by high school.

Although underage drinking is often swept under the rug because “everyone is doing it,” experts still consider it a major public health concern. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2013 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 35 percent of high school students admitted to drinking some amount of alcohol in the past 30 days, 21 percent admitted to binge drinking, 10 percent said they drove while drunk, and 22 percent said they rode in a car with an intoxicated driver.

"We're not trying to say whether it's 'OK' or 'not OK' for parents to allow this," lead researcher Dr. Kristina Jackson said in a statement. "We're not saying your child is doomed. Some kids may have difficulty understanding the difference between a sip of wine and having a full beer."

Jackson and her colleagues recruited 561 middle school students in Rhode Island, who were asked to answer surveys at various points over the course of three years. By the sixth grade, around 30 percent of students said they had “sipped” alcohol, the majority of which said it was provided by a parent at a party or special occasion. Twenty-six percent of students who took a sip before the age of 11 admitted to having their first full alcoholic beverage by the ninth grade compared six percent of students who were not offered a sip.

Even when researchers accounted for other factors related to underage drinking, such as parents' drinking habits, family history of alcoholism, as well as each child’s impulsiveness and risk-taking behavior, the relationship between that early first sip and risky drinking in high school remained. In fact, nine percent of “sippers” admitted to getting drunk or binging drinking before the ninth grade compared to two percent of “nonsippers.” Jackson explained that providing children with even a “sip” of alcohol at such a young age could be sending them a “mixed message.”

Alcohol is the most commonly used and abused substance among America’s youth, even more than tobacco and illicit drugs. More than 4,300 deaths and 189,000 emergency room trips each year among Americans under the age of 21 are attributed to alcohol. People between the ages of 12 and 20 account for 11 percent of all alcohol consumed in the U.S., over 90 percent of which is consumed while binge drinking.

Source: Rogers M, Colby S, Barnett N, Jackson K, et al. The prospective association between sipping alcohol by the sixth grade and later substance use. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs. 2015.