Should parents let kids taste alcohol?

Just a sip? New research looks at the impact of letting children taste alcohol at home.

Antonio Diaz

Children often see their parents crack open a bottle of wine or beer or mix a drink at some point early on in life when they're too young to understand what alcohol is. Kids are inquisitive and curious, so of course many eventually ask their parents for "just a sip" of what the grown-ups are drinking. Seems harmless enough, right?

But a new long-term study finds kids who had "sipped" alcohol by sixth grade were more likely to start drinking earlier and to abuse alcohol. The researchers found those who tried an alcoholic beverage by sixth grade were five times more likely than other kids to consume an entire drink by the time they reached high school. They were also four times more likely to have gotten drunk or binged.

"Parents may rationalize that they are teaching their children to drink responsibly, thereby reducing risk of alcohol-related consequences," the researchers write in their study. "However, permission to drink at home and explicit provision of alcohol are prospectively associated with greater levels of adolescent alcohol use, heavy use, drunkenness, and drinking intentions."

The study, published Tuesday in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, involved 561 students. The researchers found beer or wine were usually a child's first taste of alcohol. (Prior similar studies had reported early introduction was most likely to be a sip of hard liquor.) Though parents often provided their child with the "sip," a small percentage tried alcohol in their home without their parents' knowledge.

At the beginning of sixth grade -- around age 11 -- almost 30 percent of students said they'd already sipped alcohol at some point. In most cases, their parents provided it, typically at a party or other special occasion.

"For this early milestone of sipping, nearly all respondents reported obtaining the alcohol from an adult over age 21," the researchers write. "Our study adds to the literature showing that parents are a frequently cited source of alcohol for pre-adolescents."

By ninth grade, 26 percent of those early "sippers" reported that they'd had a full alcoholic drink, versus 6 percent of their peers who had not tried alcohol at a young age. Additionally, 9 percent had either gotten drunk or binged, compared with just under 2 percent of "non-sippers."

The researchers, from the Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, say their findings don't necessarily prove that an early sip of alcohol is to blame for drinking in high school. However, they note that it may send "mixed messages."

The study is unlikely to settle the debate about whether parents should introduce their children to alcohol.

Some parents like Erica Zidel think the "European model" of being more permissive with alcohol may help foster a healthy attitude about drinking. Her son is nine years old.

"We spent a month in Spain this past summer and the culture in Europe is obviously very, very different," Zidel told CBS News. "We went to one fancy winery and he said, 'I want to see, I don't get why grown-ups spend money on this.' At the end there was a little tasting and he said, 'I just want to see what it tastes like.'"

He hated it.

"I want him to grow up to appreciate things like that, but appreciate them responsibly and see us consuming in moderation, you know, not having a lot of taboos but also certainly not having it be a free-for-all," said Zindel, a founder and CEO of Sitting Around, a website that lets families join babysitting co-ops and trade free babysitting with other parents. "When my son is in college faced with these decisions, hopefully they'll have a lot more self-control and it won't be this thing that was completely off limits and now it's accessible. I want it almost to be boring to him."

Renee Spero, a mother of two in East Windsor, New Jersey, has a similar philosophy. "I wouldn't want to withhold alcohol to an extreme where all they'd want to do as teens is get their hands on some," she told CBS News.

Some parents also said they have no problem letting their child to sip alcohol for religious observances. "My kids are allowed communion wine. But again, they don't like it and usually turn it down," said Spero.

One father in Brooklyn, New York, who asked to remain anonymous, said on the Jewish Sabbath he gives his toddler son his own tiny kiddush cup with real wine.

"Our practice is to draw no distinctions between 'kid food' and regular food," he said. "Our son can decline to eat anything he doesn't want, but there's no special menu just for him. I even let him try hot sauce, if he asks, since I use a ton of it on my food. Allowing him small portions of wine and beer (never booze) just seems like an extension of that practice."

The lead researcher of the study, Kristina Jackson, Ph.D., said the key thing for parents is to send "clear, consistent messages" about drinking -- and to make sure children can't get their hands on any alcohol when mom and dad aren't home.

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    Jessica Firger covers health and wellness for CBSNews.com