A surprising number of parents believe that early exposure to alcohol will discourage children from drinking in adolescence and help prevent alcohol abuse later on, according to a new study from the RTI International and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Forty percent of mothers believe that trying to ban children from even tasting alcohol will only make it more appealing (the so-called "forbidden fruit" theory). In addition, 33 percent of third graders in the study had already had beer, wine or other alcohol.
“This finding indicates that many parents mistakenly expect that the way children drink at home, under parental supervision, will be replicated when children are with peers,” public health analyst Christine Jackson, a leader of the study, told TODAY.com.
In fact, the majority of evidence contradicts these perceptions, Jackson said, and adolescents are unlikely to model the responsible drinking habits of their parents when out partying with their friends.
For example, fifth-grade students whose parents allowed them to have alcohol were twice as likely to report recent alcohol use in seventh grade, the study points out.
Access to alcohol also plays a large role in whether or not underage kids drink.
In 2011, a national study of 12- to 14-year-olds who said they drink also said they get their alcohol for free from their family, according to MyHealthNewDaily.
"People who begin drinking alcohol before the age of 15 are six times more likely than those who start at age 21 and older to develop alcohol problems," said Pamela Hyde, Administrator of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA) which ran the study.
A study published in the Archives of General Psychiatrystressed that substance abuse most often takes root in adolescence, Reuters reported in April. The median age of onset for alcohol abuse, with or without "dependence," was 14 years old.
It's not just an American problem, either. The Irish Minister for Health, Roisin Shortall, suggested in January that parents who allow their teens to drink in the home may be contributing to substance abuse in young people, according to the BBC.
According to Ralph Hingson, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism's Division of Epidemiology and Prevention Research, the best thing for parents to do if they actually want to keep their kids safe is to "delay alcohol exposure for as long as possible," TODAY.com reports.
Parents would also be wise to think of the potential legal implications of allowing or encouraging underage drinking. In July, a Pheonix mother was arrested and charged with child abuse after allowing her 2-year-old to drink beer out of his sippy cup. Valerie Marie Topete admitted giving the alcohol to her child, saying her toddler kept reaching for the pitcher, according to CBS News.