Children, Alcohol and Parenting: What Should Parents Do?

Alcohol and parenting is a debated subject. What’s the best thing for parents to do? What can they legally do? The subject of alcohol and parenting is surrounded by conflicting beliefs and opinions. And also by a high degree of emotion.

The good news is this. Research provides useful answers. This can guide us parents.


I. Some Important Facts

A. Our Influence

B. Teaching Responsibility

C. Possible Objections

D. Our Responsibility

E. Influence of Peers

II. Drinking with Parents

A. England

B. Australia

C. United States

III. Common Sense

IV. Summary

 V. Resources

I. Some Important Facts

When children are served alcohol by their parents, drinking problems are generally low. When children are prevented from drinking until an older age, drinking problems tend to be high. The evidence is clear.1

In many groups around the world, virtually everyone drinks and they drink both frequently and regularly. Yet they have very few drinking problems. Such groups familiar to us include Italians, Greeks, Spaniards, Jews, and Portuguese.

In these groups, people learn how to drink from an early age. They do so within the safe and supporting environment of the home. They don’t learn how to drink from their friends and acquaintances. Common sense suggests that it’s better to learn how to drink in the parent’s house than in the fraternity house.

A. Our Influence as Parents

alcohol and parentingAs parents, we actually have more influence on our children than anyone or anything else. But we often erroneously feel powerless in the face of TV, social media, our children’s peers, etc.

Our children learn from observing our behavior. We are the most significant role models in their lives. So we need to do these things.

    • Be good role models. We need to be living, day-to-day examples of good drinking behavior.
    • Reject “do as I say, not as I do.” If we abuse alcohol, our children will likely do so when they begin to drink.
    • Convey appropriate attitudes. We should never laugh at intoxication or inappropriate behavior. We can use news events, TV episodes,  or other events as opportunities. They give us a chance to discuss what is appropriate and inappropriate behavior.2

We need to recognize that it is not alcohol but rather the abuse of alcohol that is the problem.

B. Teach Responsibility

alcohol and parentingTeaching responsible use does not require drinking alcohol. Nor does teaching world geography requires visiting Nepal. And teaching civics doesn’t require students to run for elective office. Civics prepares students to engage in civic activities if they choose to do so as adults..

Letting children drink in moderation within the family and home setting is very valuable. It helpes them learn that drinking  is a natural and normal activity. And that it doesn’t confer “adulthood” or “maturity.” Either choosing to abstain or to drink responsibly is a real sign of maturity and good judgment.

C. Possible Objections

     1. But Isn’t That Illegal?

alcohol and parentingIt is commonly stated that it’s illegal for anyone in the US under 21 to drink alcohol. But that’s simply not true.

This myth about under-age drinking laws intimidates many parents. They’re afraid to teach their children how to drink in moderation. Thus the myth is counterproductive.

The National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984 is mis-named. It requires states to raise their minimum purchase and public possession of alcohol age to 21. States are not required to prohibit drinking. The term “public possession” is strictly defined and provides exceptions.

Consequently, in most states, parents can legally serve their children of any age alcohol.

     2. But Doesn’t that damage the Brain?

alcohol and parentingDoesn’t drinking at an early age damage the brain? Actually, there is no evidence that drinking in moderation at an early age causes any brain damage. In fact, a large “accidental experiment” has been going on for thousands of years. Jews, Italians, Greeks and many other groups drink alcohol from an early age. Yet there’s no evidence oif brain damage.

To the contrary. Students in traditionally early-drinking groups tend to out-perform U.S. students on standardized math and other tests.

The research suggesting brain damage is based on two populations. One is alcohol abusers. The other is rats that are fed massive amounts of alcohol. The studies don’t look at drinking in moderation. And no one is suggesting that young people abuse alcohol. So the studies are completely beside the point.

     3. But Doesn’t That Lead to Later Alcohol Problems?

Some studies report that drinking at an early age leads to later problems. But correlation don’t show cause. Drowning increases when ice cream consumption increases. But eating ice cream doesn’t cause people to drown. Summer increases both ice cream consumption and swimming. More people swimming leads to more drowning. So ice cream eating doesn’t cause drowning

alcohol and parentingEnter impulsivity, disinhibition, and sensation-seeking. Sensation seeking is a personality trait. It’s the tendency to seek novel, varied, complex, and intense sensations and experiences. This, along with the willingness to take risks for the sake of such experiences.

These and other personality traits have been linked with early onset of drinking. And also with heavy drinking and alcohol-related problems later in life. Such early-appearing personality characteristics can cause both drinking at an early age and subsequent alcohol problems.

alcohol and parentingPsychologists have been able to observe the behavior of pre-school children. Then they successfully predict which children will later become problem drinkers. The psychologists do this based on how the children interacted with others.

If we could stop children from drinking at an early age that wouldn’t change their personalities. They wouldn’t begin deferring gratification and avoiding excitement. They would continue actions such as speeding, having sex, or playing body-contact sports. And if we stopped them from engaging in all those activities, that wouldn’t make them become alcohol abstainers.

D. Our Parental Responsibility

Either drinking in moderation or abstaining are equally acceptable options for adults. So we must prepare children for either choice. To do otherwise is both ineffective and irresponsible.

We need to prepare our children to live in a largely drinking world. We need, by our own words and deeds, to teach them not to

    • alcohol and parentingDrive while impaired.
    • Ride with anyone who has been drinking. They can be a designated driver.
    • Operate equipment, climb ladders, boat, or engage in similar activities, when drinking.
    • Participate in drinking games or drinking contests.
What We Should Teach

We can also teach them how to

    • Refuse a drink politely.
    • “Lose drinks” that have been forced on them.
    • Prepare or order “mocktails.”

And teach them these things.

    • Only the passage of time can sober a person after drinking too much. Coffee, cold showers, fresh air and similar remedies are ineffective.
    • alcohol and parentingStandard drinks of beer, wine and spirits contain the same amount of pure alcohol. They’re all the same to a breath tester.
    • People shouldn’t drink on an empty stomach.
    • Drinking should be limited to no more than one drink per hour.
    • Eating slows the absorption of alcohol into the body.
    • Women experience the effects of alcohol at lower consumption rates.
    • Inexperienced drinkers become intoxicated with much less alcohol than do experienced drinkers.
    • Some people should consult with their doctor to see if they should abstain from alcohol. They include problem drinkers, pregnant women and patients on certain meds.

E. Influence of Peers

Research continues to find that parents exert more influence over their offspring than do peers.

alcohol and parentingThe reason is simple. Young people tend to select friends who share their attitudes about drinking. And their attitudes have been shaped by observing their parents. So the peer group largely reinforces what young people have already learned from their parents.

II. Drinking with Parents Reduces Alcohol Abuse

A. England

alcohol and parentingTeenagers who drink alcohol with their parents are less likely to drink heavily. That’s according to research among 10,000 students aged 15 and 16 in 130 schools in England. The investigators were from Liverpool John Moores University’s Public Health Centre. Some young people had alcohol at home with their parents. They were much less likely to engage in the most dangerous types of drinking.

Dr. Mark Bellis led the study and heads the Public Health Centre. He said “The majority of people who are drinking at early ages are not then going on to be problem drinkers later in life.” He continued “The real issues are around people understanding alcohol, learning about alcohol, being set a good example by their parents.”

alcohol and parenting
Dr. Mark Bellis

Dr. Bellis said that “The majority of people, by the age of 14, 15 or 16, have drunk alcohol. The question is are they learning to drink from their parents, in a socially responsible environment? Or are they learning behind the bushes in a park?” The health leader emphasized that “The chances are, if they are in the latter position, they are learning to binge-drink, they are hiding their drinking [from their parents].”

Teenagers who illegally bought their own alcoholic beverages were six times more likely to drink in public. They were three times more likely to be regular drinkers. And they were  twice as likely to be heavy or ‘binge” drinkers. Other research has found that drinking in public is associated with the worst alcohol-related problems among young people.

In short, youths who drank with their parents exhibited the safest drinking behavior.3

B. Australia

alcohol and parentingResearch studied 608 14- to 17-year-olds. They were  from the Australian National Drug Strategy Household Survey.

Adolescents who drink alcohol were were categorized into two groups. In one group, parents provided the first alcoholic drink. In the other, friends or others provided the first drink.

Adolescents whose parents provided the first drink had fewer later alcohol-related problems compared to the others. This included heavy episodic drinking or “bingeing.”4

C. United States

A nation-wide study was made of over 6,200 teenagers in 242 communities across the U.S. Teenagers who drank with their parents were less likely to have either consumed alcohol or abused it in recent weeks.

alcohol and parenting 90
Dr. Kristy Long Foley

Senior researcher was Dr. Kristie Long Foley of the School of Medicine at Wake Forest University. She said drinking with parents “may help teach them responsible drinking habits or extinguish some of the ‘novelty’ or ‘excitement’ of drinking.” Dr. Foley describes drinking with parents as a “protective” behavior.

This study on alcohol and parenting was funded by the federal government.5

III. Common Sense

Common Sense about Alcohol and Parenting

by John Buell

Maine’s attorney general has posted on his Web site two public service announcements criticizing underage drinking and impugning the integrity of parents who tolerate such activity even in supervised circumstances. His ads may do more harm than good.

alcohol and parenting
John Buell

Nationally underage binge drinking was more common a generation ago. In Maine, fewer high school students binge drink now than ten years ago. Any binge drinking is a problem, but suggesting it is a growing epidemic can increase peer pressure to drink.

Current brochures on underage drinking also feature a misleading claim. Alcohol consumption before age 21 is associated with higher incidence of alcohol-related problems in later life. Like Adam’s infamous apple, the substance itself is treated as the source of subsequent evil.

Correlation vs Causation

If fourth-graders whose parents kiss them every morning receive dramatically higher scores on the MEAs [Maine Educational Assessments], is a kiss a day the key to their success? If such a correlation exists, it probably indicates that parents who kiss their children also spend more time tutoring their children.

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) studies only show that underage drinking is part of a cluster of variables that are associated with problems in later life. They include low socio-economic status, low parental education, low self-esteem, certain genetic conditions that may predispose to alcoholism, and problems in school. Some NIAAA literature even concedes that very early alcohol consumption may reflect rather than cause a risk-taking personality.

Risk-prone 10-year-olds need love and attention. Instead, many have overworked parents, crowded schools, peeling lead paint in their apartments, and often go to bed hungry.

Beginning to Drink Early or Late

In addition, adults who take up drinking long after their peers also have a much higher probability of developing severe alcohol problems. We really have a classic U-shaped curve. First-time use at unusually early and unusually late ages probably reflects more than causes greater psychological anxiety and economic distress.

Drinking by late teens in supervised and stable settings is associated with fewer long-term risks than complete laissez faire or attempts to impose absolute prohibition.

Critics of teen drinking also argue that teen brains are insufficiently developed to provide proper cognitive assessment of and emotional responses to prospective dangers. Then why allow teens to drive, a task in which immature or reckless action can have irremediable consequences for all of us?

Zero Tolerance

The attorney general brands as irresponsible any parent who tolerates a party at which young adults drink. Even if car keys are removed and close scrutiny maintained. He is acting irresponsibly and may be encouraging disrespect for the law. alcohol and parenting“Zero tolerance” of teen drinking in any circumstance will create the worst of all possible worlds. More driving by teens ever less ready to deal with the dangers of alcohol and ever more resistant to parental advice.

When police bust quiet supervised parties, many parents will forbid any drinking on their property. Some youth will comply, but young adult children are legally – and often financially – independent of their parents. Many see the “just say no” message as inflated. They resent police intrusions on their privacy. They will drive to more remote locations and be even less inclined to accept any future health warning.

These fears are not merely hypothetical. Advocates of the current legal drinking age (21) maintain that it has reduced alcohol-related crashes among teens. Such crashes among teens have declined, but reductions have also occurred in most age categories. Stronger enforcement of drunken driving laws and sensible designated driver programs have probably played the largest role.

Unintended Consequence

alcohol and parentingA Rutgers University study, however, reports a less publicized side of this story. Alcohol-related driving deaths have actually increased in the 21-24 age range. By boosting the drinking age we place more 21-year-olds unaccustomed to alcohol on our roads. We displace the problem to a slightly older age range.

Police can never enforce all the laws. The community’s health and safety are better served by putting aside busts of supervised young adults and cracking down on all forms of reckless driving. There are laws that, like Jim Crow statutes, are not worthy of respect. Though underage drinking bans do not represent an equal injustice, they are a civil rights violation. They deny one category of citizens (young adults) – who can die for their country, vote for our leaders, marry and parent children – the right to drink with their peers even at a parent’s home.

In the current climate of hostility to alcohol and teens, the courts may deny the injustice here. I applaud young adults and parents who have the will and the courage to stand up to these inequities. The attorney general should engage in dialogue rather than in one-sided denunciations of concerned parents whose only failing is to reach conclusions different from his.6

IV. Summary: Alcohol & Parenting

Alcohol and parenting is a topic about which people often disagree. But it’s not simply a matter of personal opinion. Research from around the world shows the advantage of parental supervision of youthful drinking. Fortunately, this is legal in most U.S. states.

Our country tried alcohol prohibition, as did many others. And it has failed in all of them. Such prohibition tends to be counterproductive. It causes many problems. Yet it  solves none

V. Resources: Alcohol and Parenting

Popular Books

1  For example, Heath, D. (Ed.) Handbook on Alcohol and Culture.

2 McCaffrey, B. Parenting Skills: 21 Tips and Ideas.

3 Bellis, M., et al. Predictors of risky alcohol consumption in school children. Sub Abuse Treat Prev Pol, 2(1), 15.

4 Kelly, A., et al. How important is the context of an adolescent’s first alcoholic drink? Evidence that parental provision may reduce later heavy episodic drinking, Euro Addict Res, 18(3), 140-148.

5 Foley, K., et al. Adults’ approval and adolescents’ alcohol use. J Adoles Health, 35(4), 345-346.

6 Published in the Bangor Daily News. Posted by permission of the author.

    • This site gives no advice.