It seems to make some sense: Let your teenagers drink at home where they will have adult supervision and won’t be driving.
But a new study finds that parents who provide their kids with alcohol aren’t doing them any favors.
Teens whose early exposure to alcohol comes from home aren’t protected against the dangers of alcohol, and may even be more likely to drink and suffer alcohol-related harms, according to the study in Lancet Public Health, which followed 1,900 Australian adolescents for six years.
“Those (parents') aims are admirable, but they’re wrong,” said Richard Mattick, who led the research. "When you look across a large number of people what you find is there’s no benefit.”
Providing alcohol to adolescents, he said, implies that parents approve of drinking. “I don’t think it’s complex. I think it’s that simple.”
The new study looked both at parents who gave their children occasional sips of alcohol, versus those who provided full glasses of beer or wine – and found little difference. “Giving whole glasses is probably worse than giving sips, but giving sips does not protect and still causes harm,” said Mattick, a professor of Drug and Alcohol Studies at the University of New South Wales in Sydney.
Although the new study is bigger and longer-lasting than most previous research, other advocates and scientists have long opposed the idea of adults providing alcohol or hosting drinking parties for teens.
“The bottom line is providing alcohol for young people basically backfires,” said George F. Koob, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, a federal agency. Throwing a party inevitably means teens who are already heavy drinkers will turn up, he said, “and they train the other kids to be binge drinkers.”
Thirty one states have so-called “social host laws,” where party hosts are held responsible for car accidents and other disasters resulting from alcohol use at their home.
Ten of those and many local ordinances single out underage parties, said Mallie Paschall, a research scientist with the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, a research and policy organization. He’s currently writing a grant proposal to study whether these laws are effective.
Alan Goodwin, principal of Walt Whitman High School in Montgomery County, Md., said parents continue to throw drinking parties for teens, despite a local social host law and his own “tirades” against the practice. “I get why they do it, because they know the kids are going to drink anyway, but it really sends the wrong message when parents do it, and put other children in danger,” he said.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving takes an even harder line against drinking, arguing that no drinking under age 21 is acceptable.
National President Colleen Sheehey-Church, who lost her son to a drunk driver, said parents should tell their teens that underage drinking is illegal, bad for their developing brain, and can lead to terrible consequences, including accidents, getting kicked off sports teams and missing out on the college of their choice.
Even though teenagers act as if they’re not paying attention to their parents, research shows that 3 out of 4 teens say their parents are leading influences on their decisions about drinking, Sheehey-Church said.
Parents should also model responsible drinking behavior by designating a driver in front of their teen, if they are going out and will be drinking, said Kim Morris, MADD’s National Director of Programs.
Koob agrees that kids are watching how their parents consume alcohol. “If you’re misbehaving with alcohol, they’re going to misbehave,” he said.
Parents often point to Europe, where the drinking age is lower, as proof that earlier drinking does no harm. But that’s a false comparison, Paschall said.
“There’s lots of evidence that there’s heavier drinking among young people in Europe,” he said. “That argument doesn’t really hold up.”
What remains unclear – from the new study and others – is whether kids who drink would have been drinking or breaking other rules, regardless of whether their parents gave them alcohol, said Stuart Kinner, senior principal research fellow of the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute in Melbourne, who wrote an editorial accompanying the study.
While praising the study for its large size and for following the students over time, Kinner noted that it can’t answer questions like why young people are drinking and why parents are choosing to supply them with alcohol.
"Just saying ‘Don’t.’ is unlikely to work. We need to understand where they’re coming from first,” he said. Some teens, for instance, might already be getting alcohol outside the home and parents figure that giving it to them is the lesser of evils, he said.
Kinner said he would like to see research comparing outcomes for teens whose parents were encouraged to delay providing alcohol versus those who weren’t. “Let’s find out if that really works.”
But still, Kinner, who has children ages 4 and 7, said if this new research isn’t contradicted before they reach adolescence, “I would not be giving them any alcohol.”