PITTSBURGH — A parent enjoying an alcoholic drink might find his or her young child to be curious about what's in that bottle or glass.
It raises the question: Should the parent offer the child just a taste? Will it remove the temptation or encourage use or even abuse?
University of Pittsburgh researcher John E. Donovan said previous research findings prompt his recommendation against parents' offering their children a taste of alcohol. Even if research, so far, shows no harm from only a taste, it also has shown no benefit. So why encourage alcohol consumption?
His current study published online in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research sought to identify factors that prompt children to taste or sip alcohol at ages as young as 8 or 10.
Research already has identified two factors predicting whether a 12-year-old child has tasted alcohol — the child's attitude toward giving it a try and a family environment supportive of alcohol use.
But the study led by Donovan, a Ph.D. and associate professor of psychiatry and epidemiology at Pitt, and co-written by Brooke S.G. Molina of Pitt's departments of psychiatry and psychology, found that parental approval more so than the child's psychological proneness is key to whether children 8 or 10 years old already have tasted alcohol.
"Children who sipped alcohol before age 12 reported that their parents were more approving of a child sipping or tasting alcohol and more likely to be current drinkers than those yet to have a sip," he said. Parents' comments confirmed that conclusion.
The study involving 452 children (238 girls and 214 boys 8 or 10 years old), and their families from Allegheny County, sought to identify factors that predict whether a child will start to sip or taste alcohol before age 12. One key finding is "that sipping during childhood is not itself a problem behavior, like delinquent behavior or drug use," Donovan said.
A previous study he conducted determined that nearly two-thirds (66 percent) of 12-year-olds have at least tasted alcohol.
Children often have their first taste of alcohol during family gatherings or celebrations, he said. Parents in the study, even those regularly drinking in the presence of their children, did not roundly approve of offering their children a taste. But some were less opposed to it.
"We don't really know yet whether childhood sipping or tasting (of alcohol) has any future negative consequences," he said. "But our previous research found that sipping or tasting alcohol by age 10 was significantly related to early-onset drinking — that is, having more than a sip or a taste before age 15."
Previous research also found early-onset drinking, as opposed to just tasting, to be associated with numerous negative outcomes for adolescents and young adults, including alcohol abuse and dependence, illicit drug use, prescription drug misuse, delinquent behavior, risky sexual behavior, motor vehicle crashes and job problems, among others. But it's not yet known whether just a taste or sip can lead to early consumption of alcohol and later negative outcomes.
But that information could eventually be drawn from already gathered information from Donovan's ongoing longitudinal study, which is one that follows the same participants through time. "I don't know whether sipping or offering a sip or taste can have any consequences later on," he said. "So we shouldn't assume there is no problem. You have to make your own decision, but it suggests that it may be a problem, and they shouldn't have a taste.
"What we're saying is that drinking with the family does not protect against problems or heavier involvement with alcohol later in life," he said. "It doesn't have a good benefit. It doesn't help the child. It doesn't prevent problems. If it is not helpful, why engage in it? It could create problems."