Studies: Any Alcohol Is Bad for Kids

It is a painful thing when long-held beliefs run into cold, hard data, but that's what happened this morning when I listened to NPR's report on kids and alcohol. I have long subscribed to the "European school" of child rearing: the theory that acquainting children to alcohol in the home environment demystifies it, leading to healthier behavior later. My own experience seemed to suggest that the kids who really got into trouble were those who, suddenly unchained from restrictive rules, went crazy with booze in early adulthood. All of this, apparently, is anecdotal noise or wishful thinking. According to research, the best system is complete abstinence:
[Penn State alcohol researcher Caitlin Abar] studied how parents deal with their high school teenagers regarding alcohol use while still at home, and she then checked after the teens' first semester of college. Her study of 300 teenagers and their parents was published recently in the journal Addictive Behaviors.

"Parents who disapproved completely of underage alcohol use tended to have students who engaged in less drinking, less binge drinking, once in college," Abar says.

And conversely, a parent's permissiveness about teenage drinking is a significant risk factor for later binge drinking...

But, it was parents' rules that had the strongest effect, says Abar. Complete disapproval of teen drinking by parents was the most protective, even more than when parents allowed a limited amount of alcohol consumption.
And for those who admire the European model, like me, bad news:
Research studies by Wood, Abar and others challenge the common parenting practice in much of Europe where kids are socialized to drink at the family table, with the expectation that they'll learn to drink responsibly. Dutch researcher Haske van der Vorst has studied this "European drinking model."

Unfortunately, she says, based on her research, the European drinking model isn't working. "Not at all actually," she says. "The more teenagers drink at home, the more they will drink at other places, and the higher the risk for problematic alcohol use three years later."
All of this is very important, because brain researchers have found that alcohol has a profound effect on the young, developing brain--and "young" means people up to 25 years old. Even fairly modest drinking can affect thinking and memory.

I don't have kids, but most of my friends do, and we have all been pretty convinced by the European way. We regularly enjoy beer in the kids' presence, sometimes at pubs. This research makes me question whether this is a good idea.

There are societal implications as well. I've long felt that well-lit family brewpubs were healthy not only for communities (I see no reason to doubt that), but for children who see responsible behavior modeled there. If you buy into the European school, family brewpubs are not only fun places to visit, but they're also useful in reducing addictive and dangerous behaviors. But if the European model is hogwash, as these studies suggest, the very idea of the family pub is thrown into question.

This is going to provoke some deep thinking on the subject. Probably not good to make rash decisions, but it would be worse to ignore these findings--especially those of you with kids. Your thoughts?

Upon further reflection. It's worth adding one comment here. There's no reason to doubt the results of these findings in the aggregate. But parents need to use their judgment when working with real live individual kids. As Sally and I were talking, it occurred to me that the reason I've always found the European model so persuasive is that the "zero tolerance" policy would have definitely driven me straight to the bottle. I have a goat-like character flaw that resists "zero tolerance" anything. But apparently, I'm not typical. Your kid may not be, either.