Thinking of giving your child a glass of wine at dinner? Think again

Youngsters in England are much more likely to have tried alcohol than their peers on the Continent
Youngsters in England are much more likely to have tried alcohol than their peers on the Continent - WESTEND61

It’s what they all do in France, or so we like to say.

But it turns out that allowing our children to drink – be that a small glass of wine with dinner or a sip of cider on a summer’s evening – may be more of an English phenomenon after all.

Youngsters in England are much more likely to have tried alcohol than their peers on the continent, recent research shows. Some 35 per cent of 11-year-old English boys had already had a drink, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), compared with just a quarter of those from France and even fewer from Italy.

And while conventional wisdom has long held that it’s a good idea to let your children have a tipple in moderation at home, experts say it might be time for a rethink.

“This perception that introducing children to moderate drinking is a good way of teaching them safer drinking habits is simply untrue”, says Dr Katherine Severi of the Institute of Alcohol Studies.

In fact, she adds, the earlier a child is introduced to drinking “the more likely they are to develop problems with alcohol in later life”.

Middle-class parents in particular – exactly the sort who might offer their children a dash of red with the Sunday roast – could have an issue on their hands, WHO’s figures suggest.

More than one in two English boys and girls from affluent backgrounds had drunk alcohol before hitting their teenage years, its research found. These rates were far higher than those seen in children of the same age from less well-off families.

Dr Aric Sigman, a psychologist with expertise in alcohol misuse, puts that down to middle-class parenting tendencies.

“Wealthier parents in Britain often see it as their job to introduce their children to culture. Lots might see giving their children a nice glass of French red as basically an extension of showing them European art,” he says. “They think that giving alcohol to their children is safe as long as it’s of a more sophisticated class, and that a pint of Stella is a different beast, but unfortunately that just isn’t the case.”

The problem with that line of thinking is that by giving a child any sort of alcohol you are “switching on genes in the brain’s reward system”, Sigman says, potentially leaving them prone to dependency problems in later life. “You don’t want to increase activity in those areas as it makes children more sensitive to developing addictions in adulthood.”

Instead, Sigman argues, parents with a laissez-faire attitude to underage drinking should be reassessing their approach.

“All the research suggests that, by and large, parents who make it clear that they disapprove of drinking alcohol under age are less likely to have children who drink too much or put themselves into dangerous situations by drinking,” he says.

“Of course you can’t control what your children do, but if you make it clear that it’s not okay with you then they’re much less likely to take things too far.”

Worryingly, WHO’s research indicated that English children – and girls especially – were more likely than those from most other countries to have been drunk at least twice before turning 13.

But parenting styles aren’t the only factor contributing to record levels of child alcohol consumption, experts are keen to stress, with our wider drinking culture at least partly to blame.

“In Britain it used to be the case that pubs would have very short opening hours, which led to a pattern of binge drinking,” says Sigman. “The French, meanwhile, often drink in small amounts all day. It’s no surprise that children emulate what they see in adults, especially on social media.”

Sigman points out that the French in fact have higher levels of alcohol-related mortality than we do in Britain, though they are less likely to be hurt or killed in drunken accidents. “It is not that the French don’t have an alcohol problem but rather it is one of a different kind, that Brits might not recognise,” he says.

‘I wasn’t allowed to drink at all as a teen – and I’d sneak around and take things too far

Still, myth-busting aside, many parents will continue to swear by the old adage that “I’d rather they do it under my roof, where I can see them”, than cede control over alcohol altogether.

Zoe, a 41-year-old mother-of-three, is one such example. She says that after being allowed “an occasional taste of wine, beer or cider” as a teenager, her eldest son, now 22, is “so much more sensible with alcohol than I ever was”.

Zoe was alarmed to hear that so many 11-year-olds have tried alcohol, but still stands by her decision to let her son drink small amounts at home.

“When he was about 13 we’d let him have a sip of whatever we were drinking, if he was curious,” she says, “and it was only when he got to 14 or 15 that we’d let him have a pear cider in the summer or a small glass of wine with a meal at a family celebration”.

Her son has now moved away from home and has a healthy relationship with alcohol, Zoe says. “He does drink on the weekends but not a huge amount. I’ve never seen him have more than two or three drinks,” she says.

“I think we’ve taken the right approach because of his healthy drinking habits as an adult, but also because I wasn’t allowed to drink at all as a teenager, and would sneak around and take things too far,” Zoe says, adding that her son had less than her when the two recently went for a drink together.

“I’d much rather take an educated approach and help my children drink in a way that’s socially acceptable, rather than encourage them to hide it and make it seem taboo.”

Zoe still plans to take a similar approach with her other children, who are much younger, when they grow up – but only if they’re curious about alcohol and want to try it.

“When my son would have an occasional sip it was because he’d asked to taste different things and I didn’t have anything against him trying that,” says Zoe. “Apart from a summer cider, he never enjoyed what he tried very much, and we never encouraged him to have more.”

Indeed, encouraging children to develop a “taste” for alcohol so early is what’s truly problematic, says alcohol addiction coach Anna Donaghey. Donaghey herself has two teenage daughters, both of whom are forbidden from drinking alcohol during family meals.

“The last time we put things in our children’s hands and told them to eat or drink them was when we were weaning them, because we needed them to get used to adult foods and start to enjoy them,” she says. “When you give a child or teenager alcohol they want to like it, and over time they do acquire a taste for it. That’s problematic in my eyes because if that taste is acquired at 11 or 13, they’ll also get familiar with that fuzzy feeling, and might turn to it to cope in their later teenage years rather than finding more healthy strategies.”

Donaghey’s daughters are 13 and 16, and while she hasn’t explicitly told them not to drink, “I certainly talk to them about alcohol and what it is and what it does, and what they need to be aware of”. Donaghey herself doesn’t drink, but is happy for her husband to enjoy a tipple in front of their daughters.

“I’m not under any illusions that I can control what my daughters do,” she says. “Messages of ‘don’t drink’ can be dangerous in the sense that teenagers are at a rebellious age, and they will want to explore. I don’t want to create a forbidden-fruit scenario where they’re tempted by something that seems off-limits and for grownups.

“I just want them to have all the information so they can make good decisions. At the same time, I just don’t want to be the one that puts alcohol in their hands.”