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Many children get their first exposure to alcohol in their own home not by drinking, but by sipping and tasting alcohol by the age of eight to 10. The sipping and tasting is not the result of their parents encouraging it, but rather because parents and others model it.

The good news, according to the authors of the study of 452 Pennsylvania children, is that sipping and tasting alcohol by children does not appear to be associated with a tendency to engage is delinquent or other problem behavior.

According to lead author John E. Donovan of the University of Pittsburgh, drinking by children -- not sipping and tasting -- is linked to "higher levels of disinhibition, more positive alcohol expectancies, more peer alcohol use, and lower school grades, just as it does in adolescence."

40 Percent Sipped Alcohol by Age 10

Some of the study findings include:

  • Nearly 40 percent of children aged eight to 10 have sipped or tasted alcohol, but only six percent have ever had a drink.

  • Alcohol is most often sipped by children in the family context or during religious services, and almost never with friends or when alone.

  • Children in families in which the parents drink are at greater risk for having sipped or tasted alcohol as young as age eight or 10.

  • Children whose parents drink more frequently are at higher risk of having had a sip or taste of alcohol.

The greater risk to children whose parents drink is not due to the parents offering the children alcohol, the authors conclude. One-third of mothers and half of fathers whose children have sipped alcohol are not aware of it.

Reflecting Parental Modeling

"In short, early encounter with alcohol in young children is largely an opportunistic experience, related to what happens in the family, such as drinking at family dinners, or at family celebrations such as weddings, barbecues, etc., and the fact that parents are themselves drinkers," said Robert A. Zucker, director of the Addiction Research Center at the University of Michigan, in a news release. "Thus, young children's sipping and tasting of alcohol reflects parental modeling of alcohol use and increased opportunities to try alcohol in the home rather than deliberate family socialization of alcohol use."

"People need to recognize that parents are not the only source of models for drinking to which children are exposed," said Donovan. "They are literally bombarded by beer commercials on TV, by alcohol ads in magazines and on the radio, and by characters in primetime TV shows and even in half of all animated children's films who are shown drinking alcohol usually without any negative consequences like bar fights, unwanted or unintended sexual experiences, or car crashes.

"Children whose parents do not drink, or who do not drink in the presence of their children, are also exposed to these other models for alcohol use. Seeing their own parents drinking, however, is an important predictor of whether they themselves have ever had a sip or a taste of alcohol."

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