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Monday, May 31, 2010

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.


  1. I haven't seen the study, but I am deeply suspicious that they have controlled adequately for selection. If families that are more permissive with alcohol are also less responsible or more prone to abusive drinking than the results would be biased and there is really no reliable inference you can draw.

  2. I'm in trouble then too, cuz my 6 and 5 year old see me drinking every day and they will likely drink good beer before 21. I too am skeptical of the study. I would have to see the whole explanation. I'd argue that teaching a kid that a pint or two is all a person needs in a sitting (they'll figure out binging when they want to) and being able to drink 6-12 bottles only works when it is "the coldest tasting beer on the planet". I think about this a lot as a parent of two and a brewer. hmmmmm.....

  3. "after the teens' first semester of college"... wow, what a lazy study. To think that someone is stopping their followup after 1 semester is kinda silly.

    Kids become more acclimated to their surroundings and closer to their roommates long after the first semester. I'd love to see some followup by their junior year.

    Also, I hope she went to more than one school. Nothing against PSU but if you've ever been to State College PA... I mean Christ. What else are they going to do but drink?

  4. I can't imagine that the "European method" would work as well in America. After all, there is no "legal drinking age" in places like France and Italy. Hell, in Italy you can even buy alcohol at any age. It's apples and oranges.

    America's alcohol abuse problem isn't going to be solved by "give kids alcohol at home". It will be solved when we get rid of our puritanical laws that demonize alcohol.

    It kills me that in the US, we still haven't learned the simple lesson that every parent knows: Kids think something is cool if only older kids can do it.

    Just look at the epidemiological stats. Europe drinks more than us and has less use disorders. Clearly they are doing something different.

  5. I think one thing that you are missing here is that the study was on kids that were allowed to drink at home vs. those that weren't. It did not say anything about kids being exposed to responsible drinking in family friendly pubs. As the good economist noted above, there are plenty of other factors that might have influenced the results of that study.

  6. The human animal likes to get a buzz, some of us more than others. In particular, adolescents and young adults have always been drawn to intoxicants, and always will be. No amount of abstinence education is going to change human nature, whether it's directed towards alcohol, sex, or what have you.

    Is alcohol detrimental to good health? Legalize some safer alternatives. Meanwhile, carry on and have as much fun as you can without harming other people.

  7. i'm just hoping the boy will enjoy sneaking the occasional Oregon IPA over huffing solvents.

  8. A round of responses:

    Patrick, while I think your suspicion is warranted (I couldn't find the study online), I am reluctant to say "there is no reliable inference you can draw." Having done social science research, I know how difficult it is to construct studies that "control" for behaviors. If you were to break this down, you'd find many--possibly dozens--of variables. Establishing causality is nearly impossible. The correlation is enough to establish some concern.

    Terry, again, it's more than one study. Skepticism is warranted, but I wouldn't throw the baby out with the bathwater here. Note the Dutch findings.

    Stephano, if you have a link to stats on the epidemiology of alcohol abuse, I would LOVE to see them.

    I hope the rest of you are right; it would be comforting to think that being open with your kids about alcohol and telling them the dangers along with appeal would create responsible drinkers later in life.

    I guess I'm just a little less confident in that view in light of this report.