Middle-class parents are risking their children’s health by allowing under-14s to have alcohol with meals, experts warn today.
Educated people and those with professional jobs are far more likely to let youngsters drink. They believe this will help prevent them binge-drinking as they grow older.
But this is a myth, says a report by researchers from University College London.
Those who drink in adolescence tend to do worse at school, are more likely to become alcoholic adults and have shorter life expectancy, evidence suggests.
Report lead author Professor Jennifer Maggs said: ‘Parents of socially advantaged children may believe that allowing children to drink will teach them responsible use or may, in fact, inoculate them against dangerous drinking.
‘However, there is little research to support these ideas.’
Researchers analysed data from a study that tracked 10,000 British children born in 2001.
When they were 14, the children were asked whether they had drunk alcohol and, in a separate interview, their parents were asked whether they had allowed their child to drink.
Overall, 17 percent of parents said they had allowed their child to drink, while 50 percent of the teenagers said they had consumed alcohol – with or without their parents’ permission.
But parents’ views differed widely according to their social, professional and educational standing.
Parents with ‘routine’ or ‘semi-routine’ jobs were 43 percent more likely to allow their child to drink before the age of 14 than those who were unemployed.
Those with ‘managerial’ and ‘professional’ jobs were 66 percent more likely and those who ran a business or were self-employed were 82 percent more likely.
For every additional stage of education a parent had completed, from GCSE to A-level to undergraduate degree to postgraduate degree, they were 10 percent more likely to let a child drink, says the research, published in the Journal of Adolescent Health.
Professor Maggs said many families believe encouraging ‘responsible’ consumption at a young age will stop irresponsible drinking later – with many citing France, where alcohol laws are more liberal but there is less public drinking.
‘That is a myth,’ she said. ‘Street drinking is more of a problem in the UK than Europe, but heavy drinking at home is still a problem.’
Katherine Brown, chief executive of the Institute of Alcohol Studies, said: ‘The Chief Medical Officer recommends that an alcohol-free childhood is best, with children not drinking any alcohol before the age of 15.
‘This is important guidance because alcohol can harm children given their bodies and brains are not yet fully developed. It is worrying to see that this advice may not be getting across to parents, who are trying to do their best to teach their children about alcohol.’
Dr Richard Piper, chief executive of Alcohol Research UK, said: ‘While parents may feel that giving their children small amounts of alcohol may help them develop a healthier relationship with alcohol, evidence suggests that this is not the case.’