Some parents allow their children to sip alcohol, thinking it will help them to resist peer pressure later — but that might not be the best approach, the authors of an American study say.

Researchers surveyed about 1,000 mothers and their third-grade children in North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee as part of a four-year study on preventing alcohol use.

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A girl drinks beer during the beer festival in eastern China. Two-thirds of third graders surveyed in the Southern U.S. said they'd had a sip of alcohol. (Nir Elias/Reuters)

At least one in five of the parents said they believed that children who sip alcohol will be better at resisting peer pressure to drink, and less likely to try risky drinking, the study's authors said in Monday's issue of the Archives of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine.

"This finding indicates that many parents mistakenly expect that the way children drink at home, under parental supervision, will be replicated when children are with peers," they wrote.

"This expectation is refuted by recent studies that link adolescent brain development with adolescents' propensity to disregard home drinking norms when they are with peers."

The study, which was led by Christine Jackson of RTI International at Research Triangle Park in North Carolina, called for education campaigns to let more parents know that home drinking norms don't curtail risky drinking when young people are out with their friends.

'It's not really sustainable to say if you're laid back and laissez-faire that the problems vanish.'—Tim Stockwell, director of the Centre for Addictions Research of BC

Tim Stockwell, director of the Centre for Addictions Research of BC in Victoria, called education campaigns  premature.

"The question is whether it's cause and effect," Stockwell said.

"We've done some research here that suggests what was most important was the age at which kids first get drunk. That predicted far more than the age at which they first had a drink and I'm thinking that would apply to a sip. All the worries about alcohol are not about sipping."

Previous studies suggested that fifth graders whose parents allowed them to drink alcohol were twice as likely to report drinking in seventh grade, the researchers said.

In the latest study, the average age of the children was nine. About a third of them, 344 children, said they had not had a single sip of beer, wine (excluding as part of a religious service), or any kind of alcohol.

Forbidden fruit

Some children may sneak a sip of adults' drinks. In other cases, parents may purposely introduce children to alcohol because they believe they won't like the taste, or that it will eliminate the "forbidden fruit" appeal of alcohol.

A minority of the mothers in the study, between 15 per cent and nearly 40 per cent, strongly or somewhat agreed that early sipping can be beneficial.

Since the findings might reflect the level of trust between parent and child, Stockwell said he’s waiting for the next chapter of the research, which will try to control for other factors that might predict excessive drinking.

"Prosipping" beliefs were more strongly held among white women and among more highly educated women, the researchers said, adding they have no explanation for the finding.

As for the more relaxed attitudes toward drinking common in Europe, Stockwell noted that historically, countries like France and Italy have had high rates of death from alcohol.

"It's not really sustainable to say if you're laid back and laissez-faire that the problems vanish."

But there is evidence suggesting that early drinking may harm the developing brain and nervous system, he added.

The researchers described their work as the first study to investigate the prosipping belief among parents of elementary school-aged children, and said they had only scratched the surface.

The sample was from the southern United States, and 49 per cent of the mothers were college-educated. The findings might not apply to other populations or to the minority of adults in the U.S. who are teetotalers (estimated at less than 10 per cent).

Last year, Health Canada reported that the average age of initiation of alcohol use among Canadian youth was 16.

With files from CBC's Amina Zafar