Middle class Scottish parents who allow children under the age of 15 to have a glass of wine with their Christmas meal are fuelling longer term alcohol problems, health experts have warned.
A move towards mimicking behaviour in countries like France and Spain where children have traditionally been allowed wine at the dinner table, has created the impression that this will lead to a responsible attitude towards alcohol in adulthood.
However, according to the national alcohol charity this perceived move towards a more sophisticated approach that aims to remove the ‘mystique’ surrounding booze in the eyes of children is potentially dangerous.
Well-educated parents were most likely to allow their children to drink at 14, the research by the UCL Institute of Education and Pennsylvania State University in the US found.
Parents who abstained from alcohol tended not to allow their children alcohol, but among those who did drink, heavier drinkers were found to be no more likely to let their children drink alcohol than light or moderate drinkers.
Current guidelines recommend that an alcohol-free childhood is best, with children not drinking any alcohol before the age of 15.
It is legal in Scotland for someone over 18 to buy a child over 16 beer, wine or cider if they are eating a table meal together in licensed premises and for a child aged between five and 16 to drink alcohol at home or on other private premises.
Alison Douglas, Chief Executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland, said: “As children grow up, their attitude towards alcohol will be influenced by what they see, hear and experience at home.
“Many parents think it is a good idea to give their children alcohol to remove the ‘mystique’ and to introduce some control about what, where and how much they drink.
“But it is important for parents to be aware of the potentially very serious harm that alcohol can do to children and young people. An alcohol-free childhood is the best option.
“Children are still developing physically, with brain development continuing into the early twenties.
“Even small amounts of alcohol can have serious consequences.
“The immediate risks include accidents, unprotected sex or being a victim of crime. Regular drinking at a young age can also store up health problems for later life.”
According to the latest figures available two thirds (66%) of 15-year-olds and a third (28%) of 13-year-olds in Scotland have drunk alcohol. Less than half of 13-year-olds (45%) and around two-thirds of 15-year-olds (68%) who have ever had alcohol had been drunk at least once.
The study’s authors were keen to point out that while having better educated parents is generally a protective factor for children, previous research has shown that those who start drinking early are more likely to fail at school, have behaviour issues, as well as alcohol and substance problems as they grow older.
After analysing data on more than 10,000 children born in the UK at the turn of the new century, they found that 17% of UK parents have let their children drink alcohol by the age of 14.
Parents of white children who were employed, had more educational qualifications, and who drank alcohol themselves, were more likely to allow their adolescent children to drink than unemployed parents, those with fewer educational qualifications, and ethnic minority parents.
Professor Jennifer Maggs, who led the study, 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.”
Katherine Brown, chief executive of the Institute of Alcohol Studies, said: “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.”