Academic journal article American Journal of Health Education

Promoting an Alcohol-Free Childhood: A Novel Home-Based Parenting Program

Academic journal article American Journal of Health Education

Promoting an Alcohol-Free Childhood: A Novel Home-Based Parenting Program

Article excerpt


Our purpose is to describe the rationale for and development of a home-based parent-child program intended to increase the likelihood of an alcohol-free childhood. Few alcohol prevention programs focus on elementary school-aged youth. Yet the elementary school years are a critical time for initiating alcohol use prevention because children develop expectancies and norms about alcohol use during these years (1,2) and many are introduced to alcohol use at home. (3-7)

For many children, first alcohol use occurs when they are allowed to taste drinks that belong to a parent. (3,5,6) Although sips of alcohol are typically not counted in measures of alcohol use onset, sipping a parent's drink can be a powerful socialization experience. Being allowed to sip a parent's drink, or to sip another person's drink in the presence of a parent, can instill the belief in children that parents are tolerant of, or at least will not punish, alcohol use. Parents also may unwittingly reinforce child alcohol use in ways that do not involve child consumption. For example, involving children in fetching and/or pouring drinks for adults and providing children with "mixed drinks" made without alcohol are socialization practices that have the potential to teach children to associate alcohol use with positive events and positive recognition by adults.

Many parents believe that there are benefits to exposing children to alcohol at home. Some believe that allowing sipping is a deterrent because children will not like the taste or that sipping removes the "forbidden fruit" appeal of alcohol. (8) As many as 40% of parents espouse such beliefs, (8) and similarly high percentages of third- to fifth-grade youth report having had a sip or taste of alcohol from a parent's drink. (4)

Although some parents believe that allowing children to sip can be protective, longitudinal research on consequences of early alcohol use indicates that it can put children at increased risk of alcohol use in adolescence. Jackson and colleagues reported that fifth-grade children whose parents allowed them to try a drink with alcohol were twice as likely to report recent alcohol use in the seventh grade as their peers who were not allowed to try a drink. (9) Donovan and Molina found that sipping or tasting alcohol by age 10 was predictive of having a drink of alcohol by age 14, even after controlling for an array of variables measuring psychosocial proneness to engage in problem behavior. (7) These findings suggest that parents need guidance to understand that there are risks associated with an early introduction to alcohol and that the best course is to keep children alcohol-free. Prevention programs targeting parents of elementary school youth have the potential to provide parents with such guidance and to change risk factors within the family to decrease children's exposure to alcohol, including sips. At the same time, such programs can leverage the ability of parents to modify what children learn from social and environmental factors, including media and peers.

In this article we describe an innovative, theory-based program called Mysteries, Max & Me--Discovering How to be Alcohol-Free! The goal of this program--an alcohol-free childhood--is consistent with a leadership initiative of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (10) We elaborate the conceptual foundation of the program, delineate the alcohol-specific socialization objectives of the program, and describe the home-based intervention strategies used to engage parents and 9- to 10-year-old children in alcohol use prevention activities. Our aims in reporting the details of this program are to encourage other investigators and health educators to focus on childhood sipping and to provide a programmatic example that might stimulate others to develop and evaluate similar prevention strategies.


Part 1. Theoretical Foundation: Alcohol Use Socialization During Childhood

Alcohol use is a socially learned behavior, (11) and social learning about alcohol use begins in childhood. …

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