When Clare Matthews and her family sit down for a celebratory meal, they always make sure there is a bottle or two of their favourite wine on the table. Glasses are poured and raised by Clare and her husband Rob, as well as their daughter Sophie and son Ben if they fancy it.
It’s a convivial family scene recreated in millions of middle-class households. Yet some may raise eyebrows when they learn that Sophie and Ben are only ten and nine respectively.
While they are otherwise careful parents, Clare, 41, a part-time administrator, and Rob, 38, a diver, have no qualms about allowing their children to drink alcohol. In fact, they’ve been having the odd tipple since the age of eight.
Charlotte Jackson who allows her boys Joshua, 12, (left) and Oliver, 11, (right), to drink alcohol, at home in Torquay
The couple are not doing anything illegal — children in the UK are allowed to consume alcohol at home from the age of five. And one survey suggests that half of parents with children under the age of 14 allow them to drink alcohol at home.
Yet this week a study found that children who are allowed to try alcoholic beverages are more likely to grow up to be binge-drinkers.
Researchers from the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre in Australia, who carried out the seven-year study, reported that among children who had been allowed sips of alcohol by their parents, 69 per cent reported binge drinking by the age of 18 — compared with 42 per cent for children who were not allowed alcohol at all.
The drinks industry itself has also condemned the practice. Albert Baladi, chairman of the industry-funded International Alliance for Responsible Drinking, has appealed directly to parents not to share alcohol with their children ‘even if they do so with good intentions’.
Clare Matthew and kids Sophie, ten, and Ben, nine, from Colchester, Essex
Meanwhile, the UK Chief Medical Officer has recommended an alcohol-free childhood as the healthiest option, and some studies suggest children’s physical and mental health may suffer in the long-term if they start drinking at an early age.
Yet many people swear that a little tot now and then nurtures a healthy attitude to drink. The Duchess of Cornwall, for example, admits that her love for wine was fostered at a young age. ‘My father was in the wine business so I was brought up as a child drinking wine and water, rather like the French,’ she said.
But for Clare, from Colchester, Essex, the decision to allow her youngsters to try alcohol under supervision came from lessons learned in her own childhood.
‘I was always allowed a glass of wine on Christmas Day from the age of ten onwards, but other than that, my parents didn’t really have it in the house,’ she says.
‘I didn’t have any awareness of the dangers and around the age of 13 I started hanging around with friends who used to get drunk on alcopops and spirits. We were bored teenagers, growing up in a small, northern town — Cleethorpes — and there was nothing more to do than hang around in the park.
The older kids would buy drinks for us from the newsagent and it chills me to think of the situations I put myself in. I once ran drunk into the cold North Sea with two other girls. I fell asleep in a nightclub when I was 14. I even ended up at a male stranger’s house with two friends when I was really drunk. Thankfully, nothing happened but I was so lucky.
‘When I joined the Army at 19, I carried on binge-drinking. It got me into situations I regret — sleeping with people I shouldn’t have and doing stupid things. I once went on a massive binge with friends and crawled in at 4am, only to drive up the motorway at 8am the following day to a christening. I must still have been hugely over the limit and I massively regret doing that now.’
Christine and Shaun Connor are pictured with their two sons William, 15, (centre left) and Henry, 13 (centre right) at their home in Tedburn St Mary, Exeter, Devon
Around the age of 30, when Clare met her husband, she decided enough was enough. ‘Rob and I would still have the occasional drink socially and I now enjoy a glass of wine with a meal. But we’re not big drinkers and can take it or leave it.
‘When our children were born, I didn’t want them to have the same unhealthy relationship with alcohol as I’d had. Sophie’s first taste of alcohol was aged about two. I had a glass of Asti and she was pointing at it so I dipped my finger in to let her taste it and gave her a tiny sip, expecting her not to like it. But she wanted more and of course I said, “Noooo, that’s far too young!”
‘But if you restrict kids from anything, it makes it more appealing. So a couple of years ago, when she was about eight, she asked if she could try some of my drink and I said yes. I poured her a tiny glass of sparkling wine and let her have that. She drank it and, although she got a little bit more talkative and a little flushed, it didn’t affect her badly.
She has tried wine and gin as well but doesn’t like the taste. Ben has tried it and doesn’t like any kind of alcohol so steers clear. But he is allowed to have it if he wants.’
Two years on, Sophie is allowed to drink alcohol on a handful of occasions as long as her parents are present. ‘It’s interesting because when I hand the glass to Sophie, she always says, ‘I don’t want to get drunk mum’ and is very cautious,’ says Clare. ‘I want her to have that approach with alcohol. I’d prefer her to be able to have a drink or two openly with her mum at home than sit in the park with friends and binge-drink.
Parents and children share alcoholic drinks (file photo). Clare says she has lost friends over her relaxed style of parenting
‘Some people will find this shocking or plain wrong. I’ve even lost a couple of friends over my relaxed style of parenting. But some mothers are too afraid to let go and they micro-manage their children. They place strict rules on them and it absolutely terrifies the kids.
‘Sophie and I are able to discuss anything from alcohol to sex and drugs very openly. I’d rather they have the facts and the knowledge than get it wrong. I want to make her responsible, trustworthy and respectful with things like alcohol. I believe I’m doing the right thing.’
Clare may see her approach as sensible but official guidance on young people and alcohol is clear.
‘Experts advise that parents shouldn’t try to de-mystify alcohol by allowing children to try it, especially around special occasions,’ says GP Dr Sarah Jarvis, an expert in child health issues and a medical adviser to Drinkaware.
‘Our research shows that only one in ten middle-earning parents are aware of the Chief Medical Officer’s guidelines on delaying drinking to the age of 15, but when presented with this guidance, nearly seven in ten parents agreed with the recommendations.’
Teaching assistant Charlotte Jackson admits mistakes in her youth when it came to drink and is determined not to let her sons Joshua, 12 and Oliver, 11, fall into the same traps. ‘I wasn’t allowed alcohol when I was a child,’ says Charlotte, 33, from Torquay, Devon. ‘I remember first tasting Baileys at Christmas with my auntie and thinking it was delicious but I could never tell mum. But like any teenager, I drank.
A study found children who try drink from young age more likely to binge-drink in later life
‘We moved to Spain when I was in my early teens and it’s so easy to access alcohol out there. I’d go out with my friends around the age of 14 and we’d end up drinking in clubs.
‘My mum had no idea until one time, when I was 16, I had far too much, mixing my drinks, and ended up being taken to hospital to have my stomach pumped. I was ill for a week. Mum was furious and grounded me. But there was no long-term damage. I was much more sensible after that.
‘Joshua first asked me about alcohol when he was about ten and I told him it was a special drink for grown-ups and allowed him to have his first Buck’s fizz that Christmas. He sipped it and seemed to like it. He got a bit giggly and excited but wasn’t sick. I’d always keep a close eye on him.
‘Now, I allow them to have a little can of cider at barbecues or birthday parties as long as they are with me. I’d never allow them to be out drinking on the streets with their mates. I’ve told my boys about the dangers and about the stomach-pumping incident when I was a teenager so they know it can be dangerous. I’m much more worried about them trying drugs than alcohol.’
In a major global study this year, Britons reported getting drunk an average of 51.1 times a year. The U.S., Canada and Australia were close behind but countries like France, Spain and Italy didn’t even feature in the top ten.
Christine Conner, 55, is another mother who believes children should be allowed to drink under the age of 16. The TV producer lives in Exeter with husband Shaun, a partner in an insurance company, and they have five children between them including sons William, 16, and Charlie, 14, who have both been allowed to drink alcohol from the age of around 12.
‘I was allowed to drink from a fairly young age and at Sunday lunch I’d be allowed diluted ‘children’s wine’,’ she says. ‘By the time I was in my mid-teens, my mother would let me have a little bit of alcohol on occasions. But I’m no stranger to the damage alcohol can do.
‘Both my grandfather and my father were alcoholics and both died from the complications, as have some other family members. But I can say honestly that none of them became alcoholic from being introduced to a small amount of drink on a Friday night at home, as we have here. The decision to allow all my sons alcohol from an early age does not come lightly.
‘As parents, we need to guide our children, talk to them and give them information not only about drink but also about sex and drugs. I want my boys to be able to discuss with me if they’ve overdone it with drink and not be ashamed to tell me if they have a hangover. It’s about them taking responsibility for their actions.’
Christine believes that banning alcohol until children are 18 is unrealistic in modern parenting. ‘If children are told they can’t do something, they want to do it all the more. That’s not to say children should get drunk. I don’t want to see a 14-year-old throwing up thanks to alcohol, but I’d be naïve if I thought it’s never going to happen.
‘William is allowed to take a couple of beers to parties and sleepovers if others are, but I always ensure that the parents at the party know he’s taking it and make sure he has permission. If anything, it’s not so much the boys taking booze, but the girls. I once saw some 14-year-old girls taking what I thought were bottles of water into a party, and was impressed at how sensible they were being until my son told me it was vodka.
‘Charlie has been allowed the occasional drink on a special occasion, or a beer on a Friday night with the rest of the family. I want my children to grow up knowing what their limits are. William likes a local cider and is allowed to take a couple of bottles of that to parties or drink it at home.
‘I’m not worried about them damaging their liver at this age. I think it’s an exaggerated worry. They could damage themselves with paracetamol if they had too much. It’s binge-drinking later that could damage them.
‘We certainly don’t encourage them to get drunk, but I’m sure the older ones have with their mates at some point. I don’t like the thought of it but just hope that the lessons learnt at home with the odd beer or two will stand them in good stead.’