Parents make a difference in the long run when it comes to adolescents and alcohol, experts say. Permissiveness sends the wrong message. 

Permitting children under 21 to drink in an effort to “supervise” and expose them to alcohol safely has been linked to earlier and heavier drinking in adolescence, said Dr. George F. Koob, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. 

“Following the ‘European model’ or attempting to train kids to drink responsibly doesn’t work. Countries like France and the United Kingdom have a big problem with binge drinking,” Koob said. 

The good news is that underage drinking is on the decline in the United States, and has been  steadily for the past 15 years, Koob said. The bad news is that about one-quarter of high school seniors binge drink, as do about one-third of college seniors, he said. 

The main reason experts advise against allowing kids under 21 to drink is biological; it can harm the brain’s frontal cortex, the area responsible for decision making, Koob said. 

“Even playing around with a few sips (of alcohol) is not proven to be beneficial,” he said. Common sense comes into play, though. If alcohol is part of a religious ceremony, that is OK, Koob said. 

“Permissiveness about alcohol sends the wrong message. Teens see a green light to drink. The most compelling data we have shows that excessive drinking under 21 is not good for brain development,” he said. A few sips of alcohol is not going to do lasting damage, but as a matter of practice it’s a better idea to wait. 

“Nothing bad is going to happen if you don’t allow your child to drink,” Koob said. For more information, go to the National Institutes of Health’s Rethinking Drinking website, rethinkingdrinking.niaaa.nih.gov.