Children as young as 10 are being given alcohol by their parents – because mums and dads are not aware of the damage it can cause, according to a disturbing new survey.
Half of children who have tasted drink say it was their mums or dads who gave it to them.
Now a "Mumtank" team of mothers, with expertise ranging from health and psychology to education and parenting, has been launched to make parents aware of the dangers of children and drinking – along with help and advice on how adults can tackle the tricky subject with their offspring.
Chris Sorek, Chief Executive of the alcohol education charity Drinkaware, which commissioned the survey, said: "Evidence shows that the earlier children start drinking, the more likely they are to drink more and more frequently as they grow up."
As a dad of three kids, aged 10, seven and four, I regularly take my children to the pub. I like the people, I like the atmosphere and they love the lemonade and crisps. And I must confess that I have occasionally given them a slurp of the foam from the head of my pint – yes, even the four-year-old.
My dad used to do the same with me and my brothers, and unless we're all in denial, none of us are alcoholics.
But according to the "Mumtank" experts, I may actually be setting my kids along a path towards binge-drinking.
To be fair, I have seen some sights that have made me spit my pint out, including children as young as seven being given shandies by their parents; barely-teens furtively necking their mums' wine – with their full approval. I know of one who regularly buys a half-bottle of vodka or a couple of cans of lager for her 15 year-old son, which she rationalises by saying it is better she bought it for him rather than see her boy get in trouble with the police if he were to buy it.
The fact is, according to Drinkaware, many parents find the issue of children and booze "tricky" – and in my experience, many of us are just ignorant or indifferent about the subject.
One dad told Parentdish.co.uk: "What's wrong with giving a kid a shandy? It's not illegal and it won't do them any harm."
The mum of a 14 year-old and 12 year-old said she gave her children wine with the Sunday roast because "the French do it".
Today's research shows that while 83 per cent of parents agree it is important to talk to their kids about alcohol, a third admit they are confused about the effects of alcohol on children.
Many parents said they allowed their children to drink from 13 years old.
On the positive side, 72 per cent of the 10-17 year olds questioned said their parents were the first people they would talk to about alcohol.
Other findings revealed that 43 per cent of parents worry that their child's friends have a greater influence on their child's drinking behaviour than they do. And over two thirds of children said they had never felt encouraged to drink alcohol.
The "Mumtank" team, which includes blogger and founder of Tots 100, Sally Whittle; TV's Dr Sarah Jarvis; and Superintendent Julie Whitmarsh from Devon & Cornwall Police, has been tasked with producing a practical and thought-provoking set of resources for parents, which will seek to involve them in the debate and offer advice and guidance on children and alcohol.
This resource will form the centre piece of Drinkaware's parenting campaign this year, which offers advice and tips to parents on how and when to talk to their children about alcohol, in an age appropriate way, between the ages of 8 -17.
"These findings will help to reassure parents that their children are more likely to go to them for advice about alcohol than their peers," said Chris Sorek.
"So it's really important that they have the right advice, information and support to talk to their kids.
Parents are key to tackling the UK 's drinking culture in the long term, and we want to help them ensure their kids don't grow up to be the next generation of binge drinkers.
Superintendent Whitmarsh added: "As a police officer on the frontline, I regularly witness firsthand the negative effects of underage drinking.
"Preventing the sale of alcohol to anyone under 18 is part of any police officer's role, but a more pressing problem that's harder to police is that of 'parent dealers' – parents supplying their children with drinks.
"I believe that we need to do more to help parents understand the importance of the role they have to play in educating their children about alcohol."
Dr Sarah Jarvis said: "While parents may be tempted to encourage children to try alcohol earlier rather than later, as a form of alcohol education, medical evidence shows that an alcohol-free childhood is best."
Dr Pat Spungin, Child and Family Psychologist added: "Research shows that drinking from an early age can have damaging psychological and developmental effects on young people.
"We know that parents are the most important role models a child has, and that children look to their parents for guidance and to set an example on a whole host of issues, particularly alcohol.
"Because children would go to their parents first for information about alcohol, it's really important that parents are prepared to enter into an open and honest dialogue, and have access to all the right facts to do this."
CASE STUDY 'I buy vodka and lager for my 15 year-old son'
"When I was growing up, me and my friends would buy a couple of bottles of cider and get drunk in the stairwells of flats near where we lived," says Marion, 43, a married mum-of-two from London.
"I never told my parents because they would have given me a good hiding, so I was determined to have a different relationship with my own kids.
"My oldest son is 15 years old and like his peers he drinks alcohol every now and then, especially when they go to parties.
"The difference between what he does and what I did is that I, or his dad, buy the booze for him.
I do this for two reasons: one is that I want him to talk to me about it; the other is that I don't want him getting into trouble with the police for buying half a bottle of vodka or a couple of cans of lager from an off-licence or supermarket when he is underage.
"I know in an ideal world he wouldn't drink at all until he is 18 years old, but that's just fantasy land.
"I know he would continue to drink if we were to ban him – but you can't micro-manage a teenager: he'd just be doing it behind our backs and on stairwells, like when I was growing up.
"I'd rather know what he's up to."
But Tots 100's Sally Whittle believes Marion's viewpoint is wrong.
"I think the biggest misconception parents have about kids and alcohol is it's a rite of passage and we all did it when we were young," she said.
"Kids today are less likely to drink but those who do are drinking more, and in riskier ways, so education is vital."
• Further advice can be found at drinkaware.co.uk/parents
What do you think?
How have you talked about alcohol to your kids?
Have you ever bought drink for your teens?