When is it prudent to allow a child to start drinking coffee, or any caffeinated beverage? I have heard that “caffeine stunts your growth,” but I don’t know if there is much data on that or other possible ill effects. I don’t want my children (13 and 9) consuming lots of sugar in soda, but my 13-year-old in particular has been asking for years when she can start drinking coffee. I put her off with a blanket “not until high school” for a long time, but I chose that age range arbitrarily based on my own experience. She often steals sips from my cup (cream no sugar) and has had decaf a few times. Is it foolish to introduce her to the caffeine addiction that seems ubiquitous in our country, or am I denying her a pleasure (which I regularly enjoy) for no good reason?—Coffee-loving Jen
I am drawn to this question because I could have written it. I love coffee (as everyone who reads this knows), and I also started drinking it in high school because that was the arbitrary rule. I have given the same arbitrary rule to my 11-year-old. This is met with a lot of resistance, as she also loves the taste of coffee.
To begin at the old wives’ tale: there is no data to suggest that caffeine stunts growth, and no mechanism for it to do so. It is true that, for example, kids who drink caffeinated sodas tend to be heavier than those who do not, but this is (a) likely conflating correlation and causation to some extent, (b) unlikely to have anything to do with caffeine, and (c) about weight, not height.
More generally, although there are many claims out there about coffee being good or bad for your health, this is one of those things where causality is just too big of a challenge to be at all confident.
These data points are, I suppose, a pro in the “caffeine now” column.
On the flip side, I’d put two things. First, sleep is super-, super-important for kids (and adults, but we are more of a lost cause). Caffeine can interrupt and worsen sleep, and meta-analyses suggest that adolescents who consume more caffeine have worse sleep habits. This is a bit hard to draw strong conclusions from, since sleepiness may induce caffeine consumption rather than vice versa, but certainly drinking coffee late in the day messes with most people’s sleep. This is a reason for caution.
Second, caffeine is addictive. It’s not nicotine, obviously, and many people do quit. But there is a reasonable chance (as you say in your last sentence) that once your kids start drinking coffee, they will stick with it. This realization is my main reason to wait until high school. That feels to me like a time when I’ll be comfortable with having them make a decision on this scale that they have to live with forever. Giving into the 7-year-old’s request for coffee in the morning feels like my making a choice for him about his lifetime caffeine consumption. Allowing a 14-year-old to make that choice feels more comfortable.
One conclusion is that there is no specific data-based response here. For me, I’m sticking with high school.