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Your kid wants to drink coffee: Is that OK?

Coffee aficionados Drew and Sara Billups have a daughter who’s coffee-curious. Their son? Not so much.


Breaking up our usual hot chocolate vs. steamed milk debate at the coffee shop counter, my 11-year-old says, “I think I’ll have a mocha today.”

“That’s got espresso in it!” I say.

No way, right?

But then, why not?

Coffee drinks have caffeine, sure, but so does soda, which we don’t wholly forbid. Even hot chocolate contains a little caffeine.

Official recommendations run in line with the old “coffee will stunt your growth” warnings. The American Academy of Pediatrics doesn’t recommend caffeine until children reach adult height.

“While there isn't evidence that caffeine intake affects growth directly, some of the side effects of caffeine intake such as poor sleep can impact growth and development, and caffeine is addictive,” says Dr. Natalie Muth, a pediatrician and AAP spokeswoman. Kids — like adults — might get jittery from too much coffee, or develop a dependence and then withdrawal symptoms, or take in loads of sugar in sweet-bombs like Frappuccinos.

Daily double-talls and mainlines of drip coffee are clearly out. As with most parenting issues, though, nuance and personal judgments count for a lot.

I ask Sara Billups what she does with her kids. A mom of two, she’s deeply steeped in the drink. She director of communications for The Beecher’s Foundation and a Seattle writer whose beat includes coffee. Her husband runs the education program and lab at Atlas, a coffee importer.

“My daughter asks for coffee on the weekends or on holidays, whenever we’re not rushing to school or work … She’s 6, and since she’s still little, we pour about an ounce of coffee into a tall mug of milk, so it’s more flavor than substance,” Billups tells me in an email. “We want her to be able to identify the basic taste of coffee and to enjoy the flavor.”

Her son, 9, rarely asks for coffee. But both kids have done cupping sessions, slurping and spitting coffee samples and learning about farming regions, fair trade, and different parts of the world where coffee is grown.

“We know caffeine is a stimulant, and that even a little bit affects kids. We know other things kids consume (cough, sugar) affects them, too. But parents can learn the facts and decide when to let their kids enjoy coffee. Coffee culture is fun, cafés with great design and welcoming staff are fun,” Billups said.

“I'm dreaming here, but beyond hot chocolate, what if cafés offered kid tastings featuring single origins, with, say, a sip of brewed, single-origin Kenya and a sip of Sumatra. The flight could be served with a map that shows where the countries are located, and a flavor wheel so kids can identify different tastes. That may not happen anytime soon, but if it does, my family will be first in line!”

I think mine would be right behind her.

Seattle parent Rebekah Denn’s 16-year-old son does drink coffee daily, and built his own cold-brew contraption after seeing one at Ada’s Technical Books and Café.


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