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Don’t blame me, I don’t ask the questions, I just answer them :).
Recently over Twitter, I was asked in jest (I hope) by a ten-year old whether or not it was too early in his life to start drinking coffee. At first, it just made me laugh. Then, I realized that in answering the question there was a great opportunity to go back to basics on coffee consumption and caffeine.
I myself only started drinking coffee at around 16 years old, but what would happen if you started giving coffee to a ten-year old? I’m no biologist, or really an “ologist” of any kind. But we have enough common sense about caffeine and the rest of the information is out there. Here’s what I learned.
This is a myth. Drinking coffee at too young an age will not stunt that child’s growth as previously believed. The effects of caffeine on the nervous system are the same for a child as they are for an adult, and will not interfere in the child’s physical development.
Caffeine is an ergogenic (that’s the biggest word I’ll use in this post, I promise). That means it raises awareness and reduces the sensation of being tired. For infrequent coffee drinkers, that could mean jitters or excitement, even giddiness. In a ten-year old, that means hyperactivity. Children are less likely than adults to try and control that newfound energy, leading to a loss of control. Here, I think the real question is what has the ten-year old done in the past with similarly “artificial” energy from eating too much chocolate at once. If he works it off by playing a sport, that’s a little more productive than if he marches around the house banging pots and pans together.
Every artificially induced high has an inevitable low, and eventually the effects of the caffeine will wear off, leaving the ten-year old with a unique feeling: coming down. Coming down isn’t just being exhausted, it’s being “artificially” exhausted. In adults, symptoms include anxiety, confusion, irritability, and insomnia. In a ten-year old with less experience in managing these kinds of feelings over his life, the symptoms will be more pronounced, albeit short-lived since caffeine is relatively mild in its effects, and a dependency hasn’t developed yet.
Adults who drink coffee develop something called “tolerance adaptation“. That means my system is so accustomed to drinking coffee that it produces chemicals and reactions on the basis of expecting it. I can’t feel the effects of caffeine, only a lack of it (or to quote an old friend, “You don’t drink from the coffee pot, it drinks from you now.”). If I had to endure withdrawal, my system would need to reorganize itself chemically and to stop expecting the regular doses of caffeine. That process wouldn’t be quick, and would be horrible for the people around me.
The good news for the ten-year old is how much easier his system could shake off any short-term dependency versus the decades that my system has accepted it as much as any chemical that it produces naturally. So can a ten-year old drink coffee?
In my mostly uneducated opinion, it should be considered a heavy-duty “chocolate” reward, something of similar effect (and similar in “coming down” when it wears off). If a ten-year old liked the smell of coffee, he might also like an espresso-size serving of it. Espresso is ironically not a bad choice, since it (contrary to popular belief) has less caffeine that regular coffee, but much flavor. The ten-year old will not have enough of it to develop a dependency so the real task is managing him after the caffeine heightens his senses and gives him the perception of more energy. Keep portions small and infrequent – it will keep the ten year old manageable. Or, set a minimum age for his first coffee so he has something to look forward to.