As the parent of a college-bound son who will be deciding whether or not to join a fraternity in the next few months, here are some issues I hope to raise, or re-visit, with him before he embarks on his college experience. (These are matters that are applicable to both males and females, who may be joining any number of activities beginning in adolescence.)
1. Think about your personal boundaries when it comes to pranks, “traditions,” and so-called bonding activities.
2. How do you intend to communicate your intentions should you want to walk away from a “forced” activity?
3. Is membership in any club, team, or organization worth risking your own personal safety or that of a fellow member?
4. Would you speak up if you thought a planned activity seemed dangerous?
Parents, let us:
Use stories in the news as teachable moments.
Engage kids in whatever way is most effective for you and them.
Every conversation has the potential to prevent an injury or a death.
As parents, when most of us learned the horrific details of the last night of Penn State fraternity pledge Tim Piazza’s life, we imagined our child in that, or in a similar, situation.
My kid would never drink that much.
My kid would have called 911 immediately.
My kid would never agree to participate in stupid activities just to belong to a group like that.
Stop right there and please consider (or reconsider) a few things.
Alcohol, especially excessive amounts, clouds judgement, and impairs motor skills.
Diffusion of responsibility and “group think” are real, and oftentimes result in horrendous decisions, no matter how old someone is.
And no matter how much adults may talk to kids about future risky behaviors, that’s no guarantee they will stop and consider those warnings in the heat of the moment.
It is easy to immediately lay the blame at the feet of college fraternities. These deaths get the most public scrutiny and condemnation. Research shows however that hazing, which takes many forms, begins happening in middle school, and is perpetrated by many kinds of organizations: athletic teams, performance groups, and even church groups.
Over the past few decades, national fraternities and sororities have taken many measures to try to prevent hazing activities. Strategies include North-American Interfraternity Conference (NIC) Presidential Commissions on alcohol, hazing and sexual assault; official stances that designate most Greek houses “dry”, and pledge manuals that explicitly “prohibit any type of hazing.” Collegiate mandatory education trainings and formal communications surrounding hazing abound. There are Hazing Prevention organizations and even a toll-free, 24-hour Greek Anti Hazing Hotline, that was established in 2007.
Specifically, in the February 2017 case of Beta Theta Pi at Penn State, the house was “officially” dry, the pledge manual stated no hazing, an adult advisor was allegedly upstairs in the house, and there was at least one camera recording activities in a public, common area. And still a 19-year-old young man is dead.
Each time a tragedy like this occurs, we are sickened all over again. A national conversation swells, yet quickly subsides, unless we are personally touched by it. There are calls to abolish fraternities, when we know that binge drinking and stupid behavior happens in dorms and apartments, on and off campuses, all over the country.
The reality is that a cultural shift still hasn’t happened, despite all the efforts already put forth to end this problem. Like drunk driving and gun violence, these are complicated, multi-faceted issues, and at the end of the day, parents simply cannot protect their children from every potential risk, whether it comes in the form of a bathtub half full of water, or an alcohol-fueled initiation rite in high school or college.
We can help get laws passed, and hold students accountable if they knowingly endanger lives. We can ask questions of organizations and advise our kids about the known risks of joining certain groups.
But our attempts to bring about critical thought and behavior change begins within our own families. Some would argue that by the time our kids are heading off to college, it’s probably too late. I don’t believe so.