As a recent college graduate of a Big 10 university, I have witnessed much binge drinking. At my university, drinking pervaded the culture. Even when people weren’t mid-chug, an icebreaker and regular topic of conversation was how much they drank last weekend and how poorly they currently felt because of it. At a school where students came from all over the country and from fairly different socio-economic backgrounds, it felt as if the one thing that united many of them was alcohol.

By no means did everyone drink, though. In fact, according to the 2011 results from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 53 percent of Americans aged 18 to 20 said they had never drunk alcohol at all. Unsurprisingly, drinking rates were higher when the survey looked at college students alone. Only 19 percent of undergrads had never tried alcohol in their lifetime; 32 percent reported that they had never been drunk.

Still, there’s undeniable pressure to drink on a college campus. In my experience, those kids who succumb and drink most irresponsibly are those whose parents never talked to them about alcohol and never exposed them to it at all.

Bottoms up

As soon as a student gets to campus, he or she desperately tries to establish an identity.  Oftentimes, students do their best to reinvent themselves, leave their high school baggage behind, and end up overcompensating. Within my first week on campus, at orientation, kids were already talking about how they were planning on “pre-gaming” the president of the university’s speech.

“Pre-gaming” is the process of drinking before an event, so one is able to be drunk for it. Some students seemed to feel the need to drink before going to everything, whether it was a friend’s play or even a class trip to the zoo. During the president’s welcome speech, I vividly remember one student in the back of the auditorium, who had evidently pre-gamed, throwing up as the president was on stage. Needless to say, he had succeeded in establishing an identity early on, but probably not the one he had hoped for.

Rodger Sherman, a fellow graduating member of the class of ’12, believes kids tried especially hard to drink and fit in at his school because so many of them were overachievers who were outsiders in high school. He says he attended a “smarter school, where there were a lot of kids who were the more studious kids. [In college, they] got a chance to unleash and be something they weren’t in high school.”

Prohibition is over ->


The most egregious episode of binge drinking he recalls occurred when two students experimented with alcohol in a dorm room by themselves. Sherman says, “They did a 'fifth challenge,' where they drank a fifth of vodka, and they apparently just kept going, and eventually had to go to the hospital.” They were evidently trying to build up tolerance and see how much they could drink to better prepare for parties. Sherman believes the “problem there was that they were just two guys by themselves who were kind of hiding stuff, so if it was out in the open it would have been less likely to happen.”

Parental involvement trumps school environment in preventing or limiting alcohol and marijuana use by children, according to research from North Carolina State University, Brigham Young University, and Penn State. “Parents play an important role in shaping the decisions their children make when it comes to alcohol and marijuana. To be clear, school programs that address alcohol and marijuana use are definitely valuable, but the bonds parents form with their children are more important. Ideally, we can have both,” says Dr. Toby Parcel, a sociology professor at NC State and co-author of a paper on the work.

Prohibition is over

In my experience, the way parents can combat this type of behavior is to be upfront about drinking and to have an honest conversation about it. That does not necessarily mean being the “cool” parent who encourages your kids’ friends to come over and drink at your house, as long as it’s in your full view. In many ways, such behavior is similar to that of a college freshman's attempts to fit in. 

Rather, having an honest conversation about drinking with your teen means acknowledging that it happens on college campuses and answering any questions your teen might have. Sweeping it under the rug and acting as though drinking doesn’t happen is what leads kids to try to prove their parents wrong.  
Lots of parents are thorough in preparing their kids for college in almost every other way.  They get tutors for their children in high school. They are diligent in researching schools, visiting campuses, and reading every guidebook available. They go to Bed, Bath & Beyond and search far and wide for duvet covers and footie pajamas. But many do not take the time to just have this simple yet incredibly important conversation.

Binge drinking will inevitably continue on college campuses. And some children whose parents talk to them about alcohol openly and honestly will still continue to engage in dangerous behavior. But acting like Prohibition is still the law of the land is not the answer.

Kids who are informed, and who feel as if their judgment has been respected, don’t go to college trying to prove a point by sticking it to mom and dad. When kids are treated like adults, there’s a much better chance they’ll act accordingly.

Lex Singer graduated from college in 2012. He currently lives, works, and writes in New York.


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