Should I Let My Son Join a College Fraternity?

My teenage son has begun looking at colleges. Recently, while we were looking at admissions brochures over breakfast, he asked me how I’d feel if he joined a fraternity.

His question transported me back to my university days, when I pledged a fraternity as a freshman and lived for two of my four undergraduate years in the fraternity house. I fondly recalled the camaraderie I enjoyed with my brothers, the spring parties on the roof of our fraternity house, the road trips to nearby girls’ schools, and the pranks the brothers played on the pledges.

I told my son that his joining a fraternity was a great idea.

My wife overheard our conversation from the kitchen and joined us at the breakfast table. “Perhaps you ought to read this first,” she said, handing me her copy of this month’s Atlantic Monthly cover article, “The Fraternity Problem, It’s Worse that You Think,” by Caitlin Flanagan.

“What’s this about?” I asked.

“Read the article,” she said, “and you’ll find out.”

I did. And what I read opened this old frat boy’s eyes, as it would any parent’s.

Flanagan spent a year investigating our modern American fraternity system, and argues fraternities can be a never-ending source of lawsuits due to student injuries and death. Surprisingly, she found that hazing isn’t the worst problem fraternities encounter. The most common claims involve assault and battery, followed by sexual assault and, perhaps most shocking, falls. Fatal and near-fatal falls from fraternity house roofs, fire escapes, windows and balconies, notes Flanagan, are surprisingly frequent occurrences across the country. How can so many otherwise bright, young people fall from such heights on a regular basis? Alcohol, of course. According to Flanagan, brothers and their guests have a tendency to get liquored up and fall off — or out of — their fraternity houses.

But the biggest revelation in Flanagan’s story is that national fraternities often leave parents stuck paying the legal bills. Parents have a false sense of security that in the unlikely event their son gets into legal trouble, the fraternity’s insurance will pay. After all, the most expensive part of joining a fraternity is the portion of their son’s dues that go to fraternity insurance, right?

In fact, says Flanagan, national fraternities tend to drop any college student from its insurance coverage if the student is found in violation of the fraternity’s strict risk management policies. Who will pay for your son’s lawyer and any claims against him? His liability will likely be covered from the umbrella policy of your homeowners’ insurance!

In reading this, I had to put the article down and catch my breath. My memory took me back again to my college days, but this time with a more clear recollection inspired by my perspective as a parent. Those house parties on the roof? There were no guard rails and everyone was three sheets to the wind. It was only through divine providence that no one fell off. Those road trips to girls’ schools? They were fun, but now I remember that on one night, three of the four cars we drove swerved off the highway at the exact same hairpin turn on the road back home. Again, it was a miracle no one was hurt or killed.

Finally, I now recall that the innocent pranks fraternity brothers played on lowly pledges often involved kidnapping a pledge after midnight and dropping him off in the middle of nowhere, some 30 miles out of town. I personally was kidnapped five times (a fraternity record), and on the last occasion, I was confronted by a farmer with a double-barreled shotgun when I knocked on his door to ask to use his telephone. He turned out to be a nice fellow, and gave me a glass of iced tea while I waited for my roommate to pick me up. Still, if that happened to me now with today’s “stand your ground laws,” I’d just as likely receive a backside of buckshot as a cold drink.

Of course, if these pranks were played on my son, I’d be mortified! No way I’ll let my son join a fraternity.

Or would I?

I realize that when my son goes off to college, he’ll be 19 years old and capable of making his own decisions. If I were to tell him he couldn’t join a fraternity, he’d resent me for four years and probably join one anyway.

Instead, I plan to make the issue of joining a fraternity a teachable moment as a parent. I’ll invite my son to look at all sides of fraternity membership before he jumps in. I’ll suggest he read articles about modern fraternity life, including ones that expose some fraternities as not really being so “brotherly” after all, especially when they’re so prepared to cut students loose after one of these incidents.

We’ll discuss values and priorities. Fraternity life is different now than it was in my day, but certain operating principles remain the same: the importance of keeping up grades, the dangers of substance abuse, and in no uncertain terms, that sex with an inebriated woman is immoral, inappropriate, and illegal.

Lastly, I’ll take comfort in knowing that if I raised my son well, I won’t have to worry about him being a rabble-rouser or trouble-maker. And that he’ll develop his own grounded opinions about fraternity life once he’s informed. When the time comes for a final decision whether to join a fraternity, it will be his to make.