If you play the word association game with "fraternities" and "sororities," what pops into your mind? "National Lampoon's Animal House"? "Legally Blonde"? Philanthropy? Drinking? For now, forget John Belushi and Reese Witherspoon's send-up performances, and put aside your biases. After all, the 350,000 undergraduate men who belong to fraternities — and the 268,000 undergraduate women who belong to sororities — think the Greek system is worthwhile, whether they're interested in community service, leadership, or partying. Here's what you need to know if your kids are thinking about "rushing":
Encourage your children to find the place that's most like a home. Kids should ask themselves, "Where am I most comfortable, who am I most comfortable talking to, where am I going to get the best support, the most resources, and the best memories of college?" says Pete Smithhisler, president and CEO of the North-American Interfraternity Conference. "Finding that place is the first step."
Remind your kids to put academics first. "Neither going Greek nor not going Greek should affect the education you get, and you should not let it have an effect except in a positive way," says Bob Hamrdla, former executive director of Sigma Alpha Epsilon and assistant emeritus to the president of Stanford University. "Ask at rush what the respective group does to further your development as a student as an individual. Make the members be specific as to how they will promote the member's scholastic, athletic, and civil skills and nature." Be wary of a group that is secretive. "Any fraternity worth its salt should welcome the student who asks the above questions," says Hamrdla.
Encourage your kids to ask questions. What do they need to do as members? What will their chores be, how much will the group cost, and what will they need to do for rush and initiation? Are they interested in going Greek because they think the food and lodging are better? "Does the sorority or fraternity have a reputation as a party place or a study place?" says Dr. Michelle Barratt, professor of pediatrics at the University of Texas at Houston, a former member of the AAP's committee on adolescence—and the mother of five kids (ages 9, 16, 17, 20, and 22). "What is the teen's focus — social or educational? Is under-age drinking encouraged, allowed, or banned? What are the other living options for their college? What does the teen see as the pros and cons for those options? How will they feel if they are not chosen into their No. 1 house?"
Understand hazing. Today anti-hazing laws are on the books in 44 states. That means Greek members are not supposed to prohibit fellow students from sleeping or eating, to force them to use drugs or drink alcohol, to lock them up, or to physically abuse them or call them names. Some schools, such as the University of Connecticut, prominently post these rules and even allow students to report inappropriate behavior online. "I joined my fraternity because it ensured that I would not be hazed," says Smithhisler. "They were true to their word." Make sure your child's Greek group makes a similar promise to him. "If he doesn't get a straight answer or an 'absolutely, we are hazing free here,' he should seek another opportunity," says Smithhisler. The NIC's anti-hazing policy is now 35 years old.
Think about booze. Encourage your child to pick a fraternity or sorority that de-emphasizes it. Do not assume all fraternities and sororities promote it. Many do quite the opposite. Still, each year a couple students do die from alcohol abuse during fraternity initiations. In 2008, for example, Utah State student Michael Starks died from alcohol poisoning. So did California Polytechnic State University freshman Carson Starkey. (Last month the Huffington Post reported that his fraternity "big brother" is paying the parents $500,000.) Another death: University of Delaware freshman Brett Griffin, who drank far too much Southern Comfort. In that case, the parents' lawsuit says the fraternity brothers did not call for medical help until the boy's lips turned blue. (Over the years, fraternities have been known to try giving pledges syrup of ipecac so they would throw up after drinking large quantities of liquor. But the National Capital Poison Center notes the lack of research that shows people who swallow the stuff after poisoning do any better than others.)
Keep an open mind. Parents should encourage their kids not to accept "folklore" about whether to go Greek, says Hamrdla. "Investigate all the sources of information, and do so with an open mind." If your kids are on the fence, they still may want to rush just to make some new friends and to find out first hand about the pros and cons to Greek living.
Learn about housing. Some chapters offer it and others don't. Reach out to the Greek adviser at your child's college, suggests Nicki Reas Meneley, executive director of the National Panhellenic Conference.
Watch for signs of trouble. "If the son is overly tired, the son is struggling academically, that's the time to intervene," says Smithhisler. "Ask him what's up. Identify what is going on. Is he playing too much?" If the problems seem related to the Greek group, parents can intervene and contact the national fraternity. "I always say, 'Mom and dad, follow your gut instinct,'" says Smithhisler. "Really seek to foster that open communication with your son."
Think about your Greek experiences. Whether they were positive or negative, they may color your thinking. Perhaps your fraternity brothers drank a lot. "Just because it's happened in the past doesn't make it right," says Smithhisler. "For those moms and dads who have a fraternity experience, they should not assume today's fraternity experience is the same."
Pay attention on college visits. "As mom and dad and the child are going around, they should be talking about not only the academic experience they want, but what they want their child's complete college experience to be," says Smithhisler. "I thrive in an environment that is kind of active, that is social, that is not in a negative way somewhat competitive. I wanted to have my intramurals, but I wasn't a great athlete. Fraternity intramurals were a great place to have that outlet." In his fraternity, he also got to use his leadership skills.
Talk to members. Encourage your child to attend a couple meetings before signing on the dotted line. "You need to find out who these people are and what their activities are," says psychologist Marcella Bakur Weiner, co-author of The Problem Is the Solution. "Whatever they're going to say to tantalize you, you need to do a test run." Talk to your child afterward.
Consider cost. Living in a frat or sorority house can be more or less expensive than living in a dorm, depending on the college. That's true even factoring in dues, which can cost several hundred dollars per semester. Many Greek groups charge less for room and board than the dorms do, so your child may still wind up ahead. Investigate individual schools. Check out the give and take about costs on sites such as College Confidential.
Read all about Greek groups. And share good information with your children. In the process, your kids will see you are "interested in their welfare," says Weiner. "It's a sign that you care." See greekrank.com for lists of the largest fraternities and sororities and for the names of Greek organizations at individual schools. Other sites, such as collegeview.com and teenadvice.about.com, give good overviews. Individual colleges' departments of Greek life are good sources. If your child is at North Carolina State University, for example, see its list of fraternity and sorority chapters on campus. You can also check the national sites for each fraternity and sorority (say, Sigma Alpha Epsilon or Kappa Kappa Gamma). Remember the North-American Interfraternity Conference, which represents 73 fraternities, and the National Panhellenic Conference, which represents 26 sororities. For sororities, also check out thesororitylife.com and sororityparents.com. For African-American Greek information, see Black College Search. (It notes that Martin Luther King, Duke Ellington, and Thurgood Marshall belonged to Alpha Phi Alpha.) And for Hispanic Greek information, see the National Association of Latino Fraternal Organizations.
Figure out whether fraternities and sororities are the norm at your child's school or potential school. The largest Greek communities are at large public institutions. But at some private schools an even higher percentage of students join fraternities and sororities. About 80 percent of the undergraduates at such as Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, belong to fraternities or sororities, according to the school's Facebook page. "Make a sound judgment about the place of Greek life on the campus," says Hamrdla. "In some schools, Greek life is central. In others, it is peripheral. Do you care which, and if so, why?"
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