Stanford parents enlisted to help curb risky drinking

The university has created an advisory group of parents to help it understand how to curb risky drinking among students. One of the group's first projects was helping the university write to parents of incoming freshmen this summer to ask for their help.

Stanford is reaching out to parents to seek their help in curbing high-risk drinking on campus.

For the past year, a group of 10 parents has been meeting as the Stanford Parents Alcohol Advisory Group, all appointed by Greg Boardman, vice provost for student affairs. Among the group's first projects was helping Boardman and Ralph Castro, director of the Office of Alcohol Policy and Education, pen a first-of-its kind summer letter to parents of incoming freshmen.

The letter, co-signed by Stanford parent and alumnus Sally Lannin, who co-chairs the advisory group with Castro, encourages parents to talk to their children about alcohol use "early and often."

Lannin, the mother of a Stanford graduate and two current students, said freshmen arrive with a wide variety of experience with alcohol. She said she hopes the letter educates parents about the challenges their children will face and specifically encourages them to explain the dangers of "pre-gaming," which consists of consuming large quantities of alcohol in a short period of time.

"This is not about right versus wrong," she said. "It's about smart versus stupid and safe versus unsafe."

The letter is among the group's first efforts in helping the university enlist parents' help in encouraging students to make responsible choices about alcohol, Castro said.

"Instead of it being their issue versus our issue, we want to bring parents in on an advisory capacity to learn what we are doing, advise us on what we could be doing and help us better reach out to their children," he said.

Today's parents tend to be more involved than parents of previous generations in the lives of their college-age children. They have, Castro said, a "good pulse" on their children and can help create messages that might resonate. In addition, Castro hopes members of the advisory committee can serve as ambassadors able to share with other parents the university's ongoing efforts to address the nationwide problem of binge drinking among college students.

Among those efforts is the creation of the new Office of Alcohol Policy and Education, the proliferation of university-sponsored, non-alcohol events and enhanced training for student resident assistants. During the coming year, Castro and his staff also plan to sponsor town hall meetings to encourage the creation of a campus culture that discourages high-risk drinking.

But research shows, Castro said, that parents can also be crucial. Those who have face-to-face conversations with their children about alcohol use can have a positive effect once those children reach college. Research also shows, he said, that the longer people delay consuming alcohol, the lesser their chances are of developing a drinking problem later in life.

"This isn't the kind of issue that parents can tuck away or hope someone else deals with. If they do, TV, the media and peers will fill in the knowledge gap they leave," he said. "The bottom line is that parental disapproval can be a significant deterrent. Parents who have frank conversations with their children and who set realistic expectations for behavior can have a huge effect."

Castro said many of Stanford's peer institutions engage parents through letters or web pages. To the best of his knowledge, only Stanford has created a parent committee to specifically advise administrators about how to curb risky drinking.

Surveys have traditionally shown that Stanford students drink less than their collegiate counterparts nationwide. But all that is changing, Castro said, for Stanford and for its peer institutions. Surveys now show that the drinking challenges among Stanford students are very similar to those of college students nationwide.

"We're no different from anyone else," he said.