College Drinking: Less Than You Think

By Daniela Deane
Sunday, September 23, 2007

Last month, we took our younger son back to college. Ben's a sophomore at the College of Charleston now, almost 20, and he just moved into an off-campus house with five buddies. (I know. Scary.)

First thing he needed was furniture. So my husband and I loaded up a U-Haul, drove to South Carolina and made Ben's room rather nice, we thought. We put an old chair of ours in the corner by the window. Good place for all that reading you have to do in college.

That night, we went our separate ways, Ben meeting up with friends from freshman year. We made an appointment for lunch the next day. When we arrived, Ben seemed out of sorts, had a headache. The cushion on the chair was backward. I turned it around. There was a big greenish-brown stain on the bottom.

"What happened to this cushion?" I asked. Ben looked down sheepishly. "I puked on it," he said quietly.

What? I was stunned into silence, which isn't an easy thing to do to me.

First because he'd been drinking until he vomited. We knew he drank, but hadn't he learned yet that drinking that much wasn't any fun? And then the stupidity of vomiting on a chair we had just brought from Washington for his new room. While we were still in Charleston. Omigod. The kid had no brain, and we were leaving him in this big, drafty old house nine hours from where we live.

Thing is (and I don't think I'm just a mom deluding myself here), Ben's a pretty normal college kid. He's a nice guy with a heart of gold, I swear. He's close to his family; he's doing fine in school. I don't want to jinx anything, but we're pretty sure he'll turn out okay in the end.

But he drinks. Regularly. Plenty, apparently. Sometimes until he throws up, I guess, although he swore that that was a rarity and that he usually aims for the toilet. When I told the chair story to my older son, who's at James Madison University in Virginia, he informed me that some girls actually like to drink until they vomit, to get rid of all those unwanted calories. There are lots of fun games at college that involve imbibing huge amounts of booze really really quickly. A $150,000 B.A. in beer pong, anyone?

Lots of college kids -- mostly underage -- drink. We all know that. But it's against the law. And that means something.

I've been thinking a lot about the law these days, ever since I started covering a crime and courts beat here at The Washington Post in March. I've seen some heart-wrenching, thought-provoking cases involving underage drinking since I started -- cases that have made me look hard at my own parenting, how my two sons view drinking and how the law views all of us.

I've been doing a lot of soul-searching -- and the cushion incident only made matters worse. Have my husband and I been too permissive, hostages to our own upbringing? Did we give these boys too much credit for knowing when enough is enough?

Soul-searching turned into researching, though, and what I found actually quieted my anxious heart. Despite the headlines, the truth is that drinking among college students has decreased. And young people's attitudes about drinking and driving have changed, too, with many of them much more reluctant to get behind the wheel after imbibing.

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