I want to spend a few minutes today talking about teenagers, and maybe a little bit about parents. This post has been on my mind since last Friday, when we hosted approximately 24 freshmen boys and girls at our house. Honestly, I am going at this from a stream-of-consciousness perspective, so I hope it reads as intended.
When our daughter came to us a number of weeks ago and asked if she could have a party, we were a bit hesitant. Historically and logistically, we are more of a why-don’t-you-invite-a-few-kids-over-for-a-sleepover kind of house, not a sure-invite-as-many-people-as-you-want kind of house. But, we talked it through, got clarification on her definition of the word “party,” and it seemed like it would be pretty harmless. Plus, I love spending time with the kids my daughter calls her friends and this was an opportunity to see some familiar faces and meet a bunch of new ones. We agreed to have a bonfire, a bunch of food, and to play some games in the backyard. Easy peasy. So, I emailed all of the parents, kept a tally of the RSVPs, helped coordinate a few carpools, spent a shit-ton of money on food and drinks, and prayed for good weather. All tolled, we had 27 kids in attendance (including my own). Having had repeated conversations with my daughter about expectations and appropriate behavior at our house, my biggest worry was where we would put these kids and all of their stuff.
We were pretty explicit through all of this that there was to be NO ALCOHOL at our house. My daughter doesn’t drink, but I know that a bunch of her peers do and it was a message worth reinforcing. The vast majority of the kids were okay with our stance and our family rules, but it quickly came to our attention that a few of the kids were very put off that not only did we not supply alcohol for almost 30 under-aged teens, but that nobody had smuggled any in. My daughter was not only uncomfortable, but visibly pissed off. Her boundaries were not being respected and her family’s rules were being mocked and shunned by a few people she considered to be her friends.
All in all, the good far outweighed the bad, the party was a success, and we were all happy with the turnout and the outcome. The kids were mostly well-behaved and respectful. We heard lots of laughing, saw lots of smiling faces, and received lots of positive feedback from a number of the parents. We would definitely do something like this again, if for no other reason, we are a safe place for teenagers to hang out, de-stress, and simply be teenagers.
The day after the party, my oldest daughter and I were home alone for a while after sports ended and before the Halloween festivities began. She was particularly chatty and so I figured it was a good time to have a “party debrief” and see where her head was at. I started by asking her what she thought of the party, if she learned anything from having that many people over, and would she do anything differently next time. The conversation and the time alone with her was such a gift!! She was so articulate and forthcoming and I learned a lot just by listening and nodding. (HINT: Try the art of active listening [aka: zip your lips] with your teen and see how amazing it can be.) We talked about drinking and sex and friendships and peer pressure and boundaries. She listened as I talked about our (her dad and my) respective stances on those things. I explained why we model certain behavior for her and her sister (not turning to alcohol after a tough day at work, being a visible presence at these parties, etc). I was very up front with her about the history of alcoholism and addiction on both sides of her family and why moderation is our swan-song. We discovered many commonalities about each other and our viewpoints and I think there was a deepening respect on both sides. I told her we always have her back. We had a robust discussion about why she thought so many kids her age were numbing themselves with alcohol, drugs, and risky sex and she astounded me with her clarity and her insight. She talked about what happens at other kids’ houses, and again I was astounded, but for completely different reasons.
Under-aged drinking and risky behavior has been around since the first teenagers walked the earth. I, regrettably, participated in both. I am not naive and actually consider myself very well-versed in the workings of the teen psyche. But, with work stresses and social media and high tech, we have a lot more experimenting teens and distracted and under-involved parents than we have ever had before. And when you couple that with a bumper crop of entitlement, it leads to massive problems.
Here is my stance and viewpoint on a lot of this. You can take it for what it’s worth.
- On under-aged drinking at my house: We will NEVER be supplying alcohol and/or turning a blind eye to drinking when kids are here. EVER. As my daughter so eloquently and directly explained to her “friend”: “My dad works at the school, so you must be stupid if you think he is going to put his career in jeopardy so you can drink. There will never be alcohol at my house!” I would like to tack on an additional sentiment: If you are a kid who can’t go to a social gathering without being impaired, please do us both a favor and don’t show up. And parents, if I catch your kids drinking at my house, you will be receiving a phone call where you are expected to come pick them up immediately. It is a privilege to be able to be responsible for other people’s children and we take that privilege very seriously.
- On making assumptions about other people’s rules: After the discussion with my daughter, I will never again assume that there won’t be drinking/drugging/sex just because there is parental presence during a party. It seems as though many, many parents would rather turn a blind eye and be perceived as “cool” than to take a stand and set up some enforceable rules. So, I will be openly asking what parents’ stances are on those subjects before I send my children off to parties and sleepovers. I want the ability to make totally informed decisions and opt our children in or out based on all of the information at hand. I think you have the right to do the same.
- On kids and numbing: Whether or not we care to admit or acknowledge it, an alarming number of children are numbing themselves (sometimes to death). I think we, as adults, have an obligation to do the hard work of actually parenting our kids, not “friending” them.
- On judgment: I do not judge other people. Period. But, I do make informed decisions based on what is best for our family and my children. We are all doing the best we can with the tools we have available. I am constantly seeking out new and improved tools, both so I can help shepherd my kids through adolescence as safely as possible, and also so I can be a trusted source for the parents of the kids who are entrusted to my care and take my classes. All I can hope for is that everyone is keeping their tool sheds open and stocking them with the tools that work best for their family. In the case of drinking and other risky teenage behavior—I won’t judge a family for being particularly permissive or a teenager for making mistakes, but I will make the (sometimes unpopular) choice to not put my daughters in that situation and set them up for either failure or scenarios where the peer pressure is relentless.
If you are reading this post, this might be a good time to have another discussion with your teen about family rules and moral compass, peer pressure, drinking, drugs, sex, and offering them some time-tested tools for their adolescent tool-kits. Take their lead, listen without judgment (or interrupting), and hear their perspective—and then be 100% upfront, act in empathy, speak from a place of love, and set clear and concise boundaries. Sure, they can get this information online or from their peers, but it is far more impactful and infinitely more reliable coming directly from you…and it also shows them you care.