Every Presidents' Week, countless families go away on vacation. Some go north to ski while others go south to enjoy the sun and surf. The toughest issue that parents face is what to do with their teenage children who do not want to go away for the week. Do we leave them home in the house without adult supervision? If your children are in high school, is it enough and/or is it safe to leave them in the care of an older, college age brother or sister?
Most high school coeds think they are old enough, mature enough and responsible enough to be left alone. Those who want to stay home argue that they would never betray their parents or put their family home in jeopardy. Herein lays the dilemma: most teenagers do not want to betray their parents or jeopardize their home. However, there is no common agreement around what is socially acceptable behavior when parents are away.
The average parent who leaves a teenage son home usually expects that their home will not become a party house. Some will refuse to allow any friends to come over, others will set the limit to a few and they must be teenagers their parents know. Very few parents will permit parties and sleepovers in their absence.
When parents go away for a few days or an extended period of time, news of their departure spreads like wildfire. More often than not, teenagers show up whether they are invited or not. That's how the party begins.
A growing number of high school coeds caught in that social circumstance are ill prepared to set appropriate boundaries and limits. In short, they don't know how to say no. Usually things get out of hand and they are afraid to call the police and/or other adults for help.
The social landscape becomes more complicated when older brothers and sisters are left home to supervise. Most older siblings do not want to police their younger brothers and sisters or be their watchdogs. So, they either turn a blind eye and deaf ear to the parties going on while their parents are away or even more problematic, they aid and abet the destructive decision-making of their siblings. If they are over twenty-one, they allow their younger brothers and sisters to talk them into buying beer and alcohol. They agree to mutually cover for each other so that Mom and Dad won't find out what went on in their absence.
Teenage socializing continues to be a problem because there is no universal agreement as to what is acceptable and appropriate behavior for young people in high school.
A growing number of good parents are torn when it comes to what is acceptable teenage behavior. Most of us want to believe our children. We do not want to scrutinize all of their narratives around their social decision-making. If Jack says he is going to house A, we want to believe that Jack is going to house A. We also want to believe that when our children tell us they are not going to drink or smoke pot, they are going to honor their word.
Too many parents are taking the position of social toleration. They subscribe to the perspective that they can't stop their children from engaging in certain social behaviors, so they will try to set up reasonable limits to protect them from possible disaster.
The problem with this kind of thinking is that it gives a mixed message to young people. We minimize civil legislation and by our tolerance give the impression that it's okay to disobey certain rules and regulations, especially if we don't like the rule or don't think it applies to us.
As I have said many times in this space, social drinking and the use of street and prescription drugs is out of control. A growing number of our high school students believe it is their constitutional right to drink socially if they wish, even if they're underage.
Too many parents have given up the fight! We don't support each other. In some cases, we overtly enable dangerous social behavior. For those who don't believe that, just think about what's happened in our own community over the past few months.
In January, a very popular senior from a private high school in Nassau County was killed crossing a busy street after a holiday house party. It was a gathering of good friends. They were all from good families. The teenager hosting the party had permission from his parents, who were away, to have a few close friends over.
The party social agenda was to watch a movie, listen to music, have some food and share a few spirits. The teenagers who gathered were respectful of the host's home. There was no roughhousing or horseplay. They were just a group of friends having a good time. They were all drinking, but according to eyewitness accounts, no one was drinking excessively.
When the party was over, everyone stayed around to clean up. Looking at the house, you would never know there had been a dozen students partying there all evening.
TJ was among the first to leave. As he reached the corner, he realized he left his sweater in the house. He went back to get his sweater. He was on foot, so no one gave a second thought to the fact that he might not be able to navigate his way back home.
Instead of going to the corner and crossing at the crosswalk, he jetted out between two cars and crossed in the middle of the street. That's when a car doing thirty-five miles per hour hit him. He was rushed to the nearest hospital and died a short time later.
Initially, when TJ's story was told, it was presented as a tragic accident. However, after the toxicology exam was done and information was released, it was discovered that TJ was drinking and was clearly impaired. Upon further investigation, it was discovered that all of the people involved in this house party were drinking. The parents, who were away, were not aware that underage drinking was going on in their home.
The students involved have to live every day of their lives with the choices they made that contributed to the senseless loss of their good friend's life.
Recently, I had a conversation with a student who was at a house party during winter recess. It was just a small group of friends at a house without parental supervision. There was a college age brother at home.
The host of the party put the arm on his older brother to buy alcohol for him and his friends. All the participants got very drunk. One girl in particular, who had never drunk before, got horribly sick. Her friends were wonderful. They did not abandon her, but rather took care of her. They would not let her leave until she sobered up.
She slept over the host's house with her mother's permission. The next morning when her mother picked her up, she knew something was wrong. She asked her daughter if something had happened the night before. Initially, her daughter said nothing happened. After further conversation, she admitted to getting terribly drunk and said that the experience cured her from ever drinking again.
Her mother asked if the parents who were away knew about the party and what had happened. Her daughter stated that they didn't and that the college age brother was going to cover for them. The mom indicated to her daughter that the host's parents should be told. The girl went nuts. She begged her parents not to call them. Her parents went back and forth with each other. They finally conceded to their daughter's wishes.
As a surrogate parent, social worker and educator, I intensely disagree with her parents' decision not to call the parents where the party was held. As adults, I feel we have an obligation to share our knowledge of reckless behavior with fellow parents. What would you want other parents to do if it was your home, you were away and your children had an underage drinking party? Even more troubling, how would you feel if one of those underage participants left your home under the influence and was killed as he or she walked home?