Head Strong: Tips to keep teen parties safe

A parent's memories of his own teen years help bring on the worry.


I have no desire to be the cool parent. I remember them from my own teenage years. They were the ones who looked the other way when their kids hosted parties. Or worse, they facilitated some of the bad behavior. While I, too, thought they were "cool" back then, on some level I appreciated my own parents' uninterest in being like them.

Now it's my turn. And though I don't want to be a buzzkill, neither do I want to host the type of parties I once (may have) attended.

Things were different then. New Jersey's drinking age used to be 18, while Pennsylvania's was 21. It was a prescription for disaster, especially for those Pennsylvania towns whose teens believed they could make the drive to and fro. I grew up in one: Doylestown. Many a year the community would lose a high school student driving home from a trip to Lambertville. I can remember walking into some "establishments" while in high school and feeling as if I were in homeroom because I recognized so many faces. Enforcement then was tough for parents because of the conflicting age minimums, and lax attitudes sometimes resulted.

"Better they do it in somebody's basement and not drive to Jersey" was a rationalization I distinctly recall from some parents.

Today we know better and hope our kids do, too. So much has changed. Community standards are different. So, too, is the criminal and civil legal climate. Just last month an Abington woman was sentenced to spend 10 consecutive weekends in jail after holding a drinking party attended by dozens of teens.

So what to do when your teenager wants to entertain, as one of ours did recently? How do you keep everybody safe but still have a good time? I don't profess to have all the answers. I'll be panicked again the next time one of our boys wants to have a group over. But I do have some insights.

First, of course, is to set expectations with your son or daughter. We did that in a series of conversations. Make clear what is acceptable/unacceptable. But beyond that, here are my five tips.

Suggestion No. 1 is obvious: Know who's coming. (Or whether the parents will be home.) That's not so easy anymore. It used to be that invitations were more contained because they were personal, usually by phone or word of mouth. I can remember a few events in high school that got out of hand where the first indication of trouble was a Xeroxed map circulated in the school hallways.

Today the copy machine has been replaced with social media, which brings a whole new set of concerns. The only way a good party used to grow spontaneously was if somebody picked up a rotary dial or push-button phone and called somebody else who was still at home and told that person to come over. Today there is a risk that teens can alert one another in real time about what they're doing and cause an event to swell within minutes. When a few carloads of kids came down our driveway, all clutching cell phones, I started to worry that I had a rave on my hands. But do you dare confiscate cell phones? That seemed like an overreaction, but I'd consider it if they had wheels. More than collecting car keys in a bowl, I'd be tempted to make attendees surrender the ability to communicate.

Suggestion No. 2 hasn't changed: Move or lock up every temptation.

Suggestion No. 3: Host the party before anyone is of driving age. Earn your parental chits sooner than later. Good behavior comes when teens know they will have to see Mom or Dad when their parents come to pick them up at 10:30 p.m. That level of control goes out the window when they can drive themselves with friends. For one thing, they're naturally inattentive. I saw a study earlier this year by AAA in which nearly nine out of 10 teens surveyed admitted to engaging in distracting behavior while driving - things like texting, eating, or putting on makeup. I figure the other 10 percent are lying. So, naturally, I don't like the idea of teens driving together to a party, and am glad my wife and I have three years left before we must deal with that.

Good news, one thing hasn't changed - the purpose. Boys meeting girls and likewise. Which causes me to offer Suggestion No. 4: Have the right ratio. The best way to tame the behavior of the young bucks is to have a good representation of doe. No good comes from having too many boys in their formative years in one place. Young girls can sometimes temper more bad behavior than any parent.

Speaking of which, here is Suggestion No. 5: Invite some parents of the kids you are entertaining. We wrestled with how to approach the subject of supervision, beginning with the location of the party. We cleared out the family room, put some pizza in the kitchen, and also set up a Ping-Pong table in the garage. We hoped the food would be a magnet and hence an opportunity for oversight. But where do you think they congregated? The garage, of course.

At least they had their space, but also the knowledge that multiple parents were nearby if needed. The mere presence of adults on the premises keeps the party reined in and takes the pressure off the hosts as well. It works kind of like insurance - spread the risk around a larger group.

We were fortunate. For now. A nice group of kids came over on a Friday night and seemed to have a good time. As far as we know, there was no bad behavior. But I know it's an ongoing matter of concern. My memory of my own teenage years is too clear for anything less.

Contact Michael Smerconish via www.smerconish.com.