High School Parties–Soon to be a Thing of the Past?

by Leah on December 16, 2011

Consider the party: a high school coming-of-age ritual. Everyone has at least one story of triumph or humiliation.

When I was a teen, I have to admit I never once saw anyone’s parent at a party; never even saw a member of the parental species poke their head downstairs. Studious and fairly shy, I wasn’t the kind of kid who went to a lot of parties. Mostly, I hung out with my small group of friends in our houses, often in the basement. I didn’t drink, and when we hung out at each other’s houses, neither did my friends, but when we went to parties, my friends, and lots of others, often drank.

Question: Who supplied the booze?

Answer: A teen guardian angel? No one ever said.

I do remember one incident: my friend’s mom picked us up from a party. Her nice coat was draped over the back of her seat, and another friend—who had had too much to drink—vomited all over her coat. She wasn’t happy, but I don’t remember her storming into the party to ask who served alcohol to this boy, or pressing charges, or even telling my friend’s parents. I’m not making any value judgments here—this is simply what happened.

Flash forward to today’s slogans (“Parents Who Host Lose the Most”), today’s news. As a parent, I get chills: Dad and Stanford professor Bill Burnett and his wife, Cynthia, hosted a party for their son, a high school senior. About 40 kids came, and when the music got too loud, someone (probably a neighbor) called the police. The police determined that some of the kids were under the influence of alcohol, and arrested the father for contributing to a minor’s delinquency. He spent a night in jail, and now faces a year’s sentence and/or a high fine.

The scary part is that Burnett and his wife insist that they did not know there was alcohol in their house. They maintain that they took all the necessary precautions, including setting rules ahead of time, telling the neighbors there would be a party, and staying home to monitor the activity in the basement. Burnett went downstairs a few times with homemade chocolate chip cookies. He was heading downstairs with brownies when the police came.

Over the course of an interview, Matt Lauer asked the couple if there was anything they could have done differently. Mrs. Burnett said there was nothing else they could do, short of sitting in the middle of the party. You can say these parents are naive, but you can also say they were being generous by hosting a party they thought they could control.

So today’s parent has two options:

1)  Do not host parties under any circumstances, and then you stay safe.

2)  Host parties, and be willing to put yourself at risk.

My co-editor wrote about the precautions she took when she hosted a party for her teenage daughter. She stood at the door, literally stood and checked bags, and made the kids leave everything at the door. She made sure the basement entrance was locked, so they had to come back upstairs if they wanted to get out. Still, someone managed to sneak alcohol in.

Teens are getting more and more skilled at hiding booze, whether by consuming it before they get to a party, soaking gummy bears in it, or hiding it in coke cans, water bottles. You name it—they’ve thought of it.

It’s gotten to the point where I feel nervous at the prospect of teens hanging out at my house, even if it’s not a party. What if they sneak in alcohol, and someone drinks too much? How much trust is too much, and where’s the line between independence and supervision? Most of us have heard about teenagers’ brains, which are wired for risk-taking and novelty-seeking, so even the most trustworthy kid will take some risks.

So what’s the answer? Luckily, my children aren’t “there” yet, so I still have some time to think about how I’ll handle it if they ask permission to have a pack of friends hang out in the basement, or—gulp—if they want to have a party. I’ll probably say no to the party; yes to the friends hanging out.

What do you think: Should parties be banned, since alcohol usually finds its way in, or are we depriving our teens of a rite of passage?

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