At first, it seems like a reasonable proposal. Parents are going away for one or two nights and wonder what accommodations and arrangements to make for their older teenager while they are away?
The adolescent has a good idea. She'll look after the place while they are out of town, and they can check in by phone to make sure everything is okay.
"But you're only in high school," they say. "That's a lot of responsibility to leave you with - looking after our home and taking care yourself." But she assures them she can handle it. And so, after making certain she has local people to call should need arise, and provisioning the refrigerator, off they go, their confidence supported by the confidence she has expressed, and promises she has made. However, they are in for a surprise.
Since their discussion with her about home alone arrangements began, unbeknownst to them some parallel planning has been taking place - between the teenager and a few of her friends.
"Really, they're leaving you in charge? You'll have the place to yourself? That's too impossible! Let's do it!" And so begin secret preparations for a small gathering of friends in a vacant home with no adult supervision to get in the way.
But soon, as friends tell friends, word about a big empty home party this weekend starts to get around, getting back to the young host who begins to feel anxious: "This is more than I wanted, but it's too late to stop it now!"
What seemed like a great idea to the teenager begins to feel like it's getting out of control, which it is. And the party hasn't even started yet, just the talk among invited and uninvited guests about who is coming and what to bring. As for phone calls from parents checking in, the report she gives to them is all quiet on the home front and everything is fine. It's too late to tell the truth now.
How many adolescents pull off an empty home party undetected I don't know, but my guess is very few. The public commotion is too great to privately conceal, the guests are too invested in fun to bother with discretion, the spills and litter and minor damage are too extensive to completely cover up, while word of mouth that continues after the party is over is impossible to quell as word finally filters back to parents about what went on. So the ultimate encounter that the teenager was working to avoid usually occurs, and parents are not happy about finding out.
For the adolescent, an empty house party comes with a lot of risks. There are property risks - something is broken, stained, or stolen. And there are the personal risks - someone is injured or arrested. It's hard to control the behavior of others you know, harder to control the behavior of those you don't know, and hardest of all to control the care-free behavior of those who have been drinking alcohol or using other drugs.
As for parents, they have a lot of recovery to do. They've been seriously lied to, their trust feels broken, loyalty to them has been betrayed, the relationship to their teenager feels shaken, privacy has been trespassed and they feel personally violated because what was done in their home feels like something done to them. And even if damage was minimal, the teenager has put their most valued possessions at risk, all for the sake of throwing a party while they were away.
There are all kinds of "cleaning up" to do after the event, the physical mess being the least of their concerns.
For the teenager - caught, confronted, and facing consequences - she or he has some relief to have this illicit bid for older freedom over and done with. The event was really stressful to manage. Now at least there is no need to live in hiding from parents, worried about being found out.
But the consequences are costly. The worst of all is in knowing that parental trust may have been permanently altered. They never thought the teenager capable of such calculated concealment and betrayal, and now they do.
On reflection, parents need to understand something else. They need to appreciate the magnitude of the temptation they created when agreeing to leave the teenager alone, in charge of their empty home. Handed to the young person (and her friends when they found out) was the opportunity for socially doing now what would otherwise have to wait a few years to be enjoyed.
On your own, in a space of your own, inviting friends of your own to stay up as late as you want, to play music as loud as you want, to drink and consume whatever you want, to engage in whatever freedoms you want, with no adults to see or question or limit what you choose to do. It's acting older time!
And if at first the adolescent doesn't rise to this temptation, when friends hear about the happy opening they definitely do, pressing your son or daughter not to miss taking advantage of this enviable chance to act independent while still living at home.
As for considering the certain wrath of parents when they find out, what is that compared with the enthusiastic encouragement of excited friends who promised to keep it under concealment, under control, and clean everything up so no one could tell there had been a party?
Of course, sometimes an adolescent keeps her home alone commitments and takes care of business as agreed. But then, there are those other times when the desire to act older, the call of social opportunity, the spirit of adventure, and the urging of friends are simply too powerful to resist.
This is when, after the goings on have been discovered, parents wonder if heeding advice from that old truism would not have led them to a wiser course of action. Come their child's adolescence, they should have remembered: "When the cat's away, the mice will play."
For more about parenting adolescents, see my book," SURVIVING YOUR CHILD'S ADOLESCENCE" (Wiley, 2013.) Information at: www.carlpickhardt.com
Next week's entry: Adolescence and allowance