Should You Trust Your Teen to Stay Home Alone?

I did something this past weekend I didn’t think I’d ever be able to do, and I’m not talking about reading a map or doing a split.

I left my two oldest children – who are 21 and 22 – home alone for a long weekend and you could not have convinced me five years ago I would have been brave enough to abandon my ship like that.

Should you trust your teen home alone?

Many years ago, back when my kids were still young and listened to what I said, I enjoyed an active social life. I went out to dinner and the movies with friends. I attended the occasional Broadway show. Sometimes I even went away for whole weekends.

We’ll call this The Age of Innocence

It was best described as a time when I could leave the kids – worry free – with a babysitter or, if I was only going to be out of the house for a few hours, by themselves even. I’d return home to find the house in order and often the children asleep.

But all that changed when my oldest child started high school and embraced his own social life.

We’ll call this The End of the Innocence

This period is best defined by the moment I discovered while watching the evening news that the giant beverage cans in our garage refrigerator were not some new type of energy drink but instead the controversial Four Loko, which – as described by Urban Dictionary – was “cocaine in a can.” It was a time I’d return home from dinner or a movie to find a beer bong tossed over the side of our fence or empty Keystone Light cans under my shrubs.

It seemed every time I left my house unguarded, teenagers would swarm like ants into my basement and they weren’t coming over to study. I began to doubt that I could trust my teens.

On a serious note, there were some major changes taking place in our lives around that time – like the kids’ dad moving out and my return to work full-time – that probably triggered my son’s defiant behavior. He was pissed. And I took numerous measures to address the situation including hunkering down.

I put my social life on hold. And when I did need to jump ship every once in a while, like to take a weekly writing class in Manhattan or attend my annual college friends’ weekend away, I hired a lovely and very capable 20-something woman who was well versed in the art of teenage trickery to come and man the helm in my absence.

When that oldest child finally, thankfully, departed eight-hours south to college, I thought I could start to relax my stance. “Surely,” I reasoned, “my younger children know better than to have people over when I am not at home.”

You’re shaking your head, I know, and in retrospect, I am too.

Child #2 was a far less socially active child than her older brother so when she begged and pleaded to stay home for a weekend during her senior year of high school to attend some concert while I took her two younger siblings – ironically – south to visit their brother, I thought, “Well, what’s the harm?”

At the very least, I figured, she could take care of our pets and she seemed capable enough to keep herself alive for 48 hours and not burn the place down.

So when I returned that Sunday to discover a ping-pong ball in our foyer and that child glued to her bed in the throes of an epic hangover, I realized I had seriously miscalculated her intentions.

She had wanted to throw a party.

So I returned to the proverbial parenting mattresses for a while and waited out her departure for college. But by the time Child #3, another daughter, started high school, I had started to loosen my grip on our homestead. And whether it’s because I adopted a more laissez-faire attitude towards teenage shenanigans or whether my younger two children had learned from their older siblings’ mistakes, I began to feel more comfortable leaving them alone for an evening.

Later, I would discover that what really transpired was a combination of those two ingredients – I had, indeed, lightened up but while my younger daughter mostly respected my rules, she also turned out to be way more crafty than her two older siblings. She just got away with more.

I learned that fun fact during her senior year of high school when we were sitting on our couch one night watching TV and she was looking at her phone (go figure) and started to laugh.

“What are you watching?” I asked and without much prodding, she showed me what turned out to be a video capturing her kind of twerking or doing a really silly dance, obviously tipsy, in what was clearly our kitchen.

“Wait,” I said looking at her, “when was this?”

“Oh Mother,” she laughed and explained it had happened months earlier and since there were clearly only a few other kids present and the house had remained standing with all our windows and dishes intact, I let it go. I mean, at some point you really start to reevaluate what you consider egregious teenage behavior.

But I continued to draw the line at leaving the kids alone in the house for whole weekends and luckily, one of the upsides of divorce, is that I usually have some place to send them when I want to go away.

So when I began to make plans to attend an annual blogging conference this summer, I made sure their dad would be able to take all four kids for the long weekend I’d be gone and then set about worrying about more important things, like what I was going to wear.

But in the days leading up to my Thursday departure, those two oldest children were at odds with their dad. I held pretty fast to my insistence that they spend the weekend at his house despite their protests. As Thursday approached I could see I’d really have to go to war to get them out of here. I didn’t really have the time or the stamina to try to help them manage the situation. And because I really couldn’t muster the energy for battle and reasoned that both of the kids have reached the legal drinking age and no longer needed to sneak friends and Four Loko into basements, I relented.

I told them that even though I would allow them to remain home for the weekend, I didn’t want them to think I was setting a precedent. Like, that they’d never have to go to their dad’s again.

“I just don’t have the energy for all this right now,” I told them.

If they wanted to stay in the house, I added, I expected them to do a little work in my absence and left a list on the kitchen table with chores for each child to tackle. I figured emptying garbage cans and cleaning bathrooms was the least they could do to repay my generous spirit.

And honestly, it was kind of nice knowing there was someone at home all weekend to water the flowers and feed and clean up after the cat. And there are few better texts to receive from your child than the one I got while listening to a speaker on Saturday that read, “Damn, your bathroom looks great.”

So it seems – with three kids through high school – we’ve entered a period of calm. A renaissance, if you will. I can sneak out for dinner with friends and not worry about coming home to a basement full of teenagers. And now, it seems, I can go away for three nights and not return home to ping-pong balls and reports from the neighbors.

The bad news is that my youngest child will turn 13 in December. At least I’ll know what to expect.

We’ll call this the Age of Reckoning.

photo credit (beer pong):  Laura Bittner

About Amy Byrnes

Amy Byrnes blogs about scary stuff, like divorce and teenagers, at "A" My Name is Amy. Her work has been featured in Family Circle magazine and on The Huffington Post and Scary Mommy.

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