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David Baxter PhD

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Curfews: How late should a young teen be allowed to stay out?
March 2003
by Holly Bennett - Today's Parent

“Would you say you have a curfew?” I ask my 14-year-old.

“Not really,” he replies.

“Well,” I persist. “Isn’t there some limit to how late you can stay out at night?”

Turns out there is. On school nights, it’s a set time. On weekends, “It’s how late you and Dad are willing to stay up to come and get me.”

Ouch. The truth does hurt — and how late the parents can (or rather, can’t) stay awake has become the subject of some derision in our family. As long as Jesse needs a ride home, he’s pretty much guaranteed never to be out all that late.

With the teen years, kids’ social lives focus more on evening activities, and the push for later nights begins. Rather than negotiating each outing separately, many families set a regular curfew, along with other ground rules about staying in touch.

Jennifer Elliott’s daughter, Roxanne, is 12, so curfews are just starting to be an issue. “Night curfews are not a problem,” says Elliott. “I’m not comfortable with her coming home on her own in the dark, so we walk her home at night. We’ll say, we’re not coming later than ten. Sometimes she’ll stay over at a friend’s instead.”

What did come up as a problem this year, though, is the time Roxanne comes home after school. “I was getting frustrated and annoyed at the beginning of the school year because she and her friends would hang out together after school and I never knew when she would get home. Six o’clock is OK, but not no communication! I have to know when to start worrying,” Elliott jokes.

So Roxanne is to call by 4:30, to let her parents know where she is and when she will be home. “It has improved things between us,” says Elliott. “I think she got a message from me that I care about her and her safety.”

That message is important, agrees Michelle Bates, a social worker with the Hamilton-Wentworth (Ontario) District School Board and mother of three boys. “A curfew gives kids a chance to have greater independence within a structure of clear expectations,” she says.

So how late should a young teen be allowed to stay out? Bates encourages parents to not get guilted into later nights than they are comfortable with because of protests that other kids don’t have to come home so early. “You need to determine what’s acceptable in your family, and appropriate for your child,” she says.

If Sybil Nunn-Thorn’s 14-year-old daughter, Kaitlyn, goes out on a weeknight, she is expected home by 9 p.m., 10 p.m. on weekends. Homework, however, is to be done by 8 p.m., so practically speaking, weeknight outings depend on completing homework first. The weekend curfew can be extended for a special reason: “An exception would be if she’s at a later movie, and we pick her up,” says Nunn-Thorn. So far, Kaitlyn’s not pushing for later nights.

But the “when” of kids’ sorties are only part of the story. “Where is the kid?” Nunn-Thorn asks. “Some kids are at a friend’s house or a movie, but other kids may be just hanging out around the neighbourhood or at the mall — two really different situations.”

Bates agrees: “You should be asking lots of questions about who they are going to be with and their activities.” Help your child anticipate problems and how to deal with them — and to make your own expectations clear. “Teens are on the move more — they may go from one kid’s house to another, or walk to the store and meet up with other kids. Maybe that group will be going to the mall, which you don’t want your child to do. How should she handle that?”

Many parents, especially with young teens, have a ground rule: when you change locations, you call in. Elliott is considering getting Roxanne a cell phone. Bates has mixed feelings about this strategy. “It does make it easier for children to keep in touch, but it also makes it easier for them to lie: If you call your child on his cell, you don’t really know if he’s at his friend Jason’s house or not,” she says.

What if your child doesn’t call, or arrive home when promised? As always, it depends on the child. Kaitlyn is rarely late, so “Ten minutes just merits The Look from me,” says her mom. Bates points out that it’s worth finding out why your child is late: If it’s because the parents driving home were delayed, that’s quite different from deliberately ignoring curfew. A correspondingly earlier curfew the following day or weekend is a logical consequence for serious or repeated lateness.

A final, very important, point — one to emphasize in the years ahead, when your older teen bristles at what he sees as childish treatment. “This is not about being immature or untrustworthy,” stresses Bates. “This is about being accountable to the people you have a relationship with — it’s about respecting the needs of the people who love you. That means when we, the parents, go out, we need to be accountable too, to tell our kids, ‘This is where we are, and how late we are going to be.’”

Elliott has come to the same conclusion. “I’m not always very punctual,” she says ruefully. “So I’m working on trying to get home when I said I would.” After all, her family needs to know when to start worrying.
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