I have three teenagers ages 18 and under. Like many teens, independence is their currency, a badge of honor, proof they’re on their way to adulthood. Two of my children are teen drivers, one is a teen driver-in-training. All three have social lives that rival Michelle Obama’s schedule — there is always something absolutely unmissable going on.
What this means to me, as a parent, is that setting and enforcing a weekend curfew has become critical. Not as a parental control issue, or a “I must know where you are!” thing. Curfew is actually a safety concern.
A curfew increases teenagers’ safety largely because the risk of car accidents is greatest for teen drivers at night, according to the CDC, especially after midnight. Alcohol involvement in crashes peaks from 9 pm to 6 am. Additionally, weekends are particularly dangerous for teen drivers, according to AAA. Traffic accidents are the leading cause of death for U.S. teenagers.
A curfew also means my kids get more sleep, which increases their health, helps their grades, and improves the atmosphere at home. Despite how grown up my kids think they are, sleep management is not yet their forte. If left to their own devices, all three kids would stay awake all weekend, and then allege an onset of mononucleosis every Monday morning when time came to head back to school.
But how do we parent set a curfew that kids will stick to? What’s the penalty for blowing it? How do we enforce curfews, and still get some sleep ourselves? And if our kids are responsible, why is a curfew important in the first place?
The first task – picking a curfew time — is surprisingly tough. My kids howl, nearly every Friday and Saturday night, that every single friend has a curfew later than theirs. They claim some friends have no curfew; that my ridiculous deadline ruins their social lives. And of course, the youngest wants the same curfew as the oldest, despite the five year age gap. The oldest wants a later curfew than his sisters, since he was here first, and has demonstrated that he is more responsible and reliable than they are.
Setting a teenager’s curfew time is a classic negotiation — just as you would when haggling over the starting salary at a new job, it’s a good idea to ask for more than you want and leave some wiggle room. I started with 11.30pm for my oldest, knowing I’d be happy with midnight where we ended up. His younger sisters have an hour to two hour earlier curfews, depending on next day’s activities.
There are constant attempts at renegotiation, but I’ve held firm on the time. I make two exceptions to curfew: they can miss curfew if they need extra time to find a substitute ride if their original plan feels unsafe, and they can take extra time to give a friend in need a last minute ride home. In both cases, they need to shoot me a text prior to the curfew time.
I rarely stay up to check on them. The rule is they need to text me when they arrive home. Of course, they can lie and text me from anywhere. But I rely on the honor system, with occasional spot checks. Trust is important, I tell them; they seem to listen.
The penalty for blowing curfew without an excuse is simple: I deduct the time past curfew from their next night out. Easy for me. Painful for them.
Logistics and exact curfew time aside – every parents customizes curfew policies slightly – the philosophy behind the curfew is what matters most. Simply put, a curfew shows we love them and they matter to us. No matter how fiercely teenagers champion their independence, freedom rings hollow without proof that the adults in their lives care deeply about their well-being.
I learned this, not when I was a teenager myself, but later. When I was in my early 20s, I spent a summer chaperoning my 13-year-old cousin at the beach. The first night, I told her I trusted her judgment, and that when I was in charge, she didn’t need a curfew. I was sure I was being mature and wise, smarter than my own parents had been with me. I was giving her the respect she deserved.
She got very still. Then she looked at me as if she was going to tear up.
“Don’t you care about me?” she asked. I looked at her, stunned into silence.
“Don’t you care where I am at night? What if I never came home? Would you even notice? The kids I know without curfews have parents who don’t care about them.”
Suddenly, I got the error of my liberal ways.
“Of course,” I backpedaled. “I meant no curfew…before dark. But otherwise, you need to be home by…um…10.30 pm. Every single night. I’ll kill you if you’re late.”
I looked at her with fake anger — to show how much I cared.
She beamed. She didn’t break curfew once that summer.