Your teen swears he's trustworthy, and you want to believe him. But you weren't born yesterday, and even though an entire generation thinks of Matthew Broderick as Sarah Jessica Parker's husband, in your mind, he'll always be Ferris Bueller. So what's the right answer? What's a parent to do?
Your business trip has been on the calendar for weeks, and just before you're supposed to leave, your husband lands an out-of-state job interview that can't be moved. Your high school junior can't miss two days of school to come along with either of you, but can you really leave him alone at home while you're gone?
Well, sure--according to him. He'd never do anything wrong, after all. He'll go to school, come home, do his homework, prepare a healthy dinner, clean the kitchen, and be in bed with a book by 10. He swears. Honest.
Even if you've never had real reason to think of your teen as untrustworthy, is he really ready to stay home alone? Are you really ready to let him?
Rally your team
Before you sit down to talk to your teen, make sure that you and your spouse are on the same page. Have a calm discussion far out of your teen's earshot -- a local Starbucks is an ideal location -- and figure out what you both think and what you'll tell your teen. Even if the two of you don't agree, it's critical to come up with a decision you're both comfortable with, and to keep the front united.
If the two of you have wildly different opinions about what your teen can handle, you may need to go to an objective observer. If time permits, try to schedule an appointment with your child's guidance counselor or another school administrator who can offer a professional opinion. Not gonna happen? Invite a couple you both know and respect -- preferably one who knows your child -- for a quick powwow.
Talk to your teen
Once you've reached a decision, it's time to talk to your teen. Make every effort to make this discussion a family affair, with both parents present. If you've decided not to let your teen stay home alone, be diplomatic in your approach. Make it about your feelings, rather than about his trustworthiness. "What if you get sick or hurt? We'd have a hard time concentrating if we were worried that something might happen to you, so we'd like you to stay with Tim's family."
On the other hand, if you're taking the plunge and turning over your home to a teen, be sure to clarify rules and expectations explicitly. "We're trusting you to take care of the house, and more importantly, yourself. We'll be furious if you let something happen to the house. But we'd be devastated if you let something happen to you. So let's talk about what we expect."
Put as many instructions as possible in writing. Don't leave anything up in the air if it can be settled and set on paper. Curfew? Bedtime? Visiting hours? Write it down and go over it with your teen. Also let him know about your fail-safe measures -- the neighbors you've asked to pop by, the phone calls you expect from the home number at set times daily, and so on.
Keep your expectations realistic
If your kid chooses chips and ice cream over pot roast and leaves the kitchen a mess while you're away, consider yourself lucky. You're the proud parent of a healthy, normal teen. It's the spotless, sparking house that should make you wonder what prompted the clean-up.
You can expect your kid to test your rules a bit, but you need to be ready with consequences. The neighbor who checked up told you that Junior came home thirty minutes after curfew? Have a backup plan, so that Junior can spend tomorrow night with your ultra-strict friends and their toddlers. This will show your teen that trust is something earned with effort and easily lost.
One day, your teen will probably turn into a responsible, trustworthy adult. Eventually, he may even become someone you enjoy spending time with and willingly welcome into your home. Until that happens, however, make sure that trust isn't assumed, but rather earned and held closely.