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Teen safety vs. freedom


As Mark Louis rings up groceries, he ponders what he and his friends are going to do on New Year's Eve.

The teenage supermarket cashier scans some bread and explains his situation. "My parents won't let us go to a party because of alcohol," Mark says. "There will be lots of people drinking and my parents are worried about that, and I don't blame them."

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Mark's parents are not alone. There will be a crush of parties this year for adults, but when it comes to teens, they are often left with few alternatives.

Communities across the United States are creating safe all-night activities for youths, but "lock-ins" - all night chaperoned activities - are often met with apprehension from teens. Youth centers and teen directors all face the same problem: how to attract teens who don't want to be in a structured environment.

"It's more of a freedom issue," says teenager Tom Buckley, taking a break from in-line skating in Boston. "Even if it's the greatest thing in the world, it's still like being in prison."

In St. Cloud, Fla., the Parks and Recreation Department has had success with its Teen Roundball Lock-in. They have no problem attracting teens says recreation technician Jamie Paul. She says most students attending this year's party also participate in the recreation department's sponsored basketball games each week, which could explain the high male turnout rate.

Tom Richmeyer, the recreation coordinator, says the high participation rate might have to do with the town. "The kids don't have anything to do here - what, go hang out at McDonald's or Super Wal-Mart? I just don't know where that age group would go." he says.

For $15, students nosh pizza, snacks, and soda, swim, and play basketball. There will also be a disc jockey and movies. There are two separate "crash areas" for sleeping, but most teens stay up all night and "are pretty whipped in the morning," says Mr. Richmeyer.

The Boys and Girls Club of Portland, Ore., is combining recreation and revenue in an event that should keep Portland-area parents grinning into the new year. Eight to 10 teenagers ages 14 to 18 will be paid to supervise 40 young children from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. The teens play video games and participate in other activities with the children, but the most important aspect is the bonding between the teens and the children. The cost is $35 per child and $25 for each one after the first. Part of the money funds a leadership conference for the teens.

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Jason Redwing, a teen volunteer at the club says he enjoys "helping the kids, and getting a chance to be of some use." His goal is to "have fun and make sure the kids have a good time."

Kristin Mattes, teen director at Crystal Lake Parks and Recreation Department outside Chicago, is having trouble attracting teens to the district's lock-in despite vigorous advertising. But she says teens, "either plan way in advance or way last minute." Even enticing activities like a bungee run, (a horizontal run with a bungee cord attached to one's back), a caricature-sketch artist, and a breakfast buffet have, thus far, attracted only 17 students. "They say there is nothing to do, but if they look a little, there is stuff to do," says Ms. Mattes. The Crystal Lake party is similar to many around the country. But, still, trying to attract the older teenage crowd is difficult because, well, they're teenagers.

"They want their freedom, and they don't want things set up for them," says Lisa DeHaven-Jordan, program director for Parents Raising Teens and Pre-teens. "When they are driving, they don't want to be told, 'You have to be here from 7 to 12 p.m.'"

Jared Grahm, a Boston teen, agrees. When he was younger, he says, "there would always be a vacant house because the parents would be out and we would just chill there."

Ms. DeHaven-Jordan says parents must be part of the decision and part of the answer. If a teen is going to a private New Year's Eve party, she suggests calling the home to make sure there is adequate supervision. She acknowledges that New Year's Eve and teenagers can be a difficult subject for parents. She advises parents to have an open discussion of the parents' fears and the realities that exist.

If the teen tries to wriggle out of the discussion, she says to say, "No that's not an option. We will be sitting down and talking about an agreement."

She says that parents are desperate for structured activities but most fly in the face of what teenagers perceive as "cool."

DeHaven-Jordan suggests that parents:

* Know where your kids are going to be.

* Don't assume anything. Your teenagers idea of what is safe and acceptable could be different from yours.

* Compromise with your teen about acceptable New Year's Eve activities. Giving your teenager one option might cause conflict. Give your child more than one activity to choose from.

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