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Season of Uncertainty

It's the time of year when teens have lots of time to kill. Do parents know where they really go?

July 25, 1999|SUSAN HOWLETT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Summer is a season of contradiction, where three calendar pages of sunshine run barefoot through corporate day planners and household routines. For kids, it's time for fun. For parents, it's a big chunk of disarray and a whole lot of monitoring what children are up to.

While the younger set usually spends the hours in scheduled activities or day camps, self-sufficient teens usually have looser schedules.

Where do they say they're spending that unsupervised time? The bowling alley, the mall, the beach, the arcade.

Hearing that, parents breathe a sigh of relief.

"If he tells me where he's going, I cut him some slack," says Mike Slater of Irvine, father of 15-year-old Steven. "Sometimes I call to track him down, but I pretty much know who he's with."

The teens? For the most part, they have their stories and they're sticking to them.

"My mom would kill me if she knew I was meeting my boyfriend here," says Carrie, 13, hanging with friends at the Westminster Mall. "She knows I'm here. I just don't tell her everything."

The summer break wasn't originally conceived to provide teens with three months of sleeping until noon and wandering into trouble. It was created in agrarian times to allow kids to help on the farm. The problem today is teens aren't kept as busy at home, and their need to find an antidote to boredom propels them to move around . . . a lot. Sometimes they are vague about their destinations. (One button for sale at a teen store reads: "My mom thinks I'm at the movies.")

So what's a parent to do?

"Parents need to be really clear on the conditions of trust," says Joseph Nunn, director of field education in the Department of Social Welfare at UCLA. "Parental control becomes more limited during [teen] years, and peer groups become more important."

Even President Clinton has been batting around this issue. In a recent address on domestic policy, he said the average young person spends 22 hours a week less with his or her parents than teens did 30 years ago.

Where are they? Hanging out. In a nation of rising day-care costs and increasing numbers of parents who work, grown-up responsibilities are often handed to an older sibling.

Just ask Colby, 15. He's a Long Beach high school student who has been watching his kid brother during mom's and dad's 9-to-5 work week since he was in the sixth grade. "I have a lot of freedom, but I always have," says Colby, taking off his rental shoes at Seal Beach's Rossmoor Bowl.

Police officers Eric Rosauer and Randy Houston see an increase in teenage shoplifting, drinking and curfew violations at the Block in Orange during summer.

"There are a lot of regulars," says Houston, walking through the outdoor mall on a busy afternoon. "Sometimes they're here for hours."

Adds Rosauer, "You want to ask their parents, 'Do you know where your kids are?' "

To keep teens in check, Nunn and other experts suggest parents consider the following:

* Get to know the parents of the kids your teen spends time with. Know how to reach them, day or night.

* Know who else will be with the teens. Older siblings and friends may take teens on an adventure that would make parents--and some teens--uncomfortable.

* Know the exact bowling alley, movie theater or friend's house the teens are at. Have them alert you if they move on. Find out who is transporting them. * Set time limits--how long they will stay and when they will return.

* If computers are the teens' diversion of choice, install Internet blocking software to prevent access to inappropriate material.

* Teens caught in a lie should have privileges taken away until they earn them back.

Freedom seems all-important to the headstrong teen, but its consequences may be daunting, says Tuesday, 21, who is "clean and sober after going wild" in her unsupervised teen years.

"During the day I could do anything. My parents were really cool," she says, while working at a Melrose Avenue shoe store. "I would tell my parents something and do another, usually drinking and doing drugs. The biggest thing to me was not getting caught."

Tuesday changed the hard way.

"I went to jail. I went to rehab. Freedom isn't what I used to think it was," she says.

Outside a Melrose ice cream shop, Department of Transportation traffic officer Chris Ballister says that he still sees groups of teenagers hanging out in front of Atomic Garage, a surf and skate store, and Beat Non Stop, a music shop. However, he adds, "it's not as bad as it used to be . . . I think they just moved somewhere else."

Venice Beach. The Promenade. That somewhere else seems to change with the fickle whims of teens. But there's one thing most teens agree on: When they find themselves lying to parents about where they're hanging out, it usually has something to do with the opposite sex.

"I have a friend who tells his mom that he's playing basketball, and he goes to a girl's house," says Jeffery, 14, of San Gabriel with his father standing by his side. "If they lie, it's usually because of a girl."

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