Throwing up is not growing up

Teenage parties, and learning not to have them, are rites of passage.
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IT WAS meant to be an innocent sleep-over. Ten girls in a converted Dorset cottage - not exactly a predictable setting for uncontrolled teenage excess. Which is probably what the parents figured when they let their daughter, 15-year-old Caroline Young, invite a few chums over last Saturday night while they relaxed on a Mlaga beach.

Caroline's fatal mistake, it seemed, was printing out invitations which were, apparently, photocopied and handed around at random. Bad idea - especially in the countryside where teenagers will travel miles for the opening of a barn door because there's so little to do.

Within hours a hundred teenagers descended on the cottage until the trail of destruction ran its course; one girl was taken to hospital with suspected alcohol poisoning. The carpet was stained with spilt beer and covered in cigarette burns. Light fittings had been wrenched from walls, windows broken, possessions stolen and furniture trashed. Caroline ran for help to a local pub, and the police were called. When they arrived, most of the unwanted guests escaped over fields at the back of the house.

"Rampage of mob who gatecrashed Caroline's party", read one headline in the Daily Mail, exploiting a potent middle-class fear of teenage decadence.

"Her party provides a salutary lesson to all those whose sons and daughters ask to have a few friends round," moralised the paper.

"I feel that any parent who allows such a young person to stage a party when they are away needs their head examined," said PC Rick O'Shea, of Weymouth police, in a similarly Victorian vein.

Stories like this tend to perpetuate the myth that teenage parties are inevitably a hotbed of wanton behaviour; that without a parent's watchful eye, teenagers will go wild. Moral hysteria aside, teenage parties are also essential rites of passage - probably even more so for the parents than for their offspring. At some stage, the first "party" will represent the ultimate conflict between child and parent: one seeing it as a natural assertion of independence, the other, a threat to their authority and property.

It is a difficult issue for parents, who have to respect their children's choice of friends as well as their ability to take responsibility in a group situation. It is a testing exercise emotionally, especially if you've met your teenage son's friends and they're all heavy metal fans, or if you've just had the house re-decorated. Some parents, though, seem to find staying a more daunting prospect than leaving, if there's a party in the offing.

"I think I'd prefer to foot the bill for the odd broken vase and bottle of booze, rather than put up with my children's dire music tastes all night," says Michael, whose son Martin now writes for a drum 'n' bass magazine. "Staying in and listening to all that would have been my idea of torture."

Tony, another understanding father, is also happy to vacate the house for the sake of his children's socialising. "We first let our kids throw parties in our house when Sam was 16 years old. Our kids have always been fairly reliable, although there have been one or two incidents: my daughter had a party when she was 16 and trashed quite a lot of plants, dancing in the garden. That was the most significant downer. The drinks cabinet has also been raided, but that wouldn't happen now."

Tony feels that because he has allowed his children a certain amount of freedom, they haven't abused his trust. "I specifically told Sam when he had a party last week that he could have a bottle of Tullamore Dew," he says. "When we came back this time the house was better than when we left it. If you give kids a bit of a long leash when they're young, they don't abuse it."

Not after the first time, anyway. Sam, Tony's son, says: "I vomited over my dad once when I was 16. I remember saying at one point: `It's OK Dad, you can empty the bucket now.' He moved the bowl, and I threw up all over his legs." Never again.

Alicia, a lecturer who has three teenage daughters, is less sanguine about her children's open-house habits, but she never prohibits them.

"My daughters often have lots of people round when I'm working abroad, and I know it's better to lay down certain ground rules rather than ban them totally - they'd only ignore me. So I give them certain rules; if I find cigarette burns on the carpets, that's the end of it."

If nothing else, teenage parties also provide the sort of mythical anecdotes people love to relate and embellish for years afterwards. Emily, 26, who is now a student, always tells friends of the time she and her brother threw a party as soon as her mother left the house for an evening.

"The whole place was trashed," says Emily, with practised horror. "They broke the kitchen table, and freed the rabbits from their hutches. All the girls tried on my mum's clothes. And a couple had sex in my brother's bedroom." Her mother was devastated, and that's something that really did upset Emily.

"There were 40 people still here by the time she got back. She was too upset to even be angry with us. I was truly horrified by her response and I've never had a party since."

Julia, 28 and a designer, loves to recall the subtle art of planning a party without her parents' knowledge. "That was always the best bit - doing it secretly; asking them about their holiday plans and exactly how many hours' drive away they'd be, then desperately cleaning up the house before they got back so that they wouldn't notice. When I got to college and could throw parties whenever I wanted, it lost some of its appeal."

Like most aspects of adolescence, parties at home seem to be a pretty transient phase. Especially when they discover that real maturity isn't about inviting adolescents over to vomit on your carpet; it's about behaving badly at other people's parties, and never throwing your own.