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When Teen Parties Go Viral


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child but maybe you just need a few moms and dads in your corner. Every week, we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy advice. Today, we're talking parties. You might have heard about one that got out of control. Six people were arrested last week after hundreds of young people partied in and then trashed an ex-NFL player's vacation home in New York over Labor Day weekend. It got a lot of attention after the player gave clues about the partygoers' identity in order to shame them and make them accountable. Now, of course, this was an extreme case, but if you are a parent then you know that kids' parties, even for little kids, can raise all kinds of sticky issues about fairness and feelings that go well beyond child's play, especially when you add social media to the mix. So how do you train that party animal inside your own kids?

Joining us to talk about this are our very own party people. Harriette Cole writes the nationally syndicated Sense and Sensitivity advice column. She's the mom of one daughter. Jolene Ivey is a Maryland state legislator, a co-founder of a parenting support group and mom of five boys. Leslie Morgan Steiner is author of "Mommy Wars" and "Crazy Love," and a mom of three. Both Jolene and Leslie are regular contributors to our parenting roundtable. And Fernando Espuelas is a host of his own radio show on Univision America network and a dad of two. Welcome, everybody. Thanks so much for joining us.



JOLENE IVEY: Great to be here.



MARTIN: Exhausted from the parties you went to this weekend? Harriette, I just want to start with you. Do you have the sense, as a person who's been writing about etiquette for a while, that this has become more complicated, even kids parties?

COLE: Absolutely. It was complicated from the beginning, and now with social media, it becomes even more complicated. In that, we use things like Evite and Paperless Posts and other such mechanisms that are supposed to make it easier for us, but if you include the guests, your guest list, and make it visible, then what if little Johnny wasn't invited or - I mean, there's so many things that happen. You know, to the question of that big party that got out-of-control - even with little kids, many feelings can be hurt and bruised if you aren't inviting everybody from the class - you invite a few and what happens to the others?

MARTIN: Well, you were telling us that, you know, once kids get to be the age where they are starting to develop their own social relationships, that things can get sticky and particularly, you know, even efforts that people make to preserve people's feelings can make things seem kind of out-of-control. You were telling us that your daughter's last birthday party had 40 kids?

COLE: Yes.

MARTIN: Forty kids? For a 10-year-old? What happened there?

COLE: Well, good or bad, when my daughter was in preschool, we were told you invite the whole class - invite the whole class or don't invite anyone. My daughter, much like her mother, is a very social being. Now there are two classes in her school of the same grade and she has invited both classes, which means 40 kids. For me, it's been fun, it's just to find something affordable because her birthday's in November. And for anybody who has a winter baby, you know that you can't have that party outside, normally. Last year, we rented a double-decker bus and it was fantastic and it was really affordable. So you get creative. But this year, we've talked about limiting it.

And what I tell parents is if you go from something big to something small, it needs to be really small because the worst thing you can do is to invite 15 of the 20 kids because then the other kids will find out and wonder well, why doesn't she like me anymore? What happened? And you want to manage those feelings.

MARTIN: It's a tough one, you know. Jolene, I mean, what's the stickiest party situation you've been in? I mean, it's a tough one when kids get to be the age where they have their own relationships but don't necessarily understand the consequences of their casual conversations. What's the stickiest situation you've had?

IVEY: Well, I have boys and I probably am not the best mother. I will just go ahead and let them invite, you know, within reason, whoever they want. And then I keep a lookout for kids I know who aren't really popular but in their age group and would really be excited to be included, and I just invite them. And then the day of the party when this other kid shows up, my kid looks around like, I didn't know you were invited, but they don't really care 'cause they have all these other kids coming.

And it's - you know, that person just gets kind of swept up into the moment. So I try not to drag out the discussions too much. I just figure, if I just invite that kid - I've even had kids like that for sleepovers and it's worked out fine. I mean, if you have three kids for a sleepover, yeah, that would be a problem. But if you have 10 kids, the 11th kid - does it matter that that kid doesn't have the best social skills?

MARTIN: You're either a really bad mom or a candidate for sainthood. I just want to mention that. So, Leslie, what about you - stickiest situation you've ever been in?

STEINER: Oh, there have been a few over the years. One that was really tricky recently is that my son had a - who is 16, had a small party for about 12 friends, and the party was supposed to end at 11:30. And at 11:29, 25 kids showed up on my front door. And to my son's credit, he is the one who turned them all away. And it was a great teachable moment 'cause I said, you know, this is why you don't ever put a party on Facebook and you don't ever have a party when your parents aren't home because how would you have handled turning them away if I hadn't forced you to? That was really sticky. The kids who were turned away handled it really well, I have to say. They understood and they were really gracious.

MARTIN: But then there was another one involving your daughter that was really hard.

STEINER: That was the one that hits the closest to my heart. You know, there's nothing worse than seeing your kid's feelings being hurt. And when my daughter was, oh, I don't know, in sixth or seventh grade, she and her best friend planned a sleepover birthday party for her friend. And then at the last minute, my daughter was not invited. And my daughter cried for two hours and had to sleep in my bed that night. And, you know, we ended up having a really good productive conversation with the friend and the friend's mom. But I have to say, there's this little piece of me that I don't know if I can ever really move on because it was just so - just unthinkable.

MARTIN: Why wasn't she invited? Do you mind if I ask? Why wasn't she invited?

STEINER: You know what? We never found out. We never found out. It was just, you know - oh...

MARTIN: Numbers.

STEINER: ...You know, I had to keep it really small. It wasn't the question of why she wasn't invited, it's why the girl had included her in the planning and then not invited her.

MARTIN: That's a tough one.

STEINER: You know, there are teachable moments there, too. My daughter learned a lot of really good but painful lessons.

MARTIN: About what?

STEINER: Well, it's also really...

MARTIN: About what? What lesson?

STEINER: Well...

MARTIN: I mean, the lesson for me would be this is why you don't want to talk about stuff like this outside of school because you can hurt people.

STEINER: No, that wasn't the lesson.

MARTIN: What was it?

STEINER: The lesson for us is that sometimes your friends, even, you know, basically good and decent friends do really dumb things that hurt your feelings. And you have a choice whether to forgive them or learn a lesson about them.

MARTIN: Fernando, what about you?

ESPUELAS: Well, I have a newly minted 14-year-old. So I'm living in a state of constant terror. I don't know what I'm doing. I'm an only child myself, so I have no guide. My wife is a little more relaxed about it, but we're now just experimenting trying to figure out what he's like. And we just moved from California to D.C., so in a way, everything is new. But he's now integrating himself in these social groups and being invited to parties. And we've been warned by parents in the school that, you know, eventually someone will offer them beer and someone will offer them marijuana at some point. And that was quite the shock to hear our first day of school.

MARTIN: What's the thing you most worry about? Is it about him being - is it drugs and alcohol? This is a good segue to the other thing we wanted to talk about - is when social media happens and when stuff gets out of control. But is it the drugs and alcohol or is it the exclusion?

ESPUELAS: Yeah, I think it's more the exclusion part. We came from a very small school in California where there was definitely - he was the outsider. And we're hoping that now it's a bigger school, he'll be an insider. In terms of the drugs and alcohol, of course I'm as worried as any other parent, but at the same time, we talk about it all the time so that hopefully we are diffusing the feeling that it's some sort of forbidden fruit that he must go after.

IVEY: So let's segue into that question that everybody - that we started our conversation with, which is this whole question of what happened at this NFL player's house in upstate New York over Labor Day. And, you know, it sounds crazy, but I've talked to a number of parents of teenagers who say that having 200 kids show up unannounced is not at all shocking or unusual. I have heard...

COLE: I don't know, I'm pretty shocked.


COLE: I mean, if that happened at my house, I would be horrified whether I was home or not, especially if I weren't home. But, wow.

MARTIN: It's because of social media, though.


MARTIN: People put a party on Facebook and then people just assume it's a kind of a you-all-come situation. Harriette?

COLE: I think this is the stuff of movies that is turning into reality, which is very, very scary. But in his case, I think it's a different story. For many kids, it is do you really respect your parents and if you do, then you would not draw that line. Now it is true that peer pressure can get to kids, which is why - I talked to a woman years ago who said she kept a nanny until her child was 17, just so that there would be someone in the house because she worked many hours. To have an adult in the house when a teen is coming home, means that that latchkey situation doesn't exist. But there's one other thing, Michel, I wanted to double back to - the girl whose friend had her help plan the party and then didn't invite her.

To me, that is cruel and a lesson in there, I believe, is that that is not your friend. You may think she's your friend, but - something like that happened to me when I was young and I could never understand it. It still hurts 30 years later, but my mother told me, sometimes you may not understand why something happens but you can walk away and find other friends who will be more respectful of you because to be that unkind, and for the mom to allow that, is unconscionable.

MARTIN: Harriette, what do you think should have happened in that case? I mean, I could sort of see a situation where this girl was clueless and just did not seem to - or maybe she had over-invited and had not clued her parents into what the limits are and did not communicate what those limits were. I don't know.

COLE: A very sincere apology, for starters, from the mom in particular. You know, if she didn't realize that it happened, that the girl who had helped her to plan the party - some kind of heartfelt apology, absolutely, is in order. Some kind of make-good activity - let's do something special together. We really didn't mean to hurt your feelings. To say, hey, the list was too long and we had to cut it off and we cut you. Who says that? Even if you think it, who says something like that? It's just so unkind.

But that is the age, by the way, sixth and seventh grade, where girls in particular can be so cruel to each other. And so it's a parent's role to be as present as possible and to help provide context. When terrible things happen, what do you do? And in our culture right now, we have lots of information about bullying and how to not be a bully and how not to be a bystander, and all this curriculum that is being developed to help people weather the storm of the bad girls, the mean girls. Boys are less like that, although it happens with them, too.

MARTIN: Don't agree at all, sorry.


MARTIN: Have to disagree.


MARTIN: I mean, there's just different levels.

COLE: Different ways.

MARTIN: I just have to say, they are more similar than I think a lot of people think.


MARTIN: Fernando?

ESPUELAS: Yeah. Well, I was an only child with a single mom, and she used a very powerful tool, which was guilt. And she said, if I'm working all day and I'm working two jobs, I expect certain behavior from you and it would be so disappointing. And this went on for years to the point where I was my own policeman. I was my own regulator. And so I realized, even though I would never do that to my own child, I am doing it to my own child and it's quite effective, actually.

MARTIN: What's your story?

ESPUELAS: Well, I just tell him, basically, is this really the kind of behavior that you think is going to get you to the White House. That's my standard.


ESPUELAS: He has no interest in being a politician but that's sort of the standard I put it.

MARTIN: He would like to be a rockstar, as I think. And if he wants to be a rockstar, he's like, yeah, dad, heck yeah.

ESPUELAS: This could all backfire.

MARTIN: Leslie, what about you? What's your best advice going forward about this - how to talk about this?

STEINER: Well, you know, I think we're missing something here because I agree with all the guilt advice and the candid talks and all of that, but what happens, especially with teenagers, is, you know, they just inadvertently do dumb things. And, you know, I don't think any kid is meaning to invite 500 people to his house, but if your child posts the address on Facebook, forget it. That's what's going to happen. And it's not a rare thing, it happens all the time.

And in our situation, something that happens is that our son often will want to throw a party with a couple of friends. And so I have to talk, not only to my son about never putting the address on Facebook, but I have to talk to the other kids, too. And I think that parents of older kids are your best allies here. And as my son moved into adolescence, I talked to my friends who had already, you know, successfully chaperoned parties and found out everything that they did. And there are a lot of really simple things that you can do, which are completely unlikely things...

MARTIN: Like what?

STEINER: ...Our own parents did.

MARTIN: Like what?

STEINER: Like, I stand at the door with a clipboard and a guest list. I'm not kidding.

MARTIN: Do you have an earpiece, too?

ESPUELAS: I like that a lot.

STEINER: Practically. And you know what's really funny is that my teenage daughter has gotten into this, too. So now she keeps the door. She gets dressed up for the role. She's like this really pretty, younger bouncer.

MARTIN: Love it.

STEINER: And we also - you have to take their backpacks because that's where a lot of stuff gets hidden. And you keep their backpacks, you don't let them leave and come back.

ESPUELAS: Sounds like TSA.

STEINER: You have to do this kind of stuff.

MARTIN: You know what, you could work for some NBA players.

STEINER: Yeah, I know.

MARTIN: And I think that we would forestall a lot of difficulties. Take their backpacks, stand at the door with a clipboard, interesting. Jolene?

IVEY: Well, I'm never going to have a party so big that it requires that kind of control. But as far as being mean and dealing with mean people, I just try to ban them from the house. I know you can't ban mean people from your life, but you can keep them out of your house once they've done something that you just can't accept.

MARTIN: Like what?

IVEY: Things that you can't accept?

MARTIN: Yeah, like, they've done mean things like what?

IVEY: Well, anytime someone is just - you know, sometimes you see little kids just being mean to another kid. You know, hitting them, calling them names, anything like that. I don't let that happen. If the kid is mean or just plain old, flat out disobedient to me, they don't come back. I banned a whole family once for a year.



IVEY: But when you think about how not to hurt other people's feelings, one thing that you can do is make sure that when they start posting pictures on Facebook after the party, that it looks like an extremely small event. Don't show that, you know, 20 pictures with 20 - 50 different people. That's really not nice, unless you - it was a neighborhood party and you could invite everyone.

MARTIN: So be absolutely sure you have access to your child's Facebook account, period. Is that it?

IVEY: Well, I'm not really like that. I would just talk to them and make sure, hey, when you post those pictures, you don't want people to feel bad. You want your kid to feel like, oh, yeah, yeah. What do I need to do to not be a jerk to my other friends who didn't come.

MARTIN: All right, Harriette, final thought from you 'cause you're in the not-be-a-jerk business.

COLE: I think you want to teach your children how to be upstanding individuals. You know, how to embrace your family values and live those values wherever they go. And so I love this conversation about teaching - not so much the guilt - but teaching them these are the expectations, this is how you move through life and make friends and treat people well. Treat people the way you want to be treated.

That golden rule thing is really powerful, but we have to teach by example. So we have to do what we're telling our children to do. Including when we make mistakes, how we apologize, how we make up if we do something stupid because it's not just teens that do something stupid, adults do, too. When we show by example how to live our values, then our children will do the same.

MARTIN: Grounded for three months. Also want to mention that. Harriette Cole writes for the nationally syndicated Sense and Sensitivity advice column. She's the mom of a daughter. She was with us from NPR New York. Fernando Espuelas is host of his own radio show on Univision America network, a dad of two. Jolene Ivey is a Maryland state lawmaker. She's the cofounder of a parenting support group, a mom of five boys, one of our regular parenting contributors with us from Washington, D.C. Leslie Morgan Steiner is author of "Mommy Wars," "Crazy Love" and a mom of three, with us from New Hampshire Public Radio in Concord, New Hampshire. Thank you all so much.

ESPUELAS: Thank you.

COLE: Thank you.

IVEY: Thanks, Michel.

STEINER: Thank you.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. We'd like to take a moment to welcome member station WUKY in Lexington, Kentucky to our listening family. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.