What is a Reasonable Curfew?

by Dr. James G. Wellborn

If you ask your kid, they are likely to say:

  1. I am old enough to decide for myself when it is time to come home. 
  2. You should trust me. 
  3. My friends’ parents let them stay out really late all the time. 
  4. And besides, this isn’t some fascist state like . . . like . . . somewhere else.  This is America!

And the suggested answers are: 

  1. You’re old enough to set your own curfew when I’m not the one paying for the toilet paper along with every other thing you own and owe. 
  2. No.
  3. If I wanted you to grow up to be a career criminal I’d let you stay out really late, too. 
  4. First, pay more attention in history and government. Second, you live in the United States of My House. Third, go clean up your room. 

Seriously though, curfew serves a number of purposes. It requires your kid to balance fun with responsibility. It limits opportunities for trouble. It keeps them safe. It requires them to care for their physical health (through sleep, rest and recuperation). Curfews also give you a break from worrying where your kids are. But, what should you consider in setting a reasonable curfew?

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Is it legal?

It is usually a good idea to teach your kid to obey the law. While laws differ among communities and across states, curfew for kids under eighteen is usually between midnight and five a.m. unless they are going directly to or from a lawful activity, on a legitimate errand, or in the company of a parent or guardian. For seventeen-year-olds, curfew might be eleven p.m. on week­days and midnight on weekends. For kids sixteen and younger, curfew is often 10 p.m. on weekdays and 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. Kids in this age range are to be home until six a.m. Have your kid look it up. It is illegal for parents to knowingly allow their kid to violate curfew laws. Police can issue a warning or court summons, or even make an arrest for a curfew violation. So first, follow the law.

How old is your kid?

You should also take your kid’s age into account in determining curfew. The younger the kid, the earlier the curfew.

Middle school. Curfew should be early for middle school kids—seven-ish on weeknights and ten on weekends. Later curfews overlap too much with the times older kids are on the prowl. Adult monitoring should be required for any gathering or activity of middle school kids.

Ninth and tenth grades. Kids in their middle teens can handle later curfews and greater freedom. Nine on weekdays and eleven on weekends can work for them. Regular contact with and checking in with adults should be a condition of being out. Limit their opportunities for unstructured, unsu­pervised activities in unspecified locations.

Juniors and seniors. Kids in their late teens typically should have begun to earn the privilege of later curfews (eleven on weekdays, twelve and even later on weekends) with long periods of time out of the house. (Don’t forget, in many states, kids under eighteen will need a note from parents if they are staying out later than twelve.) This sets the stage for you to assess their judgment in maintaining a balanced life. Give them enough rope. If they aren’t sufficiently trust­worthy, work with them to try to earn that privilege. There is value in giving them the chance to mess up so you can rein them back in occasionally. Discuss how to be mature and responsible with their time and iden­tify ways they can demonstrate responsibility to earn the chance to try again. This helps prepare them for freedom at college or independent living.

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How much is too much?

Allowing your kid to stay out night after night in the company of their peers with little or no supervision is a bad idea regardless of how trustworthy and responsible your kid may (initially) be. They need to spend time at home, in your house where you get a chance to have some influence over their decisions, priorities and opinions. So don’t allow them to be out until curfew on any two consecutive nights. 

What about special circumstances? 

Having a set curfew and a clear curfew policy with consequences will keep your kid from trying to negotiate their curfew every single day. So be sure you lay down the ground rules and stick to them. However, sometimes there will be situations and opportunities that deserve a modification of the curfew. When these circumstances arise, require your kids to negotiate an exception to their curfew.  They will have to prove that the benefits outweigh the costs. They will have to make the case that they earned an exception because of their trustworthiness and good judgment (which will probably end the discussion right there).  If they haven’t earned it yet, this process will help them identify how to position themselves for earning later curfews in the future.  If they have been trustworthy and responsible you then give in for the right reason: they earned it. You may have to limit the number of exceptions up front (no more than one exception every six weeks, for example) which requires them to plan and prioritize fun. It is worth an occasional sleepless night worrying for them to reap the benefits of establishing and maintaining trust.

Special circumstances are also an opportunity for your kid to demon­strate how to maintain trust. Make sure you have a talk with them about the cost of screwing up this opportunity. If it goes well, more trust (and subsequent freedom) follows. If they blow it, they will take a step backward and have to rebuild trust.

Your kid won’t be stunted if they don’t get to go to all the cool parties or stay out as late as the luckiest (and most at risk) of their peers. Curfews help keep your kid from wandering (or running headlong with open arms) into trouble. (Though keeping them in at night isn’t the panacea for avoiding trouble. A high percentage of kids use alcohol and drugs, have sex and break the law between the hours of 3-6PM.) Set up a clear and definite set of rules then make your kid have to negotiate for exceptions. And make sure you say “no” some of time; just for fun.   

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Dr. James G. Wellborn is a clinical psychologist with a private practice in Brentwood, Tennessee focusing on adolescents and families.  He is the author of the book Raising Teens in the 21st Century: A Practical Guide to Effective Parenting where strategies for guiding teens through their learner permit and getting (and keeping) their driving license, character issues like gratitude, life skills issues like assertiveness, life style issues like exercise and family management issues like money and jobs are among the 79 chapters on dealing with typical teenage issues.  You can learn more about Dr. Wellborn or sign up for his monthly newsletter on parenting teens by visiting his website at www.DrJamesWellborn.com.

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