|My tux was fitted and rented. I'd made our dinner reservations. My date was beautiful, funny and smart. I was sure that, by the end of prom, she would fall madly in love with me. It was going to be the best. Night. Ever. But a week before the big night she dumped me for some basketball player. So on prom night, I wound up going to the movies with the girl's best friend—sort of a platonic protest date, a two-hour diversion from high-school heartache. The movie? Pretty in Pink, which turned out to be all about … prom.|
In retrospect, maybe we should have gone to see Police Academy 3. Who knew? But it illustrates something important about high school's most anticipated dance: Whether you love it or hate it, whether you have a date or not, prom is impossible to escape. And its mythos has only grown with time.
On the high school social calendar, prom is without peer. I knew it back in the day. Twenty years later, my kids knew it, too. Many teens plan for the event months in advance, and some dream about their senior prom for years. Very often, the dance itself is flanked by dinners and after-parties, limo rides and co-ed sleepovers. It's a night that can cost hundreds, if not thousands of dollars, and generate enormous pressure to make it "one to remember". All of which can make prom not just a special night for kids, but an anxious one for parents.
Rite of Passage
Every culture has its coming-of-age ceremonies. For millenia, societies have declared their youth ready for adulthood through daunting tests, somber rituals and elaborate parties, ranging from Australian aboriginal walkabouts to Jewish Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. But for many youth, prom is as close to a formal coming-of-age ceremony as they're likely to get.
And as rites of passage go, prom fits the bill quite nicely in some ways. In an age filled with dizzying technology and squishy societal norms, the dance itself can feel nicely old fashioned. Teen boys set aside their ballcaps and sweatshirts for tailored tuxedoes—the uniform of well-bred men for more than a century. Teen girls exchange their too-tight jeans and colorful Converse sneakers for glitter and gowns, transforming into legions of Cinderellas. During prom, most couples still adhere to time-honored rules of dating: Men open car doors and pay for dinner, and ladies are treated like the treasures they are.
"They are playing the stereotyped roles of men and women and emphasizing the change they are going through themselves," Andrew Buckser, an anthropology professor at Purdue University, told the Journal and Courier in Lafayette, Ind. "There's a very conscious effort to be grown-up, to be elegant and to be someone who is now different than they were."
Likewise, some chaperones suggest that prom's traditional decorum makes the actual dance less problematic than the typical school event. Certain teenagers, perhaps subconsciously, try to live up to the genteel uniforms they wear.
"When people dress up, they act like they're dressed up," Paul Browning, a principal at Socastee High School in South Carolina, told The Myrtle Beach Sun-News. "It's a rite of passage in terms of a kid moving to adult status."
But for some teens, the "behaving like an adult" part means something else entirely.
It's been suggested that too many teenagers view prom as a night without boundaries—a perception that can lead to irresponsible, unsafe behavior. Indeed, even with teens donning formalwear, a mere glance at the dance reveals how "unsafe" prom can be. Necklines plunge. Hemlines rise. The dancing gets dirty at times. The shared air can have the tang of alcohol and pot. And that's just the chaperoned dance. Given the popularity and prevalence of after parties and co-ed sleepovers—sometimes in unsupervised hotel rooms—prom's problems extend well beyond the typical sanctioned event. A teen's dream night can turn nightmarish in a hurry.
For some teens, pre- and post-prom drinking has become, unfortunately, almost as much of a tradition as the dance itself, with some before and after parties predicated on the idea of getting snockered. The problem is significant enough that some schools now require students to take a breathalyzer test before entering the ballroom. Given the fact that some of these underage drinkers get behind a wheel with a date in tow—and perhaps a few extra prom goers in the back seat—the results can be tragic.
According to the National Road Safety Foundation, 15,000 youth die in auto accidents every year, with crashes and fatalities higher during prom season. Some of those accidents might be attributed to distractions (cars filled with talking, laughing, texting friends) or drowsiness, but others can be pegged to alcohol—statistically a factor in half of all traffic fatalities.
Alcohol doesn't just impact judgment behind the wheel; it factors into every decision a teen might make during this so-called magical night. In 2009, a 15-year-old boy was arrested for raping a girl at a bonfire/sleepover held concurrent to prom. Both had been drinking and smoking marijuana before the incident. When asked in court to talk about what happened, the boy seemed unsure of how to explain his actions—even though he admitted to everything. He was later charged with sexual battery, a lesser charge indicating he wasn't in control of his own conduct.
Other teens know exactly what they're doing when they decide to have sex on prom night. Prom is expected to be the most romantic night of a high schooler's life. And even though many couples these days have said "yes" or "no" to physical intimacy long before pinning on the corsage, a conquest on prom night remains a trope used by Hollywood in many a teen romcom or American Pie-style raunchfest. For teens who've bought into that mindset, sex is the anticipated return on a financial investment that, in 2009, averaged about $500 per person.
With such lofty, often unhealthy expectations attached to high school's most anticipated event, what's a parent to do to keep prom from ending in frustration, disappointment and regret?
The Nitty Gritty
Unless they chaperone the dance, parents may feel as if they have very little control over how their children behave during prom. But that doesn't mean parents have to surrender their influence. Here are a few common-sense steps to ensuring a fun, safe and regret-free prom night:
Talk about it. Good parenting is, in many ways, based on good communication, and that's particularly important come prom night. Listen to your teen: Find out how they'd like to spend prom, and why. When it's your turn, tell them what makes you comfortable, and why. Have the conversation early. "If I had only one thing to say to parents, it would be to start talking to their teens three to four weeks ahead of time," Robyn Mehlenbeck, a professor at Brown University, told carletonplace.com. "Waiting until the day or week of prom sets parents and teens up to argue and be in conflict because teens are likely to be more emotional." While you're at it, try to lower some of your teen's sky-high expectations. Make sure they understand that it's just one night. Like most things in life, not everything will go perfectly.
Set strong guidelines. Rite of passage or no, teens are still accountable to you, which means they need to follow your rules. Make sure they know exactly what you consider proper prom-night behavior. Negotiate curfew. If you've given the OK for after-prom activities, exercise your right to find out specifically what will be going on. Who? Where? For how long? What will be served? Will there be parents present? If it is a parent-chaperoned event, call the hosts and chat with them a bit. Some youth may bristle at your suspicions or restrictions, so make sure they understand that these rules aren't about a distrust of them, but rather the situation.
Help them make wise decisions. When your daughter goes dress shopping, go with her … and gently guide her choices away from anything too revealing. If you're footing the bill for the dress, this will be easier to do. Meanwhile, school your sons on how a gentleman should behave. Emphasize that their actions—from the dinner to the dance to the drive home—will make the difference between a night to remember and a one best forgotten.
Prepare your teen for peer pressure. If your son or daughter does run into an uncomfortable situation, make sure you've given them the tools to get out of it. Confirm that they have a fully charged cell phone … with you on speed dial. Some families set up a predetermined code word that means, "Pick me up right now." Also, offer yourself up as a scapegoat. Let your teen save face with peers by blaming you for boundaries ("I can't violate my curfew or my parents will come looking for me").
Find alternatives. If the concept of prom still makes you uncomfortable, gently tell your son or daughter "no" and plan something else. Odds are, you're not the only family with reservations. Organize a theme party, or convince a youth pastor to arrange a fun, prom-night activity by renting a bowling alley or skating rink.
Let's face it, prom has its challenges, no matter how well we prepare for it. As parents, we're preconditioned to worry, even if our children are trustworthy and the situations manageable. In some ways, prom really is a rite of passage. It's a chance for our sons and daughters to put into practice all the lessons we've instilled in them, and to prove worthy of our trust. And that's a valuable thing in itself.
If you found this article helpful, follow this link: Heading Off Destructive Decisions
Published March 2011