For many parents, setting a curfew is one of the first steps towards trusting our kids to take care of themselves.
Some parents are casual about curfew, and in this age of mobile phones, are content as long as they see their teenage son or daughter every now and then. Others are more hands-on, and spend their evenings watching the clock and even tracking their kids.
Then, there’s this case, where a 30-year-old woman would get locked out of her home by her father if she did not reach home by 7pm, even if it was due to work.
Although it is suspected that the daughter and her mother were being psychologically abused by the father, it is not uncommon to hear stories of such strict curfews in the past.
When I spoke to a friend about this, he said: “We want to keep our children away from unpleasant situations, and instil discipline and time management.
“I don’t give exact curfews; my children should know when to be back home at a reasonable hour. If I set a curfew without understanding what, where or why they need to stay out late, it alienates them and eventually they will circumvent the curfew with lies.”
Parenting over the years
Parenting styles vary. When I was studying for my diploma, I had friends who lived their after-school lives quite differently. There was A, who could stay out late, smoke, and go clubbing without being questioned by her parents. Then there was N, who had to be home by 7pm every day. Every time we coaxed N to stay out late, she would have to lie to her parents that we were completing a school project.
Another friend, Melissa Wong, 31, shares: “I never had a curfew. My parents taught me the importance of open and clear communication as well as responsibility. My siblings and I always asked them for permission, told them our plans and who they were with, stayed contactable by phone, and kept them updated so they didn’t need to worry or wonder where we were.
“We naturally came home before 10pm and if we planned to stay out later than that, we’d update them and almost all the time they never said no!”
Similarly, my parents did not set a hard and fast rule on what time I should be home every day – however, they would expect to be updated if I was going home late.
I wouldn’t call myself a rebellious child, but – at the risk of airing my dirty laundry – I had my fair share of misdemeanours in my teenage years.
Once, at 13, instead of going home after school, my friends and I followed a few older kids to a nearby HDB stairwell. It was there that I had my first cigarette puff and was put off by the bitter taste!
At 18, I hung out with some friends overnight at a 24-hour McDonald’s. I had told my mother I was sleeping over at my cousin’s place. It felt like a half-truth then, since my cousin’s home was just a few minutes walk from the fast-food restaurant. Of course, I had no intention of sleeping anywhere that night.
When I returned home the next morning, my mum had gone to work so I snuck into my bedroom to sleep. I still remember waking up later to the sound of my mum hammering on my door.
She barged into my room, belt in hand and started hitting my legs. Today, I can still hear the hurt in her voice asking me in Malay: “Why did you lie to me?!”
Guilt-stricken, I kept quiet and accepted the punishment.
After my mother left the room, my pillows were soaked in tears. But I wasn’t crying for myself or over the burning sensation in my legs, I was sorry for what my mother had to do to me – her only daughter – to set me right.
Now that I am a mother myself, I understand it even more. It is fear over their safety, mixed in with anger over being betrayed and layered with sadness for being lied to. That incident is a reminder to me to foster an environment of openness with my children.
Young parents today prefer open communication
Most of my friends with young children agree that communication is important. Regardless of how uncomfortable they might be over the reason for staying out late, most parents would want to know what their kids are doing.
Setting a curfew where both parent and child can agree on is a starting point for instilling responsibility and self-discipline. And the earlier this conversation takes place, the better. Curfews are not ultimatums, nor should they be simply slapped on when the kids are already used to going out late and hanging out with friends.
One friend adds: “When parents nag, and kids don’t listen – it’s also the parents’ problem. Unfair? Yes, welcome to parenthood.”
“So the early years are important to teach them familial values that resonate with them. Why do kids listen to their friends more than parents? Parents need to bridge this divide. I want to be their parent as well as their friend.”
What teenagers today expect from parents
When I spoke with some younger colleagues to find out what they think about curfews, I was surprised by their response. They believe that curfews are reasonable to protect a teenager.
Jamie, 19, shares: “When I was in secondary school, one of my classmates did not go home because he became infatuated with a girl from another class but their parents did not approve of the relationship. Both kids ended up staying away from home and the parents ended up calling the police who came to the school to look for the missing couple.
“There was also a group of boys who would wait outside the school gate at 6pm for some of my schoolmates… I’ve seen a lot of my schoolmates linger at void decks and stairwells, and I worry for their parents.”
Jamie is no stranger to curfews. In secondary school, she had a 7pm curfew. However, she often stayed out, sometimes till midnight to help friends with their schoolwork, or participate in extracurricular activities at school.
She says: “My parents didn’t understand. They thought I was a pai kia and tried to get me to obey their rules though shouting, locking me out or caning… but then when they found out what I was actually doing, it became really awkward.”
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Ryan, 21, agrees that curfews are important but with reason.
“If our studies are affected because we stay out till the wee hours every day, then a curfew should be implemented. Otherwise, a curfew shouldn’t be placed on a child simply for the sake of it because in my opinion, forcing the kid to stay home without reason will only cause him or her to feel trapped,” he says.
Reflecting on his own recent teenage years, Ryan adds: “Letting us go out is also important as we can learn vital social skills. Even if we make wrong decisions, that is part and parcel of growing up and learning right from wrong.
“In my own experience, those were things that I wasn’t able to start learning earlier in my life because I kept myself home all day.”
Dialogue is key
If your child is staying out late, instead of leaving multiple missed calls or sending passive-aggressive texts demanding to know where they are and what they are doing, take a gentler but firm approach.
Instead of questioning them in an overly-controlling manner, let your child know your reason for checking in is to make sure they are alright and that you are concerned about their safety.
I believe that our children will respond well when we talk to them with kindness and love, rather than with authoritativeness and brashness.
Instead of cutting off our children mid-sentence by saying things like “why must stay out so late?” or “why cannot do at home?”, try hearing them out and looking at the situation from their perspective.
Is there such a thing as the perfect curfew? No. Every child and every family circumstance is different.
But we all can agree on the benefits of having an open dialogue on the subject.
Finding the right balance between freedom versus safety is key. It might cause some disagreements within families but with mutual respect and trust, both parents and child can reach a happy conclusion.
Or at least one that doesn’t involve shouting, locked doors and hurt feelings.