Parenting Positive Kids

Are parents responsible for teen drinking, even if they don't know about it?
October 5, 2012 at 9:31 AM

Just as kids will be kids, teens will be teens.

And so it was that at a party of about 40 high school students in Menlo Park, Calif., last month, the music was too loud and the teens – celebrating the last football game of the season – got rowdy.

So rowdy that someone called the police, who came to the house and determined that some of the kids, ages 17 and 18, were, according to a police spokesperson, "displaying the signs of being under the influence of an alcoholic beverage."

The police then arrested dad and Stanford professor Bill Burnett, who along with wife Cynthia was hosting the party for their son, a high school senior. The charge against Burnett: 44 counts of contributing to a minor’s delinquency. Burnett spent a night in jail and faces a year’s sentence and/or a  pricey fine.

The kicker of the story?  Burnett and his wife insist they did not know there was alcohol in their house. In fact, they told TODAY, they tried to do everything possible to make sure there wouldn't be drinking at the party.

"We put really clear rules in place and we were patrolling the party," Bill Burnett told Matt Lauer. "My wife and I were both at the house. We were upstairs. The kids were downstairs in the basement. So we were there the whole time, I went through the party a couple times. I brought chocolate chip cookies. I was about to bring them brownies when the police came."

 Lauer asked Cynthia Burnett if, in hindsight, there was anything she could have done differently.

"I don't think there is anything else we could have done short of sitting there in the middle of the party," she replied. "You talk with your kids about how to be safe, how to make good choices, how to take care of each other. You let them know that you're there, both supervising and in case they get-- they do make bad choices."

But good intentions aren't enough in the eyes of the law, legal analyst Star Jones said on TODAY.

"They were absolutely wrong," Jones told Lauer. By law in California and many other states, parents are responsible for what happens to teens under their roof -- even if they're clueless. "Your job as a parent is to supervise and exercise control and protection and when you don't, the police have to step in, especially when there's alcohol involved."

The Burnetts' case have many parents wondering if they're doing enough -- or if you can ever do enough to keep teens from drinking at parties.

In a story for the Palo Alto Patch, writer Lisen Stromberg says that Burnett, apparently, had done everything he could to keep the party safe and the teenagers in line.

He told the neighbors there would be a party just so they knew he knew what was going on. He and his wife (who'd just had major back surgery) were there to “keep an eye on things.” (Rumor has it he was baking chocolate chips cookies to give to the kids when the police pounded on his front door).  He did everything right, and still it all fell apart. 

Stromberg raises the question: What’s a good parent to do?

If we want to celebrate these special events in our teenaged children’s lives, we place ourselves at risk. So is the answer, no parties? Doesn’t that place our children at greater risk? Let’s face it, as much as we might like to ignore or deny it, our kids are going to find a way to party.

What do you think? Should parents be held responsible for teen drinking at their house, even if they didn’t condone it?

 Note: This post was updated with the Burnetts' comments on Dec. 8.


  • LOswald0314
    October 8, 2012 at 3:40 PM

     I think a small fine would be enough.  I mean really, we can't control everything little thing our kids and their friends do.  Are the parents supposed to frisk the kids as they come in?  The only thing that alarms me is that the party got so loud that someone called the cops....the parents could have prevented the cops from even showing up.

  • lazyd
    by lazyd
    October 8, 2012 at 7:14 PM

    I think the parents AND KIDS should be held responsible.  I know you can ticket kids that age with underage drinking too.  BUT obviously the parents WERENT watchin the kids enough that they got sooo loud that the cops were called.  I can understand how the parents would miss that the kids are drunk tho.  With that many kids, alcohol can be hidin and the parents wouldnt know.  Plus if the kids were that rowdy and loud that can be cuz they are drunk or just teens gettin out of control whether they were drunk or not. 

  • Madelaine
    October 8, 2012 at 8:19 PM

    I do believe they are.  It is a hard one though.

  • JenStokes4312
    October 9, 2012 at 2:10 PM

    I say yes...however I would bet money that it wasn't their first time drinking. When our children were present we always drank responsibly and didn't make it a taboo. In other words we didnt make a big deal about it.  You have to start teaching your children about these issues at different stages. Let them ask the questions instead of laying it all out on the table. Having a large 'teen' party like that is setting the stage for college partying. Yes they will all do it but not with my supervision!

  • Bluetick
    October 9, 2012 at 2:41 PM
    I believe if you are part of your kids lives you would know where they are & what they are doing so YES as a adult & parent YOU ARE RESPONSIBLE
  • dusky_rose
    October 9, 2012 at 5:55 PM

    You would think that if the teens were getting that rowdy, that they would have stepped in to find out the reason before the police were called.

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