With the vastness of the ocean, the rickety boardwalk rides, and the constant availability of fried Oreos, the Jersey shore can seem a strange place for your teen to find his or her independence. Nevertheless, the place was practically made for them (with fried Oreos as evidence), so negotiating new rights and regulations can be a necessary part of the summer season.
All along the shore, families are finding happy mediums that let teens feel free and parents feel at ease.
The ocean can be dangerous. So deciding when your teen is free to swim by himself or herself presents an obvious debate. Suzie Adams, of Linwood, lets her 14- and 16-year-olds go to the beach on their own, as long as they keep her informed.
"My older ones are pretty much self-sufficient," says the mother of three. "They just check in whenever they're going to a different spot. My 10-year-old, however, is usually at whichever beach I'm at."
Bud Johnson, captain of the Wildwood Crest Beach Patrol, says although there are no rules about parental supervision, it's an important detail to take into consideration.
"When a kid turns 13, he's probably responsible enough to take care of himself," says Johnson, whose been with the OCBP for 45 years. "I think anyone under that would need supervision. With the ocean, now that's a little different - now you've got some other elements involved.
"We like to see parents with kids all the time. Our lifeguards have to be at least 16 years old, and I think that's a good age. Obviously, we think they are capable to handle the surf at that age."
Dustin Duford, 15, says he's been able to handle the surf.
"I surf with my friends," says the Egg Harbor Township resident. "I've been coming out here at 6 in the morning since I was maybe 13. My parents just drop us off and we go."
Duford works at the Promenade in Ocean City. "I started last year," says the teen. "It's fun. I work five days a week. It's simple enough, I'm a cashier."
Employment is yet another question for parents during their teen's bid for independence. The legal age minimum, at least, is established by the state. Working papers can be acquired by teens at age 14. According to a representative at Gillian's Pier, it's a state law that anyone operating amusement rides must be at least 16 years old. The question remains, when should parents allow their teens to start working?
"14," says Adams, whose 16-year-old works as a lifeguard in Longport. "As soon as they're old enough to work. So they have responsibility for their own money."
The Dairy Bar in Margate is well known for hiring teens as young as 14 years old. The ice cream joint's owner, Christopher Clayton, is an expert at hiring and training young men and women. He holds a job fair every year that allows him to meet potential cashiers and ice cream scoopers. For Clayton, the real challenge is managing the logistics of a teen work force.
Clayton says a parent's fears their child might be too young to work are unnecessary.
"We have a lot of parents who consider us to be the safest place for their kid to be," he says. "They need to be segregated on the schedule. The Department of Labor also requires that we have a separate schedule for breaking. They have to get a 15-minute break every four hours. They can't work past nine o'clock at night. No female leaves my property alone to go to their car or wherever they're going because I need to engage the parents and let them know that we're on the same page here."
Clayton knows the business well and can rattle off the traits he's looking for in a teen worker without taking a breath.
"It's very simple things, integrity, honesty, looking people in the eye, being sincere, letting them know that we really appreciate their business, showing up on time which is 10 minutes before your shift, making sure you're properly dressed, working well with teams and a zero tolerance policy for drugs, alcohol or cliques."
Mary-Beth Clark, who beaches in Longport with her 14-, 17- and 18-year-olds, says freedom for her teens starts in high school. Another key is travelling in loose groups.
"Often there is a parent going with them who's somewhere on the beach but maybe not with them," says Clark. "They love the Ocean City Boardwalk. Often times we'll go and they'll go off on their own and we'll meet up later on."
Sarah Carroll, 12, and Stephanie Moscato, 14, are used to a similar routine at the Wildwood Boardwalk. They were getting off The Waltzer, a spinning thrill ride, with a group of friends at Morey's Pier. Though their parents were not directly in view, they were on the Pier and had established they would all leave together.
For the teens, this arrangement let them enjoy some family time together but also experience a small taste of summer freedom.
"They're close by," says Moscato. "We like being here with them and we get to go off by ourselves when we want to."
Matthew Dombek, 14, whose family is vacationing in Cape May, was enjoying his freedom on the Washington Street Mall. "I'm here with my aunt," he said, standing with his bike. "She picked Cape May because me and my cousins can bike around more easily here. It's cool. We'll ask her if we can bike into town and she usually lets us as long as we come back when we say we're going to."
He and his cousins had left the beach, which was a couple blocks away, before their parents. The teens said they like looking around the stores, but they usually don't buy anything.
"I love the beach, like skim boarding and body surfing," says Dombek. "But sometimes we get bored being there all day long."
Max Rainsford, of Lancaster, Pa., is more upfront with what he's looking to get out of the beach. "Mini-golf and girls," says the 14-year-old, laughing. "Congo Falls is the best mini-golf course. I've played them all."
Rainsford is eating french fries on the Ocean City Boardwalk with his friends Brian and Matthew Ball, 14-year-old twin brothers. They visit every year and their parents were elsewhere on the Boardwalk.
"We like the rides and the speedway," says Matthew. "Oh, and you've got to ride the bikes in the morning," adds his brother. "The tandem rentals. I did it with my sister once and they're actually really hard to balance. The others ones sits four, the surreys, those are cool too."
Mary Beth-Clark, said one of the ways she transitions teens into being on their own is by sending them with older teen relatives.
"Since I have multiple kids, my kids go as a group," says Clark. "So there's always an older one there with them."
Tom and Jen Mershon, of Bucks County, Pa., are just beginning to navigate these waters with their 13-year-old daughter Megan. They are spending the week in Sea Isle but they frequent the Ocean City Boardwalk. When asked if they would let Megan come to the Boardwalk by herself, Tom Mershon responds with a laugh: "We're not quite there yet."
"She's one of the younger cousins," says Jen Mershon. "So we would let her go with the older cousins. That's easy because they're older."
As for Megan, she's perfectly fine being with her parents.
"We get ice cream, we go to Mack and Mancos. We basically just walk up and down looking for stuff," she says. "We rode the surrey this morning. We (play) mini golf. I love everything here."
In terms of activities, teens and moms agree boogie boarding and the Boardwalks are some of the biggest hits.
If you're near Cape May, Mary Turner recommends renting kayaks because it's a group activity that allows teens to have some independence.
"We went with a little group but they each had their own kayak," she said. "And we went through the salt marshes for a couple of hours and they tired after that. It's a lot of work but it's something a little different, a little off the beaten path."
One thing seems clear too, if they're at the beach, the teens don't always mind family time all that much.
"On the 4th of July we all sat around the beach as a family," says Clark. "And we were really OK with that."
Contact David Simpson:
Teens on the beach and boards
How much freedom do you give a teen during summer vacation? Here's some advice from local parents:
Travel in loose groups: Go to the same boardwalk, but let the teens go off on their own.
Have teens check in: Set a time for them to call you or return to a meeting place.
Nurture independence whenever possible: Let them pick places to eat sometimes; if you rent kayaks or bikes, let them have their own.
Develop a relationship with their employer: If your teen is still 14 or 15, give their boss a call once in a while to make sure everything is going well.
Give them responsibilities: Once they can work, let them be responsible for their own spending money.
Always have them travel with a buddy: If they are on the boardwalk, and especially if they are swimming, make sure someone else is with them.
If there are responsible older teens in your family, let them supervise the younger teens at the boardwalk: This helps the younger teens feel independent and the older teens feel responsible.
Give them a little more independence every year: Make them aware that although this year they have to go to the boardwalk with their older sibling, next year they will be allowed to go with their friends.