For most adults, Reading Festival – or its northern sister event, Leeds – holds zero appeal. More than 90,000 teenagers off the leash for the first time in their young lives; vodka shots, pills, piles of vomit – it’s not my idea of fun. While all festivals have their casualties, my sound engineer friend who works at all the festivals grimly insists these two are in a league of their own. “Carnage” is how he describes them.
So what do you do when one of your own children wants to jump right in? Last summer, Tara – my smart, sensible 17-year-old, my middle child – announced her intention to go along.
It wasn’t a case of “shall I let her?” For a start, at 17, she was a full year older than many of the revellers (16 seems to be the average starting age for both Leeds and Reading). She bought the £240 ticket herself – she has multiple jobs, we all borrow from the Bank of Tara. But also, I’ve tried to let my three teens make their own decisions about where they go and what time they’re home – while staying as connected as possible, always talking, hyper-alert to dodgy friends, low moods, signs of drifting. In general, it has made for peaceful parenting and my mantra, yelled when they walk out the door, is a family joke. “Make wise choices”.
But the festival question, for almost all parents, is a funny one. Until that point, our kids will have gone to a few parties and will have come home safely at the end of the night. We’ll have done all we can to steer them away from drugs. Then, GCSE summer rolls around and we’re expected to let them go off on an unsupervised 72-hour bender. So how should we play this, as parents? The question, “Shall I let my 16-year-old go to a festival?” makes an annual appearance on parenting forums. (Responses are always divided, from “Good God, no!” to “You can’t keep them locked up forever”.)
Last year, my friend Sarah stopped her 16-year-old son, Max, from going to Reading. “These festivals start on GCSE results day – they get their grades, then go,” she says. “I knew Max would either be in full celebration mode or devastated, and in that environment drinking and drug-taking is normalised. Max has a rational head, but I didn’t want to put him in a situation where it’s likely he’d take something – why risk it?”
Interestingly, Max accepted Sarah’s decision without a fuss. “Perhaps there was some relief – it gave him a get-out clause for his friends,” says Sarah, adding that the worst “peer pressure” came from other parents. “I got a lot of, ‘They’ve got to grow up some time!’” she recalls. “But it’s a serious decision. You’re the person who’ll live with the consequences.”
Janey Downshire, a teen expert and counsellor, is co-author of Teenagers Translated: A Parent’s Survival Guide. She says that Reading and Leeds festivals can be a useful “rite of passage” (her children all went to Leeds at 16.)
“It does serve as a good transitional moment,” she says. “They’re going into sixth form, from dependent child to independent adult, where they have to solve problems and assess situations on their own. The more you do for your child, the less self-governing they are.
“But at 16, you’re just opening the door,” she adds. “We all know the horror stories; things can go very wrong. So your child needs a tool kit.”
Don’t scaremonger, Downshire warns. “If all you say is ‘don’t’ and when they get there their friends say ‘do’, they’re in no-man’s-land. In the lead-up, they need to hear that you trust them. That way, they can live up to your expectations.”
Downshire recommends “soft planning”. “Ask questions about what goes on at parties and get their views on it,” she says, “Talk about what they might expect at a festival and how they’d react. What would they do if someone passes out? Get your child to think in the role of potential helper. Ask which member of their tribe would look out for them.”
Educate them on what they might be exposed to: pour a unit of alcohol so they can see what it looks like, then explain that drinking X units in X hours is potentially fatal. Look at the drugs website talktofrank.com so they see what they might be offered and the potential effects. One big question for many parents is whether to share stories of their own teenage misdemeanours. Downshire thinks not.
“The context is so different. We didn’t have ‘legal highs’. Weed was fairly benign compared with the high-potency skunk around now. Without going into detail, you can say that you know what it’s like to be with friends, to want to have fun and fit in, and that maybe there were times you put yourself in danger.”
She also recommends children do their own packing. “If they can’t pack, they’re not ready,” she says. And not all teenagers are ready. Each parent should use their own judgment. “Some might want to wait a year, or suggest a day ticket, even if it means collecting them at 1.30am.”
Before Tara’s departure, we did have a few conversations. I remember warning her never to buy drugs at a festival as the dealers could be offloading anything. (Cue massive eye roll. “Obviously, Mum.”) When she told me she’d be drinking beer in cans, which you open on the spot so can’t be spiked, I was simultaneously proud and petrified.
A former cadet, Tara planned it like a military operation. She bought a portable charger and a bum bag (tip: get the kind worn under your clothes. A friend’s son had the standard kind whipped from his waist within moments). She timetabled the unmissable bands and identified her preferred camping site (“white camp”: furthest from the action, so the quietest).
Nevertheless, she saw people her own age carried off on stretchers. She was touched up at concerts. (“I didn’t like it, but I wasn’t traumatised.”) It rained and her tent leaked. She ran out of socks, endured vile smells, boys peeing all over the place, and (most disgusting of all) people having sex in the portable loos. But she survived, came home happy – then slept for 18 hours straight.
Would she go again? It’s a definite no. “I felt old at 17 – at 18, I’d be way too old,” she says. “And it’s so much money. I could have gone on a little holiday and come back with a tan.”
So this summer, she’s off on her first Interrail. Another rite of passage… and a whole new set of what-ifs.
Have you experienced this parenting dilemma yourself? Did you, or would you, let your child go to a music festival? We want to hear from you in the comments section below and in the Telegraph Family Facebook Group.
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