Ever heard of YOLO? If you haven’t and you’re a parent of a teen, you need to wise up.  It’s an acronym that means You Only Live Once and it was popularized in a song by Canadian rapper Drake last fall, tattooed on actor Zac Efron’s hand, hashtagged by millions of teens on Twitter and immortalized in their Facebook posts as well.  When I first heard our older daughter’s friends tease her that she was all about YOLO, I actually thought that was a good thing, like the “Carpe Diem” motto that Robin Willliams implores his students to follow in the movie Dead Poet’s Society, a movie that Andy and I showed to our daughters not too long ago…it also seemed related to my personal favorite movie line, “A life lived in fear is a life half-lived” from the movie, Strictly Ballroom… But I guess another motto I should memorize (because I keep forgetting it) is “parents are clueless” because, as Washington Post style writer Maura Judkis put it in an article dated 4-6-12, YOLO is short on the noble idea of living life to its fullest and is more focused on brash decisions and their consequences…it’s used as an excuse for bad or risky behavior, or to play mean pranks. She lists examples of recent YOLO Tweets from kids that include things like “switching seats while the car is going 100” and “peeing off a hotel balcony”.  What she doesn’t write but what has become a scary “sidebar” of this phenomenon is that kids try to copy each other’s YOLO feats and even “out-YOLO” each other.   

We found that out unwittingly a few weeks ago.  Early one Sunday morning, Andy obtained our 17-year-old’s cell phone (while she slept) so he could look at it to properly order a new battery for it online, and decided to check her texts and Tweets while doing so—we were concerned with how late she had been staying out (we’d never had to set a curfew in the past) and he was curious to see if he’d be able to tell what time she’d gotten in the night before.  Not only did he discover her ETA was about 2:30 a.m., he also discovered she’d ridden with friends to Oklahoma and back, about an hour and a half (82 miles) up the highway, to explore the Choctaw Casino Resort and Tweet photos of their adventure, with a YOLO hashtag, of course.   “Words cannot express the good time we’re having,” read one Tweet.  After we gave her a consequence (grounding for a week), and tears were shed, and I made phone calls to all the other parents involved (some were concerned, come weren’t), more unnerving details came to light. We found out that, after a pair of Seniors had YOLOed and Tweeted their way up to the “Welcome to Oklahoma” sign a week before, that our daughter and her Junior and Sophomore friends wanted to do the same…and that on the previous Thursday, the night of the last day of school, they’d attempted to do just that, starting their trip to the Sooner State at the spur-of-the moment time of 2 a.m.  Their plans were thwarted around 3 a.m. after a small town Texas cop pulled them over and gave the driver a ticket for going 10 over the speed limit.  He told them to turn around and go home (can you believe he didn’t also ticket them for curfew, as well as not having a seat belt for every passenger?!!), and so they did, possibly hitting a coyote on the way back, but vowing to return.

Which they did on that infamous Saturday night, after they’d attended a couple graduation parties.   They couldn’t find the Welcome sign at the border, but when they saw a sign advertising Choctaw “only 15 more miles” away, they decided to “go for it” and do something “better than the Seniors”.


“But Mom, you should be happy that nothing bad happened!” I heard.  “We didn’t get hurt! We weren’t drinking or doing drugs! We were just having fun!”  And of course I got an earful of how I probably never had fun so I wouldn’t understand…


Not understand? Of course I can understand how fun and exhilarating and grown up that must have felt. They explored a luxury hotel.  They rode the elevator to the top and looked out the windows at all the neon wonderment below. They chatted and laughed with a wedding party on the elevator.  They walked around the pool.  They drove on the highway for three hours, Broadway music blasting and voices singing (these are theater kids, keep in mind).  All by themselves.  But it all happened after midnight, and it’s a FACT that a high percentage of people who are on the highways during that time have alcohol in their systems (or something else), especially in rural Texas and Oklahoma! Who wants their kid sharing the road at night with a bunch of drunks?!


“But we hardly passed any cars,” she said.  “There was no one on the roads”.  Great, that really made me feel better (NOT)…”What would you have done if the car had engine trouble?” I asked her. “Or gotten a flat tire? Would you have called us? Would some crazed perv have pulled over to help you out?” She didn’t know what to say.


And it wasn’t just the lateness, or the highway driving, that Andy and I were concerned about—but also the lies that several of the kids, including ours, told their parents about where they’d been, and the money that had been given to them for dinner and graduation gifts to give to their friends that had gone instead toward financing the gas.


Yes, kids will be kids, like they always have been, in every decade.  But what this new breed of thrill seekers has that their phonebooth-stuffing, drag-racing counterparts of bygone days didn’t have is an instant way to brag about their escapades, making copy-catting all the more likely, and more widespread.  “Mom, we’re LEGEND now!” my daughter explained, as if that might make me think differently.   A few days later, more area teens YOLOed their way to Oklahoma late at night and Tweeted about it. 


And apparently, now the YOLO craze has hooked up with the “bucket list” fad for even more fun (no doubt fueled by the once-popular MTV show The Buried Life and the 2012 NY Times Bestseller of the same name, where four college friends travel across the country checking off a wish list and help others check off theirs).  Just last Thursday morning, our younger daughter walked into the kitchen and announced, “I want to go cliff diving” and handed me a long list she’d spent at least an hour compiling.  “2012 Summer Bucket List” it said, and listed 101 things, from baking banana dessert in a solar oven (she doesn’t even like bananas!!) to dip dying her hair, to “sending a message in a bottle”, to the aforementioned cliff diving, all things she wants to accomplish in less than three months.  Apparently our older daughter is working on a list, too, and had shown little sister some Facebook photos of some of her friends diving into cold, clear blue water on private property in a nearby town. “It looks so fun!” exclaimed Daughter #2.

“Cliff diving?!” I asked. “Are you kidding???” I tried to explain the dangers, the possible permanent paralysis, the staggering medical bills that could put us in a homeless shelter…not to mention the fact that going cliff diving would happen only “over my dead body”…  

Maybe I should plaster David McCullough, Jr.’s now-famous commencement  address on each daughter’s bedroom wall.  The well-crafted speech, given this year by English teacher McCullough to the senior class of Wellesley (MA) High School, went viral recently (you can read a transcript of the speech at this link) and includes a few moments talking about the pitfalls of YOLO.  McCullough says the acronym should be YLOO, or You Live Only Once, to encourage people to follow their passions and live extraordinary lives rather than do rash things that might end it. But would my daughters even “get” it? And how many of those Wellesley seniors even payed attention, or even took his words to heart? Aren’t most kids programmed, especially nowadays, to throw caution to the wind and believe they know more than adults?


Yes, kids will be kids, so parents must be parents, even when things get so exasperating you just want to throw your hands in the air and say, “I give up!”  As much as kids act like they don’t want rules and they extol the virtues of DGF parents (that’s teenage Tweetspeak for “Don’t Give A F–k”), those DGF kids will tell you, once they’re adults, that they’d wished their parents had cared enough and had the guts enough to set some rules.  And ironically, as Andy and I have been setting new rules and limits, we’ve found that the modern technology that has added a whole new dimension in parenting headaches can also be a parents’ best friend, giving them tools Cliff Huxtable could only dream of…

Are you away from home but want to make sure your kid makes curfew, or comes home after school when you’re at work? There are nifty door sensors you can stick on your doorframe that can alert your cell phone if someone doesn’t  enter the house by a certain time…or if they do.  Need to take your teen’s phone away as a consequence for bad choices but don’t want a big “hand over your phone” confrontation? We’ve found several apps that enable you to “lock it out” or unlock it at your convenience, from a parent’s laptop, computer or phone. Want to know if your kid’s car (or phone) is where they say it is? There are simple tracking devices and apps that can let you know.


Some may think “tracking” is going too far—but tracking doesn’t mean being a control freak. Parents can only do so much…and besides, parents need to allow some freedoms or risk their kids becoming unable to function properly as adults.  At some point, you just have to pray that kids will take your advice and make smart choices.  (And, hope they don’t see the latest issue of Texas Monthly magazine sitting in the rack at the grocery store check-out: FREEDOM! blasts the cover headline, with a photo of a highway unfolding in front of the reader, as far as the eye can see.  The subheads: “16 Summer Drives” “From the MOUNTAINS to the COAST, get off the BEATEN PATH and onto the OPEN ROAD”…)

2 thoughts on “Wake Me Up Before You YOLO: What parents should know about the latest teen trend in risky behavior

  1. Man, Patty. I loved this post but these are the kind of posts that freak me out. This was definitely the first time I’d heard of YOLO (being that my son is only 2.5), but it’s scary to me to wonder what kids will be doing when Evan is Allison’s age! I know everything that you guys do is out of love. Keep on keeping on!

  2. I found YOLO written on my kitchen calendar earlier this week. Now I know what it refers to and will be keeping track of any tweets/facebook postings that my stepdaughter posts that refer to this. Great post.

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