Why the favorite teen hangout is our house

The boys arrive straight from school in two growling cars, sometimes three. They park along the back fence and pile out, laughing and slinging too-heavy packs across their broad backs.

Swaggering across the lawn they laugh and talk - about their cars, about a teacher - blissfully unfocused and self-absorbed. A heavy-headed peony, leaning into their path, becomes endangered. My 9-year-old daughter and her friend let out mock shrieks and point their bikes another way.

Above all, the boys are hungry.

Seated at a computer a room away, I hear kitchen cabinets opening, the glass-lidded bowl of M&Ms in the hall, the refrigerator's creaky door. Some of these boys - young men at 17, smelling of Axe cologne - still like their Yoo-hoo chocolate drink. For the more sophisticated there is Pellegrino.

One is my son. Some of the others he has known - we have known - since they were 5 and garrulous in a higher pitch. A few are more recent add-ons. All are welcome here, now and into the supper hour, even if that means a quick run to the warehouse store for a rack of ribs or a pile of premade patties. Even if the house is already aswirl in little girls with their own shrilly stated set of needs.

My wife and I run what you might call amagnethome.

It's not a big place with indestructible furniture or a plasma TV, just a small, well-worn Colonial on a quiet street. For years we've seen these ritualistic incursions at least a couple of times a week. It's practically a line item in the family budget.

For the guys, homework happens after 9. Before then most go home, though a science or history fair might keep them longer. Early this year our workhorse computer crashed after a midnight schoolwork session, touching off a chorus of yells that probably woke the neighbors.

Some of our son's friends live no farther from school than we do, with no little siblings and in houses with carpeted rec rooms. One family has an outdoor hot tub. Another built a full apartment, with pool table, over the garage. We used to wonder why the kids so seldom made those places the first after-school stop.

We sometimes wondered with a little annoyance. Many teenage boys seem to consider advance planning to be a sign of some character flaw, and it can be inconvenient to surrender both living and dining rooms for weeks at a time to the glue-stick-and-posterboard brigade. Or to add three to five giants to the dinner-guest list at the last minute.

In good conscience you can't serve pizza with any regularity. Not even the kind with the token broccoli florets.

But the menu doesn't matter much. We have finally come to understand that it's not about the Pellegrino, it's about presence and parameters. Generally, nobody's home anywhere else. Not right after school - and that's fine, people work - but often not in the early evening either.

That's not always an issue. On weekends the guys go afield: to the beach, into the city for a concert, to a car show out of state - or to one of those homes where they won't encounter an adult.

During the week, though, that last option is not the first one sought. As tempting as it is to believe that autonomy is all that teens want - and true as it is that some early experience with it is advisable - these guys seem almost subconsciously to prefer a brand of parenting that offers a gradually loosening engagement, not a dropping of the leash.

They still seem to enjoy passing exchanges that remind them that our sphere and theirs are not exclusive domains, but ones that are beginning to overlap. And so, one of the boys calls out his advice about carburetor trouble he's heard that I'm having. Another likes the look of our dual-fuel grill.

The yard that in childhood winters became a land of snow-day snow caves becomes the yard where hacky sack is played in the spring before senior year by late-youth guys - young men who will stay for supper.

Out on the deck, under the green market umbrella, they'll clatter dishes and laugh like a family of travelers at a foreign bistro. We'll keep the Yoo-hoo coming. And wish they would never leave.

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