In 2013, Ethan Couch, age 16, stole beer, got drunk, drove, killed four people and seriously injured two others near Fort Worth, Texas. In 2014, Michael Brown, age 18, used marijuana, stole cigars, got into an altercation with a police officer and was shot dead in Ferguson, Missouri. It’s a tale of two teens, one white, one black, one rich, one poor, one urban, one suburban, one still alive, one deceased, but each at the center of a deadly crime tragedy. Having covered crime tragedies on national television for the better part of a decade, I can tell you that despite racial, regional and socioeconomic differences, teens who commit crimes and end up at the centers of such tragedies, far more often than not, have this in common: deficient parenting.
And before I go any further, no, I’m not referring now to any specific teen; yes, I understand that the most recent teen to make major national headlines at the center of a crime tragedy hasn’t even been laid to rest yet; and no, I have no desire to pile additional grief upon any deceased teens’ parents. This needs to be said, though, and my aim in saying it is to extract some good from tragedy if possible, to help other teens’ parents not to have to attend their teens’ funerals, or their teens’ trials. So, with that in mind, here are some questions every American parent of a teenager should be asking him/herself right now:
1) In general, have I raised the kind of person who goes through life recognizing that he is part of something larger than himself and who therefore thinks about the impact of his or her actions upon others and tries hard not to harm anybody? (And if you answer “yes,” but you’ve been absent from your teen’s home more often than not, or if you have five different surnames residing under your roof, then I have to wonder whether you’ve really focused enough of your attention on your teen to have modeled this principle effectively or whether you’ve instead been wrapped up in your own pursuits and have, perhaps, instilled some angry narcissism in your teen in the process.)
2) In general again, have I raised the kind of person who respects the rights of others and the law that exists to protect those rights? (And if you answer “yes,” but you’ve been violent around your teen or been in trouble with the law yourself, then I have to wonder whether you’ve modeled this principle effectively.)
3) Specifically now, have I raised the kind of person who thinks it’s not OK to get intoxicated illegally? (And if you answer “yes,” but you’ve driven while intoxicated or used an illegal substance, and your teen knows about it, or if you’ve told your teen that it’s fine with you when people violate our drug laws, then you haven’t modeled this principle.)
4) Specifically again, have I raised the kind of person who’d never dream of walking into a store and stealing something? (And if you answer “yes,” just consider this – in a relatively recent anonymous survey of 30,000 American teens, a third of them acknowledged having stolen something from a store within a year of taking the survey.)
5) Specifically once again, have I raised the kind of a person who, if a law-enforcement officer told him or her to stop or to get out of the street, he or she would comply with the officer’s instruction immediately and respectfully? (And if you answer “yes,” but you, yourself, have modeled disrespect for law-enforcement officers – incidentally, Couch’s father was arrested this week for allegedly claiming to be a police officer during a domestic disturbance – then I, and more importantly, you, have to wonder.)
If you’ve answered “No,” or “I don’t know,” to any of the above questions, then you have a problem – your teen may be at serious risk, and the solution likely requires substantial time and communication with your teen and substantial structure and discipline in your teen’s life, which you can effect whether you’re black, white, rich, poor, urban, or suburban.
The Los Angeles Unified School District recently announced that, in response to mounting numbers of relatively low-level crimes committed within its schools and to a racial disparity among the recipients of citations for such crimes, the district’s in-house police are now going to – wait for it – stop citing students for a number of common offenses. That’s insane. If kids aren’t getting structure and discipline in their homes, then removing it from their schools isn’t going to help them; it’s just going to allow district leaders to point to reduced numbers of offenses and pat themselves on the backs for their utterly fictitious “success” at the kids’ expense.
If there’s a racial disparity among the recipients of citations, but there’s a similar racial disparity among the student body, and/or there’s a similar racial disparity among the students committing the offenses, then stopping the issuance of citations so that no race appears to be behaving worse than another isn’t justice; it’s injustice, both to the offenders and to the victims of their offenses. And if there is a racial disparity among the students committing the offenses, consider this: In many parts of America, and in America overall, there happens – for reasons you can ponder – also to be a profound racial disparity when it comes to out-of-wedlock parentage. Out-of-wedlock parentage often translates into negligent and absentee parenting, especially by fathers, who – again for reasons you can ponder – throughout human history, until recently, have played important roles as disciplinarians of kids, especially teens.
In my state, Kansas, many in this election year are demanding that the state throw more money at public schools, yet Catholic schools consistently produce better results with substantially less funding per pupil, and it’s not because Catholic schools only accept the best and brightest kids – I went to both public and Catholic schools; there were idiots and geniuses both places, and there were good and bad teachers both places. The big difference in results is neither money nor selectivity; it’s parenting. In my experience attending both types of schools and counseling students from both types of schools, it’s significantly rarer for parents of kids in Catholic schools (who sacrifice to pay private-school tuition on top of public-school property taxes) than for parents of kids in public schools to be dangerously disinterested and disengaged in their kids’ academic and general development.
So, again, neither my message nor my timing here is intended to pile grief on the parents of any particular deceased teen. I’m saying these things because they need to be said, because I don’t want your teen to shoplift liquor, get drunk, drive, and kill people; because I don’t want your teen to get high, rob a store, get into an altercation with a police officer and get shot; because if any of that happens, as much as you’ll wish to blame someone or something else, the precipitating problem probably will have far more to do with your parenting than with poverty, privilege, prejudice or the police. That’s simply the truth, and if we don’t acknowledge it, then we’re acting just like L.A. School District administrators, absolving responsible parties of responsibility so we can feel good about ourselves at kids’ expense – and that’s what really needs to stop in America.