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Archive for Sunday, May 2, 1999

ARE PARENTS THE REAL CRIMINALS?

May 2, 1999

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— Now the Bible is turned on its head: The sins of the sons are visited upon the fathers.

In the days since the Littleton massacre, the country's eyes have turned to the families of Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris. We've racked up the evidence -- a handwritten diary, a sawed-off shotgun on the dresser, bomb makings in the garage -- and asked: Where were the parents?

The angry sheriff said, "Parents should be accountable for their kids' actions." The governor said "charges will and should be filed." The attorney general talked about criminal liability. The president advanced a gun control package that would make parents outlaws if their children commit crimes.

At last the advocates of parental responsibility laws seem to have found their poster parents. The Most Wanted parents now are the Klebolds and the Harrises -- parents whose unfathomable grief is laced with the arsenic of unending "whys."

How reassuring it is to point a finger at Wayne and Kathy Harris, Thomas and Susan Klebold, as proof that we would have known -- wouldn't we? How easy to cast them as stunningly, aberrantly "irresponsible" rather than listen to the minister who buried Dylan: "He was their son -- but they don't know the kid who did this."

But how do we judge the "crime" of irresponsibility? In the last few years a wave of laws have been passed to hold parents legally culpable for the actions of their children. These laws were born, understandably, in despair about parents who willfully excuse themselves from the work they give birth to.

Since then, a Michigan couple was fined for failing to supervise their drug-using, church-robbing, one-boy crime wave. A Florida mother was sentenced to probation because three of her five children refused to go to school. In Illinois, the parents of a 13-year-old sued the parents of a 17-year-old who murdered their daughter. In Louisiana and California, parents can go to jail if their kids fall in with gangs. Thousands have been fined, sued, or sentenced to counseling or jail.

But the truth is that in many cases it is not at all clear whether the parents were ineffectual or evil, gave up control or had it wrested away by their teen-agers. Some didn't try but others, like the jailed mother of the truants, said, "You know, you can try like hell and fail."

In the wake of this shooting, how many parents have breached the forbidden threshold to their teen-agers' rooms, searching the drawers, the closets, opening the diaries, checking the computer "bookmarks" and "favorites." Suspicion is the order of the post-Littleton day and distrust has been re-validated as the responsible act.

But is there anyone who doesn't know the line that we walk as parents of teen-agers? How can you screw up raising a teen-ager? Let me count the ways. By being too authoritarian, too lax, too intrusive, too removed, by treating them like children, by assuming they're adults, by trusting them, by mistrusting them.

Getting into a teen-ager's mind is like spelunking down a cave without a miner's light. It's a wonder more of us don't get lost.

The Klebolds and the Harrises were not Fagin-like adults who set up their sons in the business of murder. We hold them responsible rather for what they did not know and did not do. For the diary, the Web sites, the trench coats, the arsenal. Where were the parents?

But as the days go on we get another view that seems more complicated than criminal. A judge remembers that when the boys were in trouble the two dads came to court, set up curfews, took control. A Little League coach describes the Harrises this way, "Eric's parents are what we could call dream parents." A pastor portrays the Klebolds as "hard-working, very intelligent."

As for warning signs, put these beside the trench coat. In the last weeks of their life, Eric was trying to enlist in the Marines and Dylan had gone with his father to place a deposit on a college room. As Thomas Klebold told his pastor, "I thought I was ready to let him go -- he was a finished product."

I remember my own fury at other parents who put my daughter at risk by their laxity. I also remember what my parents knew of my inner life at 17 -- absolutely nothing.

Parental responsibility, neighbor responsibility, school responsibility, peer responsibility? Do we criminalize parents as if they were the sole owners of an 18-year-old?

Before we prosecute parents for the sins of their children, I have a question. Tell me what punishment the law can administer that's greater than a life sentence of pain for families who will forever ask themselves "Why?"

-- Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe.

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