Parental involvement in the life of a child buffers kids from delinquency. But involvement is something more than supervision — it’s about being functional — telling your kids what they need to hear no matter the pain to them and to you. My mother was one of those pain-giving parents.
One of those maternal tormenting moments occurred in 1968. I was eight and squatting behind a car with two friends. They were brothers and older than me. We had something in common — we didn’t get along with Randy. Randy and his friends were on the other side of the street. They were throwing rocks at us. The brothers and I took refuge behind a car hoping they wouldn’t throw anything.
It’s funny the mess kids get themselves into. The adage “two heads are better than one” was the main ingredient for excitement in my youth. Our boyish brainstorming hatched adventuresome, but sometimes rashly daring exploits. Mathematically speaking — fun equals two or more boys.
Take for example my friend Bryce’s idea on Saturday mornings to forage the neighbor’s trash for beer bottles — those were the pre-aluminum can days. We lined up the bottles and threw rocks.
What is it about boys and the destruction of things? And the shattering sound of glass — that is the crème de la crème of boyhood jolly. The remains of the parents’ Friday night beer frolic became our Saturday morning bottle smashing tomfoolery.
Squatting behind a car dodging rocks was anything but tomfoolery — it was about loyalty to my convivial friends. There is a special bond between boys who rummage through trash and collectively revel in the sound of shattering glass. Loyalty, tomfoolery, and adolescence are a combination that inevitably induces stupidity.
While squatting with my friends and outnumbered, the oldest brother says, “Steve, say F%$# You!”
With this befuddled look, I asked, “What does it mean?”
“Stupid,” he answers. “Say it, say it now,” his brother follows in an urgent and high pitch voice.
And just like that, I stood up and I bellowed the meanest sounding “F%$# You” an 8-year-old could muster. I squatted and smiled at the brothers. They weren’t smiling — they were laughing!
“We’re going to tell Mrs. Teske,” the boys shouted from across the street as they ran toward my house.
Then it hit me — I was set up. The brothers fled to safety — leaving me confused by this “F” word. By now I knew it wasn’t the facsimile of the word “stupid.”
“Steeeven. You get yourself home now!” It was Mom.
I entered the yard and began my plea for mercy. She simply raised her arm, pointed to the house, and said, “I don’t want to hear it. Get in the house now.”
“In the bathroom,” she said.
Standing in front of the mirror, she handed me a bar of soap.
“Put this in your mouth and keep it there.”
“But Mom — I didn’t know it was a bad word,” I cried.
“It’s not about what you said — it’s about not thinking.”
A painful maternal discourse about life ensued — Life is unfair, but your choices can make it better or worse. “It was unfair how the brothers treated you,” she said —- “How they selfishly set you up.” Here’s the paradox. “It was your selfish desire to be liked by those boys — to be part of the clique.”
How is it that revelations come during moments like this when standing in front of a mirror and soap in your mouth? My revelation? — Unfairness is not always what others do to you, but often it’s about what we do to ourselves.
This is a hard lesson for many kids — especially for kids with parents who are not functional — not equipped like my Mom. I don’t know how many times I have heard parents defend their kids — excusing their behavior. Sure I know kids are wired to do stupid things, but I never said stupidity is an excuse. What I call “juvenile stupidity” merely explains conduct — no justification. There must be consequences. Since kids can be neurologically re-wired, they are ripe for rehabilitation if done right.
Notwithstanding the presumption of innocence and other essential due process concerns, I am often asking parents pointed questions that reveal the white elephant in the room — the parent is the problem. Our biggest challenge in juvenile justice is not the kids — in many cases it’s the parents. They too need help.
Two major causes of delinquency are poor parenting and anti-social peers — and the likelihood of anti-social peers is directly proportional to the lack of parenting. The less parents inquire into their kid’s life, the more likely he will choose poor friends.
Kids are not adults. Parents are legally responsible to feed, clothe, shelter and provide for their emotional and physical welfare. Parental failure to be instructive, watchful and a pain are tantamount to neglect — the kind that contributes to the delinquency of their minor child.
Judges, probation officers and the like should be unabashed in asserting influence, if not force, in compelling parents to be functional. Many parents require treatment and supervision as does the child. They require functional family therapy, multi systemic therapy, or other counseling. They should be made to go or be punished.
Ironically, the failure to be parentally painful in early childhood likely creates a pain-giving adolescent. If we want to fix the kids under supervision, we will likely need to fix the parents. It’s not easy. It will take time. It will be painful. I know — my Mom taught me well. Love — your son.