For What Can We Blame Parents?

On April 20, 1999, Sue Klebold prayed “the hardest prayer of her life.”

She prayed that her son would take his own life.

Her husband had called her to tell her that their son, Dylan, was one of the shooters at his high school, Columbine High School. She knew that if he were caught, she would have to watch her son be executed.

So she prayed that her son would kill himself before they got to him.

He did.

***

Andrew Solomon describes Tim and Sue Klebold in his book, Far From the Tree, as eerily normal parents. Of all the parents that he interviewed for his book, these were the parents that he would have most likely have been friends with. They were intelligent, thoughtful, and well-spoken.

Sue Klebold

 Sue Klebold, 2016: Image credit, www.radio.foxnews.com

After the Columbine massacre, the Klebolds didn’t move. They didn’t change their names. They wanted to be around people who knew them before the shootings. They wanted to retain some part of their identities that existed before they had been forced to become the “parents of a mass murderer.”

They tell of a memorial service at Columbine High School, days after the shooting. Someone had placed 15 crosses for all of those who died: 13 for the victims and 2 for the shooters. Before long, parents of the victims ripped out two of the crosses from the memorial and threw them away.

When the school planted 15 trees to remember the dead, parents of the victims cut down 2 of the trees.

Soon, the media started referring to “13” as the total number of those who died.

***

Not only does our society have little empathy for those who commit crimes, but they also have little empathy for their parents.

Here is what Andrew Solomon says on this topic:

In our household, we brought our children up differently. That kind of thing didn’t happen… The burden of that blame is terrible. And it’s counterproductive. Blaming parents for their children’s transgressions doesn’t make those transgressions go away. It just traumatizes the parents.

To those of us with young children, still so innocent and blameless, it’s hard to imagine a reality in which our children become rapists or murderers. When the Brock Turner sentence broke headlines, his parents became equal targets for the mob’s anger and frustration. What kind of parents can raise such a monster, we wondered. How could they continue to make excuses for him? How could they continue to victimize this poor woman?

We like to think that we teach our children morals like respect and compassion, empathy and forgiveness. Parents have an incredible ability to shape the lives of their children.

But we cannot also deny that our peers also shape us.

If we’re honest with ourselves, we remember what it was like to be a teenager, when the words and experience of our peers trumped what we heard from our parents. Maybe we respected our parents, but when it came time to make decisions, we often chose on the side of what was favorable among our peers.

I remember how I chose where to go to college. I told people that I chose Miami University because it had a good education program. I told them that it had a good reputation. I told my parents that it wasn’t so far away from home.

But the real reason that I chose it was because of a boy.

Big surprise, I know.

Emotions rule so many decisions in late adolescence. Combined with a false sense of invincibility (and if you’re a white man, privilege!), it’s a little easier to imagine a reality in which our kids do terrible, terrible things for stupid, stupid reasons.

It’s a little easier to imagine becoming the parents of a child who has done something terribly wrong.

***

When a three-year-old boy was attacked by a gorilla in the Cincinnati Zoo this past May, there was a small, but vocal faction of parents who spoke out in defense of the child’s mother. Many of them cited their own personal experiences when their children had fell into dangerous circumstances and they found themselves the targets of suspected child neglect.

This also happened with the two-year-old boy was killed by an alligator near a Disney Resort in June.

It happened this way because there were enough parents willing to speak out to say, Hey, terrible things happen. They happened to me. These weren’t neglectful parents. Back off.

But when it comes to cases of rape and murder, there is far less compassion. The stigma of being the parent of a rapist or murderer is so damaging that few parents are willing to speak those words. They don’t want that identity. Who would?

And in the absence of those voices, we become an echo chamber of self-righteousness. Of course it was their fault! I mean, look at all of us. None of our children did stuff like this, so we’re clearly doing something right.

The sound of our own self-righteousness becomes so loud that we drown out any compassionate voices that speak out.

And when we lose our compassion, we lose our humanity.

 

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