The par­ent trap

Cecil Whig - - FRONT PAGE - Ruth Mar­cus

— Some­how, it’s al­ways the par­ents’ fault. We are too lax, ex­cept when we are too he­li­coptery. We cod­dle the kids too much, ex­cept when we drive them into neu­rotic over­achieve­ment. We are en­ablers. No, we are Tiger Moms. The so­ci­etal urge to blame is matched only by the parental in­stinct to sec­ond-guess — our­selves as much as our fel­low par­ents.

And so, two big and oth­er­wise un­re­lated news sto­ries of the last few weeks — the killing of a sil­ver­back go­rilla at the Cincin­nati Zoo and the le­nient sen­tence im­posed on a for­mer Stan­ford stu­dent for sex­ual as­sault — ar­rive with an un­avoid­able over­lay of de­bate over proper par­ent­ing.

The first re­ac­tion to the zoo story, and the de­ci­sion to shoot the go­rilla to pro­tect the tod­dler who fell into the an­i­mal’s en­clo­sure, was en­tirely un­sur­pris­ing: Blame the mommy. Not just blame her — prose­cute her. Surely no re­spon­si­ble par­ent could have al­lowed her child to es­cape her watch­ful eye. Call Child Pro­tec­tive Ser­vices.

“Parental neg­li­gence” that “may be re­flec­tive of the child’s home sit­u­a­tion,” thun­dered a change.org pe­ti­tion with more than 500,000 sig­na­tures. It de­manded “an in­ves­ti­ga­tion of the child’s home en­vi­ron­ment in the in­ter­ests of pro­tect­ing the child and his sib­lings from fur­ther in­ci­dents of parental neg­li­gence that may re­sult in se­ri­ous bod­ily harm or even death.”

Ex­cept that, it turns out, there was no ev­i­dence of neg­li­gence. “Our in­for­ma­tion is that the mother turned away for a few sec­onds to at­tend to an­other one of her young chil­dren and this is when the 3-year-old was able to climb into the go­rilla en­clo­sure,” con­cluded Hamil­ton County pros­e­cu­tor Joseph Deters. “Any par­ent who is hon­est with him­self or her­self would have to un­der­stand how this could hap­pen to even the most at­ten­tive par­ent.”

In­deed. How of­ten have any of us turned away, taken a call, lost track in a way that, but for luck, could have ended in tragedy? Might I sug­gest that schlep­ping your four chil­dren — ages 7, 4, 3 and 1 — to the zoo is prima fa­cie ev­i­dence of re­spon­si­ble, not ne­glect­ful, par­ent­ing? Might I sug­gest, oh so gen­tly, that the fact that the al­legedly inat­ten­tive mother is African-Amer­i­can con­trib­uted to the en­su­ing uproar?

In the Stan­ford case, there is no de­fend­ing Brock Turner, or his fa­ther, Dan, who wrote a tone-deaf let­ter to the judge plead­ing for pro­ba­tion. His son’s pros­e­cu­tion, Dan Turner wrote with an exquisitely of­fen­sive turn of phrase, was “a steep price to pay for 20 min­utes of ac­tion out of his 20-plus years of life.” He lamented that his once “happy go lucky” boy had lost his ap­petite for a juicy rib-eye.

Dis­gust­ing, es­pe­cially in its fail­ure to rec­og­nize the true vic­tim. And yet, par­ents, ask your­self: If this were your son, would you not ante up what­ever you could for the best de­fense pos­si­ble? Would you not do what you could to spare him from the ter­rors await­ing him be­hind bars? Would you not ar­gue for the light­est pos­si­ble pun­ish­ment, no mat­ter how much you re­viled his be­hav­ior or be­rated him in pri­vate?

I know I would. Say all you want about log­i­cal con­se­quences and tak­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity. The parental urge to pro­tect is pri­mal and in­stinc­tive, ac­ti­vated by the imag­ined sound of a clank­ing cell door.

Of course there are too many ex­am­ples of out­ra­geous parental at­tempts to shield their lit­tle dar­lings from the fall­out of mis­be­hav­ior. We have wit­nessed one such episode where I live, in sub­ur­ban Mary­land, where a high school prin­ci­pal made a valiant ef­fort to de­ter drink­ing at the prom. Stu­dents, she warned, would be barred from grad­u­a­tion cer­e­monies if caught, which, not sur­pris­ingly, they were.

Which, pre­dictably, hap­pened. And then, even more pre­dictably, squeal­ing en­sued. What, no march across the stage to ec­static clap­ping? Talk about en­abling: The school su­per­in­ten­dent over­ruled the prin­ci­pal. Where were the par­ents who should have been back­ing up the prin­ci­pal’s ef­forts to en­sure their chil­dren’s safety? Know­ing our sub­urb, hir­ing lawyers — if they weren’t lawyers them­selves — to strong-arm the su­per­in­ten­dent.

Other par­ents ral­lied to the prin­ci­pal’s de­fense, and I’d like to think I would have been among them, even if my child were among those be­ing pun­ished with the ul­ti­mate sanc­tion: no grad­u­a­tion video to post on Face­book.

But maybe not. We are fal­li­ble crea­tures, we par­ents, Mama and Papa Griz­zlies who inevitably err. We take an eye off the cub. We swat at per­ceived dan­ger. Could you maybe give us a break? Could we give our­selves one?

Ruth Mar­cus is a syn­di­cated colum­nist. Con­tact her at ruth­mar­cus@ wash­post.com.

WASHINGTON

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