The parent trap
— 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.