When I was growing up, there was a neighborhood father who was, by general consensus, an impossible man, a terrible dad.
Yet, when his son got into Harvard University, the man underwent a metamorphosis, in the neighborhood’s opinion. Many of our parents said in wonder, “Well, he must have done something right.”
It was as if the father’s IQ had been raised on the back of his son’s SAT scores, as if the admissions letter had been a certificate of parental approval. This bewildered us because we knew that the main thing this father had provided for our friend was a hurdle to overcome.
Now, of course, I recognize this as the flip side of the blame that a child’s failure casts on his parents. When a child does wrong, we almost always think, at least briefly, that adults “must have done something wrong.”
Blame it on Freud, blame it on common sense - we believe that children who are raised properly will behave properly. This belief in the importance of our job as parents sustains us through tough patches of parenting; it keeps us in for the long haul.
Yet, those who have been through this long haul and breathed a sigh of relief at the end also know about the close calls, the there-but-for-the-grace-of-God moments. We know about good parents whose children went wrong all by themselves.
These are the mixed feelings, the mixed experiences that every parent brings to the story of Susan and Anthony Provenzino, the Michigan couple who have been found guilty of being bad parents.
Last week, the Provenzinos were convicted of a crime for their son’s crimes. Under one of the “parental responsibility laws” that now dot the landscape, they were fined for failing to supervise their son.
In this sorry tale, one thing is clear: Alex Provenzino, now 16, was indeed out of control. He wasn’t a candidate for Harvard but for juvenile jail, where he now is serving a one-year term. He was a drug-using, church-robbing, one-boy crime wave.
What is less clear is whether his parents had given up control or he had grabbed it, whether they didn’t try or whether they did the best they could.
This was a boy, the prosecutor said, who had marijuana, a stolen handgun and alcohol sitting openly in his bedroom. These were parents who didn’t know his grades.
This was a 6-foot teen, the defense attorney said, who had attacked his diminutive father with a golf club and was released from police custody to home in a matter of hours. These were parents raising three other “perfect” children.
It took the jury less than half an hour to side with the prosecution, but I suspect it will take the country longer to deal with a case that is an emblem for this era.
Today, we’re worried about families who break down, leaving children like hubcaps all over the highway. We’re worried about violence among the young and younger. We’re trying to get control every way we can, every contradictory way we can.
So, in 10 states and hundreds of communities, laws now can hold parents responsible for child offenders. But in 50 states, new laws also treat child criminals as responsible adults.
In most states, the courts will take a 6-year-old out of the hands of neglectful parents. But in the 10 states, the law demands that parents keep their hands on anyone under age 18.
These parental responsibility laws allowed the legal system to judge the Provenzinos’ parenting skills. Ironically, the parents’ rights bill now before Congress - aimed against things such as sex education - demands: “No federal, state or local government … shall interfere with or usurp the right of a parent to direct the upbringing of the child.”
We are embracing such contradictory efforts out of a flailing uncertainty. We don’t know how to put together the Humpty Dumpty of family. Nor do we know the fail-safe formula for child-raising. What combination of parents and genes and communities produces the perfect product?
We always have held parents responsible for child abuse, child neglect, child support. But the Provenzinos are not Faginlike parents who set the church up for their son to knock off. They’re not evil. At worst, they are ineffectual. No juror can explain why one child of their four went bad or when these parents became culpable by being cowed.
Nevertheless, a country that knows little about restoring relationships and has done even less to help parents succeed has turned to punishing failure. Susan and Anthony Provenzino’s crime was having a son who committed crimes.
And so the Bible has been turned on its head: The sins of the son have been visited upon his parents.
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