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Parenting and the illusion of control

đź”— Jennifer Crumbley, Mother of Michigan School Gunman, Guilty of Manslaughter - The New York Times:

Michigan jurors, after 11 hours of deliberations, found Jennifer Crumbley guilty of involuntary manslaughter on Tuesday for the gun rampage committed by her teenage son, who carried out the state’s deadliest school shooting more than two years ago.

The trial became a lightning rod for issues of parental responsibility, in a time of frequent cases of gun violence carried out by minors. It was the most high-profile example of prosecutors seeking to hold parents responsible for violent crimes committed by their children.

I feel really conflicted about this ruling.

Part of me does think these parents bear a good deal of responsibility here, especially when I read the bits about the kid writing that they are not listening to him when he says he needs help, and even more so when we get to the part about keeping a gun in the house.

At the same time—and as a parent myself—I think that parenting is really hard and that while our culture has this notion that parents are in control of their kids, I don’t think the reality is anything close to that.

I’m not suggesting that kids can or should be able to do whatever they want and that parents have no role to play in that, but I do think that once kids are old enough to not need us for every single thing, our notions about how much control we have over them are mostly illusions.

Pretty regularly, I am struck by the realization that at any point, my kids could just not listen to me and there is very little that I could actually do about that. At least once a week—sometimes more often than that—we have the discussion about how it is time to get up and eat some breakfast so that we can get out the door in time for school. Any one of those times, the kid could just say “Nope, not going” and there is very little I could actually do about it. Sure, there are consequences and punishments that I could threaten and impose, but my experience has been that those tend to exhaust their effectiveness very quickly.

And we are long past the point where I can just pick the kid up and carry him wherever I need him to be. So the only option, really, is to keep talking through whatever the dispute is and hope we can reach some agreement.

I know some people will read this and think “What are you even talking about, hippie? You gotta lay down the law with kids or they will walk all over you! They need to understand who’s in control!”

But who really is in control, though? Is there even such a thing? Do I want to be in that sort of power dynamic with my kids, assuming that it even works? I often have the same feeling with parenting that I get when I am driving seventy miles per hour in heavy traffic on the freeway and realize “At any moment, any one of these cars could crash and this would all go horribly wrong.” It’s like we are all just skating along on the very thin ice of stability when underneath is some very dark, very unsettled water.

So I don’t know. I think we tend to believe as parents that we have a lot of power that we do not actually have, and that trying to exercise that illusory power to enforce our will upon our kids only makes things worse. And I think that we have a whole bunch of cultural assumptions and societal infrastructure that are built on top of that belief.

Maybe the parents in this particular case really were criminally negligent or actively harmful in how they raised this kid, but this conviction feels to me like going after a symptom while ignoring a bigger problem.

Bringing a human into the world and raising them to be a functioning adult is one of the most challenging things a person can do, and yet we are systematically whittling away all of the supports for parents. We force them to work insane hours at multiple jobs, we remove all the social supports and safety nets, we turn schools into outcomes-based employee mills, we incentivize the driving-up of housing costs, and we make healthcare—both physical and mental—prohibitively expensive and hard to access for all but the most well-off families. Oh, and let’s not forget that we rely upon militarized police forces to respond to domestic disturbances, so parents that are dealing with a kid in crisis are less likely to call for help and if they do, they risk a violent law-enforcement response rather than getting actual help.

So I don’t know—maybe conventional wisdom is right and these are terrible parents who should be prosecuted. But overall, I think parenting is a lot more complicated than that, and these assumptions that parents have direct control over their kids are mostly bogus. I also think that all of these dynamics exist within the context of how we support—or mostly don’t support—people trying to make their way through the world. This prosecute-the-parents approach seems like yet another example of our culture and political system putting all the burden and blame on individual people.

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