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Parents shouldn't do the time when kids do the crime.

A short-lived television series called "Dinosaurs" used a society composed entirely of prehistoric creatures to satirize our present society. In one of the episodes, the father, Earl Sinclair, failed a required test and lost his license to parent. A police officer followed him home, and when Earl attempted to discipline his son, the officer told Earl to desist. The officer announced that he was assigned to the home for the next 30 days to ensure that no unauthorized parenting took place. Earl, unable to do anything else, unwilling complied with the order.

I do not have children of my own. I learned of my inability to bear children more than 15 years ago. Since that time, I have become a keen observer of the ways people raise their children. Because I am a lawyer who represents those accused of delinquency, I have seen many young lives that have gone astray. A delinquent is a child who commits an act that, if committed by an adult, would be a crime. It is the worst time to meet children. It often saddens me to learn of the many ways in which children's parents have failed them. I have learned enough to know that, in many of these cases, lack of responsible parenting is a contributing cause of the illegal behavior. This observation has sometimes led me to suggest cynically that there should be a license to parent.

Less cynically, I have wished that something practical could be done to deal with irresponsible parents when they were an underlying cause of juvenile delinquency. In many cases it seemed unfair to direct sanctions only against the children. Nothing could be done to the parents in these cases, however, because they were not on trial. That situation has begun to change.

Throughout the country, laws are now being passed that hold parents responsible for the criminal actions of their child if the parents have failed to exercise reasonable parental control. One such law, recently proposed by a city in Minnesota, would require parents, among other things, to keep illegal drugs and firearms out of their homes, to ensure their children attend school and obey local curfews, to provide or arrange for adequate supervision of their children, and to forbid their children from destroying property or retaining stolen property.

It is easy to understand the motivation for such laws. Juvenile crime is undeniably escalating at record rates throughout the country. The rise in the number of such crimes has been accompanied by an equally disturbing rise in the level of violence. People are frustrated by this situation and are demanding that some action be taken to correct it. Such proposed laws and others like them are passed with the hope that parents will begin to supervise their children more closely. It is believed that prosecutions against some parents who fail in their duties will send a message to other parents. Legislators hope that such laws will ultimately bring about more responsible parenting and, accordingly, be of benefit to children and ultimately to society.

The problem is that the mere passage of a law is not the end of a societal effort, but only the beginning. The way in which the law is applied is crucial to its success. In the hands of concerned judges, these laws may be effective in redirecting the efforts of parents of a troubled child. The most useful time for awakening the parents to the need for change in the home is on the first occasion that the child breaks the law. If the courts begin to require the cooperation of the parents in programs designed to assist them in learning the skills of parenting, the passage of parental responsibility laws will be a useful tool to society.

The current climate in the country may work against such use of these laws. Many states, including my own state of Wisconsin, have passed legislation that redirects the focus of juvenile courts away from understanding and rehabilitation and toward punishment and retribution. I am concerned that this same direction will be applied to parents found guilty under the responsibility laws. If courts use this legislation merely to punish the parents as wen as the child, society will gain very little advantage.

A second problem with this legislation is that it will often come into play far too late to be effective. Few parents look at their younger than 5-year-old child and see a future criminal. Yet this is the very time in the child's life when responsible and loving parenting is essential. Quite often in the course of my work in juvenile court, I have heard a parent say, "l don't know how to control my 16-year-old child. He just does what he wants to do. What can I do?" An out-of-control 16-year-old is, in fact, a very difficult person with whom to deal. I usually answer such a parent with another question, "What did you do when he was two?" Most people in this situation admit that they did not do the things that must be done to raise responsible children. Sadly, this realization often comes too late to be of any real use to such parents and their children.

The episode of "Dinosaurs" mentioned above highlights the problem with early and preventative intervention by society in the lives of families. These attempts would be useless without a system of enforcement, and enforcement would involve unacceptable interference in a family's daily life. Even parents who recognize the need for help early in their child's life would undoubtedly resent having it forced upon them by the state.

The final problem with parental responsibility legislation is that the required parental behavior results only in adequate supervision of children, not necessarily in good parenting. My years of observing children have taught me that those children who receive consistent and loving guidance from a parent are the ones who rarely end up sitting at a table next to a lawyer in juvenile court. Of course, legislating love and concern is an impossible task, as is legislating responsibility. You cannot force parents to love, care for, and be responsible for their children. Love, concern, and responsibility are meaningless if they spring only from a need to comply with the law.

Even though parental responsibility laws are not a viable solution, there is a way that society can begin to combat the alarming increase in juvenile crime. That way has existed for many years and has proven successful. Rather than abandoning it in favor of punitive legislation, we should try to strengthen its effectiveness by using it more often. This method is the consistent and early involvement in the life of a potentially troubled child by a trained and caring adult volunteer.

Many mentoring programs that match willing adults to children at risk exist in this country. Programs like Big Brothers and Big Sisters of America have met with a great deal of success but continue to struggle with an insufficient number of adult volunteers. It is not difficult to identify children who are probable candidates for reckless and criminal conduct. The warning signs are visible to neighbors, relatives, teachers, and pastors. These people would be more likely to urge parents to use mentoring programs if they were readily available. These programs do not present the problems of parental responsibility laws. By their very nature, they concentrate on solutions and not punishment. They come into effect at a time when the assistance is most needed, and they are not coercive.

I have seen children who come from the most deplorable homes learn to live responsible lives because of the early intervention of one adult. It is surprising how little it takes to inculcate values into a young person. An adult who is willing to walk with a child, to answer a child's questions, and to provide an example of a life well led provides that child with a firm foundation. Moreover, the child learns that there is someone in this world who cares about him or her simply because of who he or she is. The child knows that the mentor's consistency in seeing him or her is neither based in a duty imposed by blood nor in an obligation arising from a job. The value placed on the child by the mentor is a mirror from which the child can see his or her own self-worth.

There is another advantage to mentor programs. Occasionally, when I am dealing with a parent whose child has been brought into court, I am asked by that parent if I have any children. When the person learns that I do not, they often dismiss my advice. They reason that I know little or nothing about children that can be a benefit to them merely because I am not a parent. In some ways, they are correct. I have not experienced the trials of parenthood. It is not my place to stand on the sidelines and interfere with "other people's children."

For the same reason, parental responsibility laws are unlikely to succeed. Such laws are society's attempt to deal too late with other people's children from a comfortable distance. A mentor who walks with the child and the parents, on the other hand, cannot be dismissed so easily. Someone who is willing to spend time will be greeted more warmly by inadequate parents than the intruding police officer who walked into Earl Sinclair's kitchen.


Each month, advance copies of Sounding Board are mailed to a representative sample of U.S. CATHOLIC subscribers. Their answers to questions about Sounding Board and a balanced selection of their comments about the article as a whole appear in Feedback.

The best way to

help parents raise


children is:

Education. Most bad parenting, I believe, is due to ignorance. Parents of juvenile delinquents should be required to attend a parenting course.

Provide jobs whose wages are high enough so that only one parent has to work.

Parental responsibility laws won't deter juvenile crime.

56% agree

34% disagree

10% other

Adults would work to be more attentive parents if they knew they might be punished for their kid's crime.

38% agree

46% disagree

16% other

Abide by the law yourself and suggest family guidance of children.

Held drug addicts and alcoholics get over their addictions. Then encourage good preschools and positive TV shows like those on PBS that instill good values and morals. Intersperse low-income housing among all communities so we don't have pockets of poverty. Make it worthwhile to work by offering better wages so children can see the benefits of honest work.

Children become juvenile delinquents as a result of:

17% bad parenting.

19% lack of a positive

role model.

18% peer pressure.

16% violence on

television and in


9% the community

they live in.

3% genetics.

11% poverty.

7% other

Legalize cocaine, marijuana, and heroin, thereby getting sales of these substances off of the street. Sell it in drugstores or liquor stores, with restrictions.

To have stricter juvenile laws and mandatory curfews.

Give good consistent modeling, especially in little things, such as returning money when overpaid by a cashier; obeying traffic laws and regulations; speaking positively about authority figures, such as police and teachers; and talk about how laws help us live in an orderly society.

Offering at-risk children help, such as mentoring programs, is unrealistic.

12% agree

81 disagree

7% other

Some very good parents have children who end up delinquent.

91% agree

5% disagree

4% other

Rather than punishing parents of delinquents, we should require them to participate in juvenile rehabilitation programs.

88% agree

6% disagree

7% other

Provide good schools, child care, and jobs and deconstruct gangs through partnerships, such as government, business, police, and churches.

To develop an entire package of parenting tools. We require blood tests, counseling, and such to be married and testing for a driver's license, and yet we require no preparation for the care of another human life. What does this say about the value we place on our children?

Community self-help parenting workshops that convey parenting with rules, boundaries, and, most important, consequences. Teach the importance of following through when rules are broken. Instill the significance of leading by example.

The best social response

to unfit parents

should be.

In cases where birth parents are grossly negligent, abusive, or uninterested in the child, parental rights should be terminated. Too often, children languish in foster care or are shuttled from foster care to birth parents and back again with no hope of ever having a loving, permanent family. Children have a right to a family that supersedes the negligent parent's right to indefinite numbers of attempts to get themselves together.

To hold them responsible for their kid's actions.

Education and rehabilitation.

Providing the parents with opportunities to learn parenting before they are parents, with ongoing support as needed.

Require parents and their delinquent child to attend a series of parenting, child-raising programs with follow-up responsibilities to an officer of the court.

Positive redirection immediately applied; sometimes a sharp wake-up reprimand is warranted for the parent(s), either from a friend, neighbor, family member, or authority figure.

Removal of the child from the home and placed in foster care until parents shape up. If there is no improvement, then the child should be placed for adoption without consent of parents.

An attempt should be made to help the parents recognize their responsibilities. We must all accept the fact that some of us have profited from the constructive attitudes of our parents and grandparents. We should be willing to contribute to benefits for those who have not been so fortunate. After all, we didn't earn our inheritance.

When parents are prosecuted for the crimes of their children, it will send an effective message to other parents.

22% agree

63% disagree

15% other

I would be willing to volunteer as an adult mentor.

58% agree

21% disagree

21 other

Along with Mary Ann Perga, I believe that parents shouldn't be punished for kid's crimes.

62% agree

20% disagree

18% other

The church can play a

bigger role in the proper

parenting of a child by:

Staying in close touch once a couple becomes parents: through Baptism classes, mom's groups, parenting seminars - helping them connect with other parents. Ask them what they need and want, and try to help. Stop wringing our hands over the fact that young parents don't come out to meetings and workshops and use creative ways to reach them and help them feel connected to the church. When times are tough, they will turn to the church for help.

Offering assistance to parents by sponsoring programs for both the parents and the children - programs that assist the parents in managing their own stress. This will help parents learn effective skills for disciplining their children and will offer children and parents appropriate role models for both effective adult/child interaction and for adult-to-adult interactions.

By providing programs that will give both parents and children a deep sense of God's love for them and the understanding that they need to respond to his love by living responsible, moral lives.

Inclusion in homilies of parenting, parental responsibilities, supervision, and children's behavior. In all my years at my parish, these issues have never been addressed by our priests.

Providing activities that would allow parish children to come together, such as sports, socializing, and participating in parish charity projects.


I think we need to let God back into our schools and our lives. Take the trash off our airwaves. We are a Christian nation, and we don't need to let the minority rule.

Parents need to feel good about themselves before they can help their children feel good about themselves. They also need to develop their gift of faith - see the Mass and sacraments as a source of strength and thus participate fully and instill a feeling in their children that God, faith, and church matter.

As a church and as a society, we need to stop trying to find quick fixes that address only the end results of deeply rooted problems. We need to care enough about other people to find long-term solutions that address the causes of human misery - dysfunctional lives.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:includes responses by subscribers to the topic; Sounding Board
Author:Perga, Mary Ann
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Article Type:Column
Date:Dec 1, 1996
Previous Article:Have yourself a defiant Christmas.
Next Article:Great expectations: the fundamentals of the Assemblies of God.

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