By Patricia Dalton
Sunday, March 5, 2006; B03
I once got a call from a couple whose son, a student at an elite college, had run up a huge credit card debt. His parents realized they had a problem and called to make an appointment for therapy. I told them that I wanted to see them along with their son. But when the parents showed up, they told me that their son had refused to come. "Tell me," I said halfway through our discussion. "If you had insisted, would your child be here?" The mother answered quickly, "Well, yes." The dad paused, then said, "That's a very good question."
The incident reminded me of the Warren Zevon song:
Send lawyers, guns, and money
Dad, get me out of this.
Except in real life, it wasn't funny. These parents weren't requiring their son to take responsibility for his actions. And he didn't respect them enough to shoulder it. The young man was in charge, not the parents.
The tendency to shirk the burden of responsibility permeates our family rooms and our boardrooms. I saw it in Vice President Cheney's belated response to the shooting incident last month. And it has characterized former Enron chairman Kenneth Lay's public statements since his company's debacle: "Of anything and everything that I could imagine might happen to me in my lifetime," Lay said in Houston in December, "the one thing I would have never even remotely speculated about was that someday I would become entangled in our country's criminal justice system."
Whether or not he is found guilty, Lay sounds like the spokesman for our culture of victimhood. It is a culture that reflects a studiously nonjudgmental attitude toward one's own behavior, while ignoring its effects on others. And it is based on a belief system like this: I am more important than most people; I am good; therefore, I am incapable of doing bad things.
Excuses, excuses, excuses . . .
Evasive attitudes are learned, refined and reinforced in the home. And they ultimately lead people to become so divorced from the impact of their actions that they freely take advantage of others.
My clients have included parents who shrug when they realize that their son or daughter has been stealing. One even said, "I have bigger fish to fry," referring to his true priority -- which was his child's all-important transcript for college applications. And I remember hearing about local parents who were outraged when a group of high school seniors were expelled for cheating on their SATs with the result that their prized college acceptances were rescinded.
Parents who want to raise mature young people who will contribute to society must not only have values that infuse their own lives but must also be willing to enforce them in their children's lives. Young people need to be taught, before reaching adulthood, that taking a powerful position involves a weight of responsibility to others.
What is striking today is the number of parents who seem to be uncomfortable with the role of teaching their children. They let the culture do it and hope for the best. Some even side with their children against authorities.
Take one disturbing example I heard from a friend who teaches middle school. A girl was caught drawing in her notebook during class. When the teacher asked her to stop, she looked up and kept going. The teacher then confiscated the notebook. After class, the teacher tossed the girl her notebook. She reported to the school office that her teacher threw the notebook at her, intending to hurt her. A report (mandated in cases of alleged abuse) was written up; child protective services was called in to investigate. Only after fellow students refused to go along with the girl's story was the case dismissed. All along, the parents supported their daughter and her far-fetched version of events.
A generation ago, this kind of behavior would have been almost inconceivable. Parents' tougher approach taught us lessons critical for later life -- like that lying doesn't pay and that you have to respect your boss even if you don't like him or her. Today's adults who coddle young people fail to see that they are handicapping them.
It is not uncommon to see parents who are responsible themselves but put up with manipulative behavior from their kids. I once saw a pair of hard-working parents whose child refused to comply with the limits they put on his computer game time, telling them, "You can't make me." Rather than move the computer, they had just given up. They didn't see this as part of their son's larger problem with authority at school and in sports.
Parents have two serious responsibilities. The first is to love their children without worshipping them. Such adoration is a big danger in today's smaller families where parents' pride and dreams are divided among fewer children. The second responsibility is to discipline children -- to hold their feet to the fire. Parents must be able to tolerate the distress that real discipline causes their offspring.
To do so, they have to quit worrying so much about damaging their children's self-esteem. When I asked one set of parents why they let their daughter call them obscene names, they looked at me blankly. Later the father told me, "We want to understand her. And we don't want her to feel worse about herself than she already does." Incredible. Especially since it has been my experience that it's behavior like gratuitous disrespect toward parents that actually makes kids feel bad.
Recently, I spoke with a grandmother who remarked that her grown children, who were doing very well financially, had lives that revolved around their kids. She said, "They spend every waking moment giving, giving, giving to their children. They are living for their kids." Another grandmother told me that there is nothing she can give her grandchildren that they don't already have. "Manicures and pedicures are old hat to these kids."
Parents can stop the indulgence -- or at least put some limits on it. They also have the power as well as the responsibility to insist that their children see the dark as well as the light side of themselves -- the capacity for evil as well as for good that we all have. The last thing our children need is to internalize the sense that they are victims who are not responsible for their actions, echoing the powerlessness that Zevon parodied:
I'm an innocent bystander
Somehow I got stuck
Between a rock and a hard place
And I'm down on my luck.
Yes I'm down on my luck.
Allowing children to evade responsibility may cost parents a lot. But it's nothing compared with the cost to their kids: misery that lasts a lifetime.
Patricia Dalton is a clinical psychologist who practices in Washington.