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Life Notes: Who’s to Blame?
Pointing a finger to explain the unexplainable

Many, many years ago – before school shootings and random acts of violence among the young that send a shiver down the spine – a friend was having a problem with her oldest son.

Linda, which is not her real name, did everything we all thought was right. First, she dealt with this nasty, troubled child as best she could. Then she sought outside help. And more outside help. And more still.

The child got worse. His parents’ marriage ended, as so often happens in these situations. They simply couldn’t deal with the domestic debris in their midst.

Those who cared about Linda and hoped to help found that we couldn’t. This loving mother and this fierce son were way beyond our ability to offer advice.

It was then that something strange began happening. Despite all her efforts – despite my friend’s incredible sensitivity and patience and love – people began talking.

“It had to be her fault” was the conventional wisdom, because she was, after all, the child’s mother. It had to be dysfunctional parenting at the root of the boy’s problem. Linda held her head high in public – but agonized privately.

How could people be so insensitive? How could they fail to understand that sometimes kids go wrong for internal reasons – complicated, unfathomable reasons? And the best parents sometimes can’t do a thing to help.

I keep thinking of Linda, who quietly moved away some years ago. I’ve always suspected she left to escape the scorn that seemed to engulf her in these parts. I keep wondering what became of her troubled son, the bright, blue-eyed child who had been given every opportunity in life, and who systematically ignored or sabotaged every chance.

I think of him in the context of the horror of the numerous school shootings, the massacre at the Boston Marathon, the endless rat-a-tat-tat of violence and mayhem on our urban streets – sometimes in our quiet suburbs. I wonder whether the poor kid ever got his act together, and how his parents, particularly his mother, survived the emotional hurricanes of his youth, together, then apart.

But I am so careful now not to point the finger of blame at average, everyday people who find themselves suddenly thrust into the headlines when their kids go on rampages that drag others into shattering tragedy. Are we forever our kids’ keepers? Are we ever allowed to say “Not guilty!” And when families are raked by tragedy, who draws the fault lines anyway?

I understand, to the extent anyone outside the blood bath can, that we are asking ourselves the simple question, “If parents can’t control their kids, then what good are they?” We are asking because we need so desperately to find answers to why schools have become high-security prisons, with guards and metal detectors and a feeling of siege that shocks those of us whose kids never knew such things.

Our children are not just naughty. They’re not just cutting school. They’re cutting – and shooting – each other, and we need answers. It’s got to be somebody’s fault.

Once, in a far simpler time, I taught adolescents. And what I learned is that they are masters of disguise. You think you know them, and then you find out how wrong you were. So blame parents? Blame teachers? Insist they should have known, must have known, what was brewing?

The longer I live, the less I believe in appearance matching reality. And when it comes to living with a teenager, I remember something I recently read: teens are “intimate strangers” in households, strangers to themselves and surely to others. Add to that how we parents are blinded by love, and you’ve got a pretty complex parent-child picture.

It’s territory my old friend and her troubled son knew too well. And believe me, you wouldn’t want to go there.

January 2014
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