Where Were the Adults/Parents?

With all the uproar over the shootings of Michael Brown and now Anthony Robinson, I’m very definitely getting the impression that both the protesters and the media are simplifying the situations to the point of tragic absurdity in their single-minded focus on police bias and misbehavior. And no, I’m not condoning any police incompetence, bias, or excessive use of force. But there’s another critical factor that is being totally overlooked. And it’s very fundamental.

Teenagers and even adults in their very early twenties are stupid in their lack of judgment. Virtually all of them, black, brown, white, multi-racial, gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgendered, it doesn’t matter. Their brains are reprogramming themselves, and people in this age group make a far greater percentage of bad decisions than they will at any other time in their life. They allow peer pressure to override better judgments because belonging becomes a paramount value. They make unwise spur-of-the-moment decisions based on how they feel right at that instant. They become so focused on the moment that they’ll ignore the dangers involved in texting/cell phones while walking and driving to the point of getting themselves injured or killed or killing someone else. Their hormones are raging and readjusting, and the combination of hormonal and neural readjustment taking place simultaneously often results in poor judgment.

This is nothing new. Societies have known this behavior pattern for millennia, even if they haven’t understood the cause. They also imposed, in various ways, fairly stringent social codes… and the understanding that there were definite and often fatal consequences for bad judgment. For a myriad of reasons, in American society today, the entire thought that there are indeed consequences for actions has been minimized. Add first to that the fact that our advanced technology multiplies the impact of bad judgment. Add second that the pie-in-the-sky idea that any child can do anything. This combination has proved, and will continue to prove, deadly, especially to those young people from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

A number of the recent high-profile incidents in which young blacks have been killed began with illegal actions that escalated into confrontations. In a good many cases, the police officer felt his life was threatened, and certainly in some, the officer was injured before he fired a weapon. Everyone is asking why the police had to use force, possibly excessive force, and that is a good question, and one that needs to be asked, and answered, and those answers used as the basis for improving policing.

But no one I’ve seen is asking the other question. Why didn’t any of these young individuals understand the fact that there were likely to be adverse consequences for their actions, possibly severe ones — even if the police had managed to avoid using excessive force? Where were the adults who should have pointed out that even petty crimes can blight one’s future? Just recently, the actor Mark Wahlberg petitioned the governor of Massachusetts for a pardon to remove a minor felony conviction from his record because that record of conviction could make it difficult if not impossible to engage in certain business activities. If the white and wealthy Wahlberg is having trouble over one felony conviction, shouldn’t that suggest to minority youth – and their parents — that it’s a very good idea not to engage in illegal activities, that is if they want the best possible future? Or that, even if the police are arrogant and high-handed, getting into a confrontation on the street isn’t exactly conducive to future happiness and success?

This lack of understanding of consequences isn’t a problem confined to minorities, either. My wife, the university professor, deals with it on a daily basis. A significant percentage of first-year college students seem to think they shouldn’t be downgraded for failing to turn in reports on time… or failing to show up for lessons or classes. Many are so thin-skinned that even telling them that they need to improve brings tears to their eyes [and that includes young men]. The music department holds auditions for admittance to the program and to determine which students will get financial aid based on vocal ability. The audition dates are posted on the departmental website, and all students who have expressed an interest are also informed well in advance. Yet applications flood in well after the dates, often even after acceptances have been sent and scholarships awarded. Then there are the college students who don’t understand that they can flunk a class that is largely participation, such as chorus, if they don’t attend. Students are often stunned when they lose financial aid after their grade point average drops to unacceptable levels – but they have more than enough time for partying and social media.

The issue of rape on college campuses is another example – cases of young men from “outstanding” backgrounds not even considering the implications for them and their future – and the fact that such a felony on their record will close off most professional occupations, assuming they can even finish college after a prison sentence.

My niece, a high school art teacher who has won a number of awards for her art and teaching, was verbally assaulted by an angry parent who wanted to know how his son could be flunked from an art course. The parent either didn’t seem to understand that never turning in an assignment for the entire semester and missing a huge percentage of classes was an easy “F” or didn’t even know that his son was such a flake-off.

All across our culture, the message these young people are getting is that the consequences for failing to act responsibly are minimal… and that it’s all the teacher’s fault, or the administrator’s, or the police officer’s. Where are the parents and adults who should be pointing out, early on, that actions have consequences, and that failure to act responsibly can have permanent, if not deadly, consequences?

No…the police and the educators are far from blameless, but blaming it all on them is also a deadly societal cop-out, and it’s also incredibly hypocritical when the police are under immense public pressure to reduce crime and when teachers take all too much of the blame for parental shortcomings.

11 thoughts on “Where Were the Adults/Parents?”

  1. Bob Vowell says:

    I don’t have any thing to add but well said.

  2. Corwin says:

    I totally agree with everything you have written. Let me add one point with which you might disagree. I believe that much of the present situation can be traced back to a lack of a moral compass in people’s lives. I know in America mentioning religion, the Bible and school/education in the same breath can cause outrage, but having morning Bible readings in school never hurt me and I did learn from them, Sunday school and as you so rightly pointed out my Parents, that there are consequences to each and every action. Both our societies are based on a Judeo/Christian heritage which used to form the basis of that moral compass we so desperately still need.

  3. JakeB says:

    one small note: It’s “Wahlberg”, not “Wahlburg”.

    1. Thank you. Correction made.

  4. Tony says:

    The message society conveys to minority children differs from that conveyed to whites. Society tells youth of color that they are not full human beings and that they are destined for prison or an early grave. A range of social control mechanisms implement this message, including the school to prison pipeline (see, e.g., http://ocrdata.ed.gov/Downloads/CRDC-School-Discipline-Snapshot.pdf), under which non-white preschoolers are suspended at much higher rates than whites. Children of color are taught from preschool onward that they will be punished harshly for relatively trivial offenses.

    I once asked a thirteen-year-old client (who was black) why he was willing to plead guilty to a crime it was clear he did not commit. The client told me, “If they don’t get me for this, then they’ll get me for something else. It doesn’t matter.” He told me he just wanted to “get it over with” because, in his view, no one cared about his guilt or innocence. This attitude of hopelessness, despair, and fatalism was one I found prevalent in my teenage clients—at least the ones who black or Latino.

    Thus, I think it is both inaccurate and unfair to say, “the entire thought that there are indeed consequences for actions has been minimized. . . . [and] has proved, and will continue to prove, deadly, especially to those young people from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.” Black and Latino children are being harassed, arrested, convicted, incarcerated—and dying—not because they do not believe there are no “consequences for actions” (they already know they will be punished harshly for relatively minor offenses) but because they are powerless before the full weight of a badge and a gun.

    The message given to white youth, of course, is vastly different, as is highlighted in the sense of entitlement and lack of diligence of music students at SUU or in the parent who verbally assaulted Mr. Modesitt’s niece for giving a high school art student an “F” or in rapists on college campuses (see http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/rsavcaf9513.pdf). Thus, for young people of the right skin color or economic class, “the message these young people are getting is that the consequences for failing to act responsibly are minimal.”

    1. Is race/ethnicity the problem? Or is the black economically depressed culture the problem? I don’t doubt the statistics. I have serious doubts about the accuracy of blaming all of the discrepancy on race. As others have said, correlation is not by itself proof of causation.

      1. Grey says:

        This is departing a bit from your essay, but yeah, it can very much be a race/ethnicity issue. As a new example, the Justice Dept. tore back the curtain in Ferguson after the Michael Brown shooting, and found the police were targeting blacks to keep the city’s coffers full from fines and penalties. “Ferguson, Mo., is a third white, but the crime statistics compiled in the city over the past two years seemed to suggest that only black people were breaking the law.” [1] Causation isn’t confused by suggesting socioeconomic status is a victim indicator, because poor white people in Ferguson weren’t getting the same treatment. Any person living under this kind of biased treatment would understandably feel the way those in Tony’s example do.

        [1] http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/04/us/justice-department-finds-pattern-of-police-bias-and-excessive-force-in-ferguson.html

  5. corwin says:

    One more point I thought about which needs to be considered. While I believe that many parents are abrogating their responsibilities, it has become extremely difficult to do a proper parenting job. We used to talk about the rights of parents, but now it seems they don’t have any. Everything is currently about the rights of ‘the child’. Discipline has disappeared as people fear being called a child abuser. I don’t wish to get into a debate over this issue, but it has become a significant problem for parents who can longer ‘control’ their children. (And that is a further issue since many people are horrified at the thought of parental CONTROL) sigh

  6. Kristina says:

    As a parent of one of a young teenager, I can say, it isn’t easy to get the message across that there are consequences to actions. My son’s jr. high allows assignments to be turned in late, re-done if not done well, tests to be re-taken if failed. I hear that high school is more strict with their policies, but from my perspective there is no surprise that University or high school students are surprised that not attending class and that not doing assignments results in failure.

  7. corwin says:

    I can’t speak to the American education system, but here in Oz when I was a teacher late assignments got a zero, or a fail automatically. It didn’t take long for students to realise the consequences of their actions and at the higher grade levels failure to hand in work on time could lead to exclusion. The threat was usually sufficient. Today it’s often called ‘tough love’ and perhaps there needs to be more of it.

  8. Wine Guy says:

    Why is it people shy away from confrontation?

    1. It’s a pain in the neck.
    2. In some places, they worry about the affected person ‘going postal.’
    3. Lack of support from those up the administrative chain when dealing with touchy issues.
    4. It is easier to do the nice thing, even when often it is more important to do the right thing because most people – and I include myself here – like to be well thought of.

    Principals and school administrators routinely bend under parental pressure when the parents threaten bad press or some other manner of ‘getting some of their own back.’ It’s just as bad with hospital administrators, insurance administrators, and patients. Most of us who are physicians now have some manner of patient review/patient satisfaction tied to our pay – even if it is just Angie’s List anonymous hacks calling us names. When it comes right down to brass tacks, my job as a physician isn’t to make you feel good about your bad choices of how you eat, lack of exercise, smoke/alcohol/drug use…. it’s to treat what happens when your abused body comes into the ED malfunctioning and attempt to put you back together…. since you ignored my primary care colleagues’ recommendations about exercise, food, meds, etc.

    Doing the right thing is hard. It is really damn hard. And if I wanted to do the nice thing all the time, I need a different job, like selling balloons in the park.

    That’s my backup plan, for when I get fired, BTW.

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