Parents' Responsibility

The case of a Michigan couple, found guilty of violating that state's parental-responsibility law by failing to control their wayward son, evoked a mixed reaction. A judge fined each parent $100 and ordered them to pay $1,000 in court costs.

Prosecutors said the parents should have kept their son from committing burglaries, drinking alcohol, and using and selling marijuana. The parents said they didn't know the extent of their son's wrongdoings and intimated that they were afraid of him.

The Michigan statute is controversial but not unique. New laws in about 25 states hold parents financially - and sometimes criminally - liable for their children's behavior. Parents can be prosecuted if their children disobey a city's curfew law, repeatedly skip school, destroy public or private property, or possess illegal drugs, guns, or stolen property.

The sentiment behind these laws is understandable. Parents shouldn't expect government agencies or other outside authorities to control and rear their children. And lack of parental responsibility undeniably contributes to the growing number of juveniles caught up in criminal behavior.

Yet it is difficult - if not impossible - to legislate stronger, more disciplinary parents. If a single mother can't force her teenage son to go to school, will anything be gained by fining her or sending her to jail? And suppose a child is so out of control that not even the best parent appears capable of turning him or her around?

The statutes also are vague, using phrases like "reasonable control" as a standard for parents. Disciplining a 6-year-old is very different from controlling a 16-year-old. As the Michigan boy testified, most teenagers in trouble do what they can to keep their actions hidden from their parents. In such cases, parental-responsibility laws come down to one person being punished for another's wrongdoing.

Some law-enforcement experts are calling an expected 23 percent jump in the teen population over the next decade a "ticking time bomb," saying we must prepare ourselves. Yet even assuming such warnings are necessary, "quick fix" solutions aren't likely to do much good in the long run.

A more promising solution is early intervention. Rather than mandating parenting classes (or worse, jail) after a child has gotten into trouble, better support systems should be available from the start. More health centers or schools might offer courses on child and home-management skills for young, high-risk mothers during their pregnancies, for example, as one way to combat later juvenile delinquency.

Parents ultimately are responsible for their children, but churches, civic groups, and elected officials can help them by caring enough to be aware of and respond positively to parents' sometimes silent cries for help.

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