October 27, 2005

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Parental Guidance: Fix the parents of problem kids

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Dear Bullethead:

What's up with parents? In the past couple of months, I've had interaction with the same family three times. The first time, they called saying their 15-year-old kid had run away. He came back later that night on his own unharmed. The second time, the same kid was arrested for vandalism at school. The parents were livid and said this was an overreaction and that their son couldn't/wouldn't have intentionally done anything wrong-he's a good kid. They also made a lot of noise about their rights as parents and that they should have been called before the police were notified. Then they threatened to file a complaint because we left their kid in cuffs while we waited for them to come and get him. Most recently, the parents called and said their son was out of control, and we (the police) needed to "do something with him." I went out and talked with them. Basically, they wanted me to take him away and bring him back when he was fixed. I spent almost an hour trying to talk with the kid and felt like I made a little bit of progress, but this isn't over by any means. What do you do in cases like this?

-Pained by Parents

Dear PAINED:

Listen up, Troop! You have a job to do, and crying about the sorry state of some parents won't get that mission accomplished. Start by remembering that when we're speaking about society, we are the parents. Or at the very least, government is the parent and we are the right and left hands. Figuratively speaking, sometimes we need to use a soft, open hand and bring people along, and sometimes we need to use a fist. In this instance, I would say we need both.

I'm not saying I don't empathize with you on this one. We've all had to deal with some really "special" parents who seem to have forgotten they are actually supposed to raise their own kids and that we are the good guys. One of the reasons I chose your letter this month is because this issue seems to cross all ethnic, economic and neighborhood lines. I've found parents I would not trust to feed my fish for a weekend screwing up kids in the best and worst neighborhoods, and I'm sure all the other hard-working coppers out there have run across the same thing.

I remember one incident in a really nice neighborhood. Both parents left for work with their 15-year-old alone and in charge of the homestead. This little dream child decided to invite a few friends over, and they managed to turn this beautiful home into something that could have won 4/20 day awards, brought a tear to Snoop Dog's eye and supplied any cannabis club for a month. Some neighbors finally called the police, and as I was rolling up, I could smell the bud burning from about a block away. In short, when Mom got home after I called her, she walked in to find all of this kid's contraband on the kitchen counter, and instead of addressing him, her first question was to me. She wanted to know if I had a warrant to enter her house, and if not, how I got in.

Next, she went straight for the complaint card and asked to speak with my supervisor. Not one to hold my tongue, I gave her a quick lesson on the law. After that I mentioned that she might want to consider me one of the good guys and deal with the issue her son had created instead of trying to shift blame away from her prodigal (or should I say pot-digal) son. After this quick tune-up, she seemed to come around a bit, and although I gave her my boss's name and phone number, she never bothered to call. In this instance, the fist-style approach to policing brought Mom back to reality and to the fact her son needed some help finding his way.

I'm guessing this annoys you for several reasons. First, you're spending a lot of time at this house that you could be spending looking for crooks or enjoying a nice cup of joe. Second, you have your own kids and know you would never allow them to get away with the sort of stuff these parents and many others let their kids get away with. Or you don't have kids, but you remember how your parents treated you, and it was as different from these parents as the north and south ends of the Mississippi River.

The reality: You aren't going to fix this kid or any other in 10 minutes or an hour. It took his parents 15 years to steer him to his current path, and unless you're ready to move in and help out with the parenting, you aren't going to make much headway. Speaking with the kid might help a bit with damage control, but it's not going to fix him. By damage control, I mean if you treat the boy with respect, hopefully no matter what path he ends up on he will at least have respect for you, the uniform and other cops. On the other hand, if you start yelling at him and tell him what will happen to his rear end if he ends up in jail and how he will catch a beat down if he ever runs from the cops, you will create exactly what you're trying to avoid.

You'll have more luck spending about five minutes with the kid and the rest of the time with the parents. When you speak with the parents, start by letting them know their child was not born possessed, and they are the ones responsible for where he ended up. That part would be the fist pounding some sense into them. (If you carry a tape recorder, this might be a good time to use it because they're going to blow up, and you'll need that tape when you get to IA.)

Next, bring out the soft, open hand. Explain some of the local programs for troubled youth and how these programs are great, but stress that they aren't a substitute for good parenting. (In fact, the programs work the best when the parents participate.) Last, I always tell the parents to listen to the child and find out what they need to become a better member of the family and society. Important: You must convince the parents that this isn't what the child gets; it's just the beginning of the negotiation. When they go off about how they're in charge and "there will be no negotiations," remind them that they should have used that tactic when the kid was about 2 years old, but now that he's 15 and rapidly approaching delinquent status, it's all about finding some middle ground where the parents and child can learn to live with and respect each other and the law.

Most important for you, stop dwelling on the jacked-up parents and start looking for a solution. Go out and fix those parents so you can get back to that cup with your partners. 

Got a question or complaint?

Let Bullethead hear about it. He'll give you his opinion with both barrels.

E-mail him at bullethead@lawofficermagazine.com or fax him at 619/699-6246.

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