Teens' misdeeds can't always be blamed on bad parenting
October 31, 2009
BY MARY MITCHELL Sun-Times Columnist
Quite often, the first thing out of our mouths when a teenager is accused of a heinous crime is: "It starts in the home."
And, in many cases, that's true.
Some children are growing up with parents who act as though their kids are a burden.
Some of these parents were too young to become parents. And others have failed to instill moral values in their children by leading by example.
But what is happening when these stereotypes don't fit?
Last week, Hammond police charged Gregory Brooks Jr., 18, and Reo Thompson, 17, with first-degree murder in connection with the heinous slaying of Milton and Ruby McClendon.
The teens already faced charges of robbery, burglary, confinement and auto theft in the case.
They could face a sentence of as much as 130 years if convicted on all charges.
When something like this happens, most people assume the teens involved came from fatherless, dysfunctional homes.
In this case, at least one of the teens appears to have had the kind of parents who were actually parenting.
"We're not monsters. We didn't raise no monster. And my child . . . I believe my child didn't do this. I believe my child was in it, yes, some kind of way. He was involved in it. He got hung up into this by being with this child, this other kid. But I don't believe my child pulled no trigger," Gregory Brooks Sr., father of one of the two teen suspects, said before TV cameras.
"We'd like to relay to the McClendon family that we are God-fearing people, working people," said Veretta Brooks, the suspect's mother. "I have elderly parents, and my heart goes out to them. I have not been able to work, function properly since. And I feel for them."
As a mother, I can imagine the hell this mother is living through.
Yet, if what she says is true, how did her son get snared by the wrong crowd?
If he was "in it," as his father suggested, then he is as guilty as the person who pulled the trigger.
And if he was brought up in the church, as his mother claims, then he knows that the crimes that were committed against this elderly couple were pure evil.
If convicted, their son's life is over.
As parents, we can never underestimate the lure of the streets, and the negative impact our culture of materialism and celebrity worship has on teens.
Every day, the most vulnerable youth are bombarded with images of wealthy lifestyles while they walk among abandoned buildings with empty pockets.
Some are inspired to get out of the poverty. Too many others are sucked in by it.
Because there is a vacuum of credible leadership, the "streets" have become surrogate parents to these disillusioned youth.
Under these dire circumstances, it takes old-fashioned parenting to keep teens away from the criminal element.
After all, not long ago, it wasn't that unusual for a parent to come up to school with belt in hand to discipline a persistently disruptive child.
If that happened today, the beleaguered teacher would be mandated to contact the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, and the parent would most likely be charged with child abuse.
Meanwhile, the streets are swallowing up a generation of ill-bred young black men.
Obviously, parents in violence-plagued communities must do a much better job raising their children.
But, as a society, we have to do a better job helping at-risk families get a handle on their children before they grow into predators.
I'd argue that, rather than needing the National Guard, we need an army of life coaches.
Diane Latiker, founder of the "Kids Off The Block" program in Roseland, raised an interesting observation recently in the wake of the beating death of Fenger High School student Derrion Albert.
"We have to find out why our kids are so angry," Latiker said. "They are angry about their environment, the lack of jobs and lack of support from those who are closest to them."
As parents, we have to stop making excuses for our shortcomings.
The teens accused of murdering the McClendons were in trouble long before this horrible crime.