Monday, March 08, 2010

High Stakes

A very sad couple of stories have been dominating the news over the last couple of weeks here in my home town. A 17 year old girl was attacked and killed while out jogging. She was missing for a couple of days before her body was found. They have arrested a 30 year old man who has previously served time for attacking a young teenage girl. And now, they have found the skeletal remains of a 14 year old girl who went missing on her way to school just over a year ago. The same man is a "person of interest" in that investigation.

These stories hit harder now that I am a parent. I look at my two beautiful little daughters and can barely comprehend the pain that the parents of those two young women are feeling.

But I find that I spend a lot of time thinking about the other parents in this story- the parents of the little boy who grew up to be a rapist. I think they must be feeling a lot of pain right now, too. I do not in anyway blame them for these attacks. Their son is a grown man now, and surely, at some point, we have to be responsible for our own actions, regardless of what mistakes our parents make. To say otherwise would be an affront to the many people who go on to lead perfectly normal lives despite bad childhoods.

I am also not saying that this man's parents necessarily did something wrong. There are surely people out there who had idyllic childhoods and still go on to commit crimes.

But clearly something went wrong here. And clearly we, as a society, have an interest in figuring out what goes wrong in cases like this and determining how we can prevent these things from happening.

There are many people in my community calling for the death penalty, or saying that after this man's first offense he should have been locked up for life. I don't think either of these things provides an answer. Yes, executing this man will ensure that this one man never commits a crime like this again- but there will be other men who do, and I think the evidence is pretty clear that they won't be deterred by the thought of the death penalty. And yes, a longer prison sentence would have prevented these crimes- but it would not have prevented the first crime.

So I come back again to the parenting. It seems to me that the only way to stop these crimes is to prevent little boys from turning into men who could commit such an act. This man's parents will never know if there was something they could have done differently that would have changed the outcome for their son. From what has come out about his background, it does not seem that there was any obvious warning sign, any clear point at which his parents should have intervened. There was just an average boy, perhaps a little more troubled than most, trying to find his place in the world. If there was anything his parents could have done differently, it is buried in the mundane details of raising him- in how he was disciplined and how he was praised, how he was taught to respond to disappointments and what he was taught to expect from the world. In short, it is in the sum of all the everyday decisions that parents make, while they are also trying to keep food on the table and hold their own lives together.

And that is what has me stuck thinking about this story, reading every new little update that comes out. It is a reminder that parenting is such a high stakes game, and one with very delayed feedback. We muddle through as best we can, but won't really know the outcome for at least 20 years.

For such a high stakes game, we play it with very little support from society. We are presented with unrealistic images of what parenthood will be like, and society frowns on frank discussions of things like the fact that some children are harder to parent than others. We isolate new parents by creating a fiction that the tight knit nuclear family should be able to handle it all, and show images of the joy of parenthood without fully acknowledging the frustrations. How easy it is to think that you're doing it all wrong. How easy it is for new mothers to slip into depression (which studies show can lead to an increase in aggression in the child) and how poorly prepared we are to catch it. I had prenatal appointments every week by the end of my pregnancy- but my first post-partum appointment was six weeks later. A lot can happen in those first six weeks, and a lot can happen after that one post-partum appointment is past. Why does it fall to pediatricians to try to catch the signs of post-partum depression? Why don't we follow up with the women directly, rather than via the proxy of their babies?

And then there are the pressures on working families. Women get a guilt-trip regardless of what choice they make about whether to go back to work or not- and many women don't really have a choice, anyway. But any attempt to require more family-friendly workplaces is met with cries of how it will destroy jobs, or of how unfair it is to the people who do not have children. I think cases like these show that policies that degrade our ability to parent are risky for all of society, not just painful for the families in question.

I look around my community, and I see a patchwork of programs and organizations trying to plug these, and the countless other holes in our support network for families. They are constantly underfunded, and usually overlooked. It must be difficult work. I suspect their success stories are not always easy to recognize, because you're looking for an absence- an absence of depression, an absence of abuse, and absence of troubled children- and how do you know that the program caused that absence? In some ways, this work is like the work of parenting. Its difficulty is underappreciated, and its importance is hard to pinpoint because it is so all-encompassing.

I don't know what to do to try to fix this mess. So I give a little money to the programs I think are trying to address the problems, I try to reach out to other parents where I can, and I hug my little girls a little tighter, and I hope for the best for all of our kids.


  1. Hi Cloud,

    I don't have parenting answers for you, but I thought you would be interested in how things are done in Australia (and I think the UK) after a baby is born.

    Within a couple of days of discharge from the hospital, the new family will receive a visit from their local "Child and Maternal Health Nurse" - a nurse with extensive training in caring for both babies and mothers. Soon after that, the mother (or father) will start taking her baby to regular visits at the local "Maternal and Child Health Centre". This is totally government subsidized - free to all families with children younger than school age.

    In these regular visits, the health of the child and the mother is assessed, and the MACH nurse is particularly looking for signs that the mother might need additional help or support re:Depression. The child is always weighed and measured, and the parent has a chance to talk through any concerns.

    Phone calls can be made to the MACH nurse at any stage between visits for advice, and there is a 24hour advice line.

    First time Mothers are routinely placed into a new mother's group, with weekly information sessions. Most mother's groups continue on informally for years, as the friendships formed are often very strong.

    Maternal and Child Health Centre visits continue until the child is school age.

    Initially this is a weekly, then monthly and eventually milestone only visit. The child's development is regularly assessed, once they are a little older, including their hearing and sight.

    If there are any concerns the nurse can refer the family to specialists or their General Practitioner.

    This is a system that is very effective in supporting families.

    Parents are not compelled to go, but most do make use of the free advice and resource that is their local centre. The nurse are usually well known in their local community.

    Of course Australians pay higher taxes to have such services available, but I for one am please to pay for such an important service.

    I have had three children, and my youngest recently had her last visit, and I was a little sad that I would not be back in the local centre again.

    You have raised some very important points in your post, the stakes are very high indeed. I often think about the hidden victims of crime - the family members of the perpetrator. Crime effects every member of a community, and as such we should all be interested in finding answers rather than tougher and tougher punishments.

  2. @Cloud and Claire - we have a virtually identical systems for supporting new mothers in British Columbia, Canada.

    Wonderful post Cloud - I am so tired of hearing from people about how parents decide to have children so why should anyone else have to make accomodations/pay higher taxes/be supportive. It's such a short-sighted point of view.

  3. It's definitely scary knowing that the tiny day-to-day mistakes you make, and your own personality flaws, could end up creating a monster. And even more scary watching how some other people parent, and knowing that before long their kid will probably be in school with my kid. So many things to worry about... I try to keep my worrying to a sane level, otherwise I'd never be able to cope.

  4. Oh, Cloud! This was the post we've been waiting for & that you've been alluding to for awhile now- so beautifully put! I wish I had written it.

    These issues are rampant in American society today. I know every generation since the Roman Empire has said "what's the matter with kids today??" and it has probably always been true.

    I live in a rural area, far from any major US city, and here in my little hamlet in the last 6 weeks we've had an open murder investigation of the death of a 17-year old woman who was abducted in broad daylight, and we also have a 17-year old boy being charged as an adult for attempted 1st degree murder for planning a Columbine-style school massacre, after having allegedly been bullied. News like this makes me want to burn my dog-eared copy of "Free Range Kids" and turn to homeschooling. It's the politics of fear in full effect, and I'm with Michael Moore that fear makes us all stop thinking.

    My thesis is that these problems stem from the reality that we are ambivalent about the value of children. Therefore, historically, we haven't known whether to protect them or to capitalize on them as a source of free labor. And - we have internalized the message that women are second class citizens; that motherhood is not a worthwhile occupation; that a woman's uterus is public property and that her feelings don't matter. Whoops - I'm getting overly indignant now. This is why things suck for women and children. But then haven't things always sucked for women and children?

    I have never understood why so many idiotic loudmouths in America will bend over backwards to save a fetus, but won't lift a finger to save an actual, living breathing child and her mother. So I love it when new research suggests that what progressives have had an intuition about for ages is indeed the right track. Like the piece in "Freakonomics" mentioning the link between an increase in abortion and a decrease in crime, as if that was some groundbreaking conclusion: that children who are really wanted have a better chance in this world. The study you mention linking maternal depression and aggression in children is so interesting. I just hope the policy implications of it lead to helping mothers instead of further villifying them.

  5. So well said!

    I have always thought about children as the next generation, therefore we ALL have a vested interest in ensuring they get raised in a way that benefits us all. Someone else's child could be the one making the decisions that affect MY retirement/healthcare/etc. when I'm an old lady. Ignoring the needs of children or children who are not your own and the parents of other children is really doing a disservice to yourself.

    My other thought while reading this post was about the fact that I am raising a child will become a man. My parenting decisions will in part determine what kind of man he becomes and how he will treat women. That is a heavy weight to bare, but oh so important. I think about it constantly and regularly talk to my husband about it. (Not to downplay the importance of how we raise our daughters--but that's for another post.)

  6. That's a tough one. Very sad. I do think sociopathy is more a nature than a nurture problem, though.

  7. I am terrified of my children being the victims of a violent crime. I never thought about them turning into hoodlums, but definitely worry they'll find the wrong friends, nasty drugs, make really bad choices... I guess murderer wouldn't be impossible... ugh. one more thing to worry about.

    I am fascinated, however, by what makes a person become a violent crimial or sociopath. A friend of mine was a obsessed with reading books about serial killers and she got me hooked on wondering what the heck makes them tick. What made the gears in their minds shift so horribly wrong? are they curable? can we as parents or as friends see it coming in a growing child/teen?

    Italy used to have a very low incidence of what I would call senseless violent crime. Lots of murders, but with meaning: jilted lovers, adulterers, political motives, mafia, soccer fanatics...

    It's slowly changing and part of it could be the news is trying to be more shocking and grim like the US so they dig for things that were maybe only known about in small towns or big cities.

    But part of me thinks one thing that prevents it has been how Italian communities were (and in some parts still are) very tight knit and intrusive. No one had privacy. While people are still messed up, societal pressure is so strong on people to channel that anger or depression or neuroses into other more socially acceptable ways.

    Plus people don't bottle things up here. They are pissed, they say so and they show it. I think being honest about feelings has to be healthier than pretending everything is ok and then plot how to kill everyone.

    I have an old post where I joke that serial killers could never thrive here because the mammas expect their 40 yo sons to be home for breakfast, lunch and dinner and they do their laundry (they'd see the blood stains) and they go through their stuff and everyone knows everything about where you go and what you do.

    Their nefarious plans would never stay a secret long. Unless you don't have a mom or you live in a more westernized, solitary community where everyone minds their own business.

    Think about Neighborhood Watch initiatives that neglected areas adopted as a way to fight crime in the US. A lot has to be said for nosy old ladies who spend all day spying out the window.

  8. Thanks for all the nice, thoughtful comments.

    @Claire, Jac- I wish that our system was as good as that. After my first daughter was born, I got a visit from a nurse. She spent most of the visit stressing how I needed to feed my daughter on demand. She was concerned because Pumpkin's growth was a bit slow at first. This was a valid concern, but the visit made my mental health worse, not better! (For the record, I was feeding Pumpkin on demand. She ate pretty much every 2-3 hours, around the clock.)

    @Irene, I suspect that the mistakes that create problems are persistent, not occasional. That is how I keep myself sane!

    @Hush- Thanks! This is actually the post that was blocking me from writing the post that has been percolating in my brain for awhile, though. THAT post is about a recent article describing how our identification with a community interferes with our ability to objectively evaluate arguments... and is still coming. Sometime.

    @caramama- I think you and Londo are going to raise an excellent young man. Thank you for taking the responsibility seriously.

    @Eva- my own opinion is that it will be like heart disease- nature provides risk factors/predispositions and the environment determines the ultimate outcome. The only research I'm aware of to this effect was about a protein called monoamine oxidase. People with a certain variation in that protein were more likely to be aggressive, but only if they had experienced a triggering event, such as child abuse. I can't remember all of the details, but it is interesting work. It got polluted by some overinterpretation of the variation in certain populations, though.

    I'm not aware of any genes that guarantee a certain outcome, but I think genes determine our basic personality. And then I think our experiences provide the details that determine what we do with that personality- whether we are aggressive or just intense, for instance. I am sobered by the thought that I think this may mean that some children who are hard to parent in fact need the best parenting.

    @Geeks in Rome- Maybe traditional Italian society probably had more safety nets, albeit very nosy ones. Presumably your neighbors would notice you floundering as a parent and step in to help?

  9. I don't think any parent sets out to raise a monster, but we have evidence that some people do become monsters.

    You can look at the "controls", the siblings, and see that parental influence wasn't everything. After all, the unabomber was turned in by his brother.

    (I know that siblings are imperfect controls, but that's the closest thing we've got.)

    Remember the number of troubled teens left in Nebraska hospitals by parents at the end of their rope? Most of those kids were well-known to social services in their own states. But the social services couldn't give the parents the relief and help they needed.

    They were deeply troubled kids, and we can't expect their parents to cope alone. Yet, we make those parents patsies for a problem that is too large for them to face alone.

    We continue to look away, and congratulate ourselves for dodging that bullet...

  10. Such a thoughtful post and comments. So much to think about, much of it I've felt without having the right words to say so. Like Caramama, I am raising a boy who will become a man and I don't take that responsibility lightly at all. I would like to second the idea that as much as good parenting doesn't guarantee a good child, negligent to bad parenting doesn't guarantee a bad child. My never stable mother turned her back on my brother emotionally and financially when he was 17. His father had re-married and focused his energy on his new family. My brother is one of the most hard working, honest and decent men I know. He will be 30 this year and he is a husband, father and works as a firefighter. This isn't empirical science, I know, it just comforts me when I think of all the mistakes I'm making even with the best of intentions. People can determine their own outcomes.


Sorry for the CAPTCHA, folks. The spammers were stealing too much of my time.