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The horrific events at the midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises struck very close to home. The theater is only a few miles from where my family lives, and we have gone there many times. It is even closer to where I work, on the same medical school campus where the accused gunman was a graduate student and where more than two dozen victims were given medical care. But the Aurora tragedy also touched me deeply as a parent. My wife and I have a son who is 24 years old, the same age as the alleged shooter, and our other kids, 20 and 22 years old, were at the Batman movie screening that same night, sitting in the second row of theater 9, in a different multiplex.
After saying a silent prayer for the victims and their families and another prayer in gratitude for our kids' safety, my thoughts were for the parents of everyone involved. My heart first went out to the parents of those who were killed, whose grief I cannot begin to imagine. Then I thought about the survivors' parents, who must somehow find a way to comfort and support their kids for the many months or years it will take to recover from such a shock. Finally my attention turned to the alleged shooter's parents: Are they to blame for their child's deeds -- or are they victims?
When a baby is born, parents often feel guilty about the actions of their child. My son bit a classmate in kindergarten -- I'm a bad parent! My child threw sand in another kid's face on the playground -- I'm a terrible mom! My little girl "borrowed" a friend's favorite toy without telling her -- It's my fault! These are not just reactions of self-deprecation; others who see our biting, sand-throwing, and pilfering kids give us judgmental looks. What kind of parent raises a kid like that, their eyes ask. You may even ask yourself, What more could I have done?
After the shootings at Columbine High School and Virginia Tech, many cast aspersions on the perpetrators' parents. Inevitably, after an unimaginable event like the Aurora tragedy, accusatory eyes will focus on the shooter's parents. Surely they must have been negligent, abusive, inattentive, or overindulgent. They undoubtedly missed telltale signs or ignored warnings. As parents, we seek to differentiate ourselves from those parents, to comfort ourselves that this could never happen to us.
A few years ago, another 24-year-old man opened fire at church facilities in Colorado, killing four before being shot to death by a security guard. I know that young man's parents and I can unequivocally attest that they have none of the aforementioned failings. They were loving and devoted parents, maybe even more loving and devoted than most parents. I also know the wonderful and dedicated parents of a 48-year-old man who overdosed on heroin, despite his parents' valiant efforts to help him through a troubled adolescence and young adult life. He has siblings who are successful, happy adults and parents. So I'm left with troubling questions: What are the limits of attributing a child's actions, good or bad, to the successes or failures of parenting? How do we explain parents who are just like those of the shooters, but whose kids became good citizens instead? And how can kids raised in the same household grow up with different outcomes? Most importantly, when does parental responsibility for a child's actions end? When should parental guilt be absolved?
In science we talk about correlations. Strong correlations are those where one factor is predictably associated with a particular outcome; weak correlations are those where the factor is less consistently related to the outcome. There are almost no perfect correlations. The correlation between being an involved, committed, and loving parent and having good kids who turn into good adults is very strong, but not perfect; exceptions occur. The converse is also true; being an uninvolved, distant, or uncaring parent is strongly correlated with kids who are troubled and in trouble, but there are exceptions in those cases as well. Great parents sometimes have no luck with their kids and crummy parents sometimes luck out.
As a pediatrician for 30 years, I have seen many different approaches to parenting and I have watched dozens of friends raise their own kids. I've concluded that there is only one way to deal with the uncertainty of kids' outcomes. Be the absolute best parent you can be. Be involved in your kids' lives: Know where they are day and night, talk to their friends, and meet their teachers. Remember your kids are always watching you, even when your guard is down. Show them, by example, the kind of adults you want them to become. Teach them right from wrong, set limits, and make rules, but also be their best friend, so they will feel safe telling you their problems. Apologize when you make a mistake. Earn their trust and make them earn yours. Do all of this every day of their childhood and then celebrate as they become young adults who are responsible for their own actions.
Most of the time, everything will turn out well. Occasionally, your kids will struggle. But they will always need your love, support, and guidance, so give these generously because parenting doesn't end when your kids are grown up. But at that stage, even if things haven't turned out as you hoped, a parent's sense of guilt must end. Hopefully, your kids' actions will never make you ask yourself, "What more could I have done?" If you've given your kids all of your best during each moment of childhood, you will find comfort in the answer.
Dr. Harley A. Rotbart is Professor and Vice Chairman of Pediatrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and Children's Hospital Colorado. An advisor for Parents magazine and Parents.com, he is also the author of three books for parents and families, including the recent No Regrets Parenting. Visit his own blog at noregretsparenting.com.
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