Reform Party leader Preston Manning has come up with a law-and-order proposal which seems to have pushed the right buttons with some party supporters. As I understand it from media reports, he is proposing to make parents responsible for the damage caused by criminal acts of their adolescent children, where it can be demonstrated that lack of parental control contributed to the offence.
A Reform candidate suggested that a 12- or 13-year-old who burns down a portable school building would be a case illustrating lack of parental guidance. A Reform supporter spoke of a 15-year-old boy who broke windows in an apartment building, saying that the youth’s father cannot control him. “Why not?” he asked. “I know what my father would have done to me if I’d done that.”
Another Reform supporter agreed with Manning’s proposal. “You’re responsible for their education, their health, so why shouldn’t you be responsible for their actions?” she asked.
On the surface, the idea would seem to have some merit. Criminal behaviour by young people seems to be rising, and many say the Young Offenders’ Act is inadequate legislation to address the problem.
While I cannot claim to be an expert on adolescent crime, I can attest to some personal experience of teenage behaviour. I am a mother of three, and (although they would seriously doubt it) I even remember my own teenage years. I think the Reform proposal is absurd.
I simply do not believe that the majority of adolescents commit crimes because their parents have not taught them the difference between right and wrong. Nor can teenage crime be pinned on parents who are said to be too busy to care, or unable to control their children. Making the parents “responsible” for property damage (by which I presume Manning means making the parents pay) will not stop the vandalism; it will only send the message to the teenager that Mom and Dad are on the hook for his or her actions.
I believe that it is the responsibility of parents to guide their children so that they become accountable for their actions as they grow older. This is how they learn to fit into society. The teen-ager who breaks windows, steals from the variety store, or sets fire to school buildings may well have (confused) reasons for the action. He or she may have been striking out at authority (perhaps the parent who the teen hopes to shock and distress by the action). I doubt very much that the average teen would be able to argue, truthfully, that he or she had never been taught vandalism is wrong.
It is too glib to suggest that juvenile crime is directly linked to lace of parental involvement in their children’s lives. There are plenty of parents who do all they are supposed to as their children grow and who find, to their dismay and bewilderment, that the adolescents reject all the values so carefully inculcated over the years. It’s called rebellion, and it’s often a part of growing up. Even the most level-headed and responsible teen will do something to drive his or her parents to distraction; fortunately, not all of them end up committing crimes.
Yes, there are adolescents who are “out of control.” But blaming the parents will not get them back under control. It just reclassifies the criminals – the kids – as another set of victims.
What needs to be done is to find more appropriate ways to deal with young offenders. Adolescents convicted of property damage should be required to compensate, perhaps by service to the community, if financial restitution is impractical. And they should be required to undergo some counselling so that they understand why anti-social behaviour is not tolerated.
Please, Mr. Manning, think again. You’re right in talking about the problem, but your solution will not work.