What Parenting Can – and Cannot – Do

When I heard that a teenage boy or boys may be responsible for the wildfire that engulfed Columbia River Gorge in Oregon, my heart sank.

Teenage boys already face a massive PR problem. They’re assumed to be dangerous or unthinking (or both). The narrative of boys starting a wildfire with firecrackers, I knew, would do little to challenge that perception. Rather, it would likely be used to blame boys and their testosterone for still more damage in this world.

My heart sank for another reason, too: The story seemed incredibly likely. I have teenage boys. I know teenage boys. It’s well within the realm of possibility for teenage boys to shoot off fireworks in a natural area, during a drought, thinking it’s great fun. Teen boys are known for taking greater risks when in the presence of friends, especially other males, and witnesses say they saw a group of boys, some of who filmed the event on their phones. (Teen boys also love YouTube and Snapchat, and love to impress their friends with outrageous videos.)

Could I see my boys doing such a thing? Forgive me, guys, but the answer is yes.

Not all parents feel the same way. In fact, shortly after the event, I encountered a mom who told me that if her boys ever did anything like that, she’d be a failure. She doesn’t buy into this “boys will be boys” explanation, she said, and will be talking to her boys about toxic masculinity, responsibility and how to handle male privilege.

The Lie We Tell Ourselves

The idea that we can control our kids’ behavior – and not only decrease but very nearly eliminate the chances of them making a poor choice – is prevalent in today’s society. It’s the unspoken, unacknowledged belief that fuels our parenting practices. It’s ultimately why we obsess over the foods our kids eat, the media they consume and the company they keep.

The dangers of abusive and neglectful parenting are now well-known. Children who don’t experience unconditional love nor have their needs met on a consistent basis are likely to struggle with relationships. Such deprivation affects the development of the brain as well, and can cause difficulties with self-regulation and learning.

On the other hand, attentive and loving parenting is associated with increased self-confidence, improved social and emotional skills and academic success. Children whose parents read to them on a regular basis, for instance, typically do better in school.

So we read to our kids. We talk to them. We take them to interesting places, pay for sportsand music lessons and talk about equality, respect and consent.

What we don’t talk about is the fact that these interventions aren’t magic. We don’t often talk about the good kids from good homes who develop drug addictions and die of overdoses. We don’t admit that a boy from a progressive home might still commit sexual assault. When a boy makes a questionable choice, we assume that he hasn’t been taught properly, rather than acknowledge that kids sometimes make poor choices irrespective of how they’re parented.

The lie we tell ourselves – the lie that puts tremendous pressure on us as parents and contributes to an overall lack of empathy in society – is this: If we do everything right, everything will be fine!

If bad parenting can lead to bad outcomes, we think, good parenting must lead to good outcomes. But just as some kids thrive in spite of challenging circumstances, some kids flounder in spite of stellar parenting. There is nothing – nothing – we can do to guarantee that our children won’t make seriously stupid and downright dangerous choices.

A Better Way

Let’s take the pressure off ourselves and our children by acknowledging that stuff happens. Let’s give our kids – and ourselves – room to make mistakes, as well as the opportunity to recognize and correct missteps. Let’s work together to create a more realistic understanding of the limitations and power of parenting.

As it turns out, teenage boys may or may not have played a role in the Oregon wildfires. Since Sept. 5, the Oregon State Police haven’t officially said anything about the 15-year-old boy they’re calling a suspect in the Eagle Creek fire; and they’re investigating another lead (a man, not a teen, thought to be responsible for other fires).

So the next time your child (or someone else’s) allegedly does something stupid, don’t take it too hard. Take a measured approach with your child as well. Try this:

  • Take a deep breath.
  • Examine your assumptions.
  • Ask questions.
  • Offer grace, forgiveness and the opportunity to make things right.

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