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Arrested Adolescence

When I was coming up, I used to wonder why it seemed that my mother never took my side in arguments. If I was having a problem with a kid in school, she always made clear that I had an obligation to try to work it through with words first, fists as a last resort. If an adult in our neighborhood told her I'd done something wrong, I could pretty much count on my mother taking the grown-up's side even before she'd heard my version. And if a teacher or school administrator had to call her at work to report that I was being a problem? Oh, that was a recipe for an instant ass whipping, no questions asked.

Sure, she stood up for me when she felt it was necessary. But those were the exceptions, done in moderation and almost always out of earshot of the offender. In her eyes, the onus was on me to know how to do the right thing, regardless of what someone else did or what my hot temper felt the situation "really" called for. As she'd always say, "The other person isn't my child. You are." She understood that the particular circumstances I might've been facing at the time were temporary. But my knowing how to react properly was forever. She was raising a man, she'd explain to me. And while children did silly, rash things with little thought to consequences, real men and women were expected to know better.

I thought back to this as I struggled to make sense of the tragic news about the 15-year-old Detroit boy and his 35-year-old mother who are facing murder charges for the shooting death of a 19-year-0ld at a Detroit rec center. Information about the incident is still unfolding, so I don't claim to have all the particulars. And the mother and son charged may both be found innocent in the end, though I have grave doubts about that. Even so, I think the incident highlights a worsening problem in our communities: Too many of our parents refuse to grow up -- and, in a desire to stay eternally young, they remain as immature and emotionally stunted as the children they're supposed to be raising.

How many times have we heard about parents showing up at Detroit-area schools to jump on teachers for having the audacity to discipline their children? How many profane, silly conversations have we overheard where moms and dads talk to their 10-, 13- and 15-year-old kids like they were talking to an adult buddy? How many homes have we entered to find parent and child both glued to a TV set watching some violent movie or sexually explicit music video? And how many times have we seen adults in our neighborhoods violently launch themselves into conflicts between children because "ain't nobody gonna beat up my baby?"

If you know like I know, you know the answer to all of these is, "Far too often." Somewhere along the way, too many of us around this region (and, yes, in many other places) have decided that we want to have babies -- but that we don't want to be real parents. Instead, we want our children to like us, to be our friends, to consider us cool. We want to follow them when we should be leading.

Sure, some of this may stem from the boom in teen and young adult pregnancies in this country over the past few decades. But it's also reflective of a poisonous vanity coursing through our national popular culture: Being a parent means being mature, and being mature suggests getting old. And, in an America where being cool means everything, there's nothing cool about getting old.

So increasingly, we see parents choosing to play the role of BFF instead of D-A-D. We see them serving alcohol at their kids' parties and paying for strippers for their son and his friends. We see them on YouTube, urging their dancing baby girls to "drop it like it's hot" and their sons to "ride that thang." We see them in our neighborhoods exacerbating the very conflicts that we used to able to depend on parents to straighten out.

Again, I don't want to draw too many early conclusions about what really happened at the Considine Little Rock Family Center. But a teenager is dead, and an entire city is struggling to understand why any mother charged with protecting her child would drive her son back to the scene of an earlier conflict, let him walk into that place alone and then pull off with him after he fired several gunshots.

My mom was pretty good about safeguarding me from the danger outside our door when I was coming up. But to her, saving her child from external threats was only part of her job as a parent.

The other part included saving that child from himself.

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