Blaming the parents when kids commit terrible acts is an easy out, but in the days since the Boston Marathon bombings, the parents of the Tsarnaev brothers have done a good job of eroding any sympathy one might have felt for them.
Unlike an uncle, who was pointed in his condemnation, Anzor and Zubeidat Tsarnaev have insisted their kids were "kind" and more successful than they were, covered up for the eldest brother's mysterious trip to Russia, and made accusations that the whole thing was a set-up. As Slate's William Saletan writes, even when Tamerlan was arrested for hitting his girlfriend (charges were later dropped), his father shrugged it off: "He hit her lightly … In American you can't touch a woman."
We can expect to learn more about this family as the investigation unfolds. But, at the very least, the Tsarnaevs were careless parents who excused (and lied about) disturbing behaviour and refused to see the dangerous flaws in their children.
But they share those characteristics with many other parents who recently stood in the shadows while their football-playing sons sexually assaulted a girl at a party in Steubenville, Ohio, and their daughters shamed her online for months afterward. The same kind of parents stood by – idle or willfully blind – while Rehtaeh Parsons was allegedly sexually assaulted and then bullied until she took her own life. Those parents would argue "it's hard to keep track of teens these days," especially if both are working full-time. And they'd be right – anyone with a teenager knows the double life they live online, and how clever they are at keeping that private. But isn't keeping track of kids a parent's job?
Yet there's been so much criticism targeting that other kind of parent – the hovering ones who know what classes there kids are failing in school, who could list all their friends, who pay the bills but insist on being Facebook friends. The message that parents with helicopter instincts receive over and over again is to back off – give your kids room to fail, to mess up. And, yes, writing that high-school English essay and making your university student's bed is counterproductive. But, in fact, parenting experts such as Steve Biddulph, an Australian psychologist and the author of the new book Raising Girls, argues that especially when kids are in the mid-teen years, pulling away, parents should be told to keep watch more than ever. And Suniya Luthar, a psychologist at Columbia University who studies risk-taking in affluent kids, says it's the absentee parents – not the helicopter types – that we should worry about. They're the ones who can't be bothered to conduct a low-level Twitter search to see what's up. (Citing an article in al-Qaeda's magazine on how to "Make A Bomb In The Kitchen Of Your Mom," the Slate piece aptly observes that constructing an explosive in this manner first requires an "inattentive" mother.)
Even the best parents can miss the warning signs – but if you are paying attention, it's a lot harder for your teen to become a chronic bully or a rapist – or an extremist – without you knowing.
Laying blame is what we do after tragedy happens; creating an expectation of parental oversight might prevent the next one.