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To this story in CitizenCast

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The Problem with Blaming Parents for Kids’ Unlawful Behavior

When parents themselves are disadvantaged — single, impoverished, young — a community of adults must step up to help children

The Problem with Blaming Parents for Kids’ Unlawful Behavior

When parents themselves are disadvantaged — single, impoverished, young — a community of adults must step up to help children

Every time young people cut up, we ask: Where are their parents? After an unruly group of teens ransacked a Wawa in Mayfair, Deputy Police Commissioner John Sanford urged parents to “raise children properly.” When teens looted a South Street Walgreens, the Philadelphia Inquirer ran this headline: “Parents of teens in flash mobs: Get your rowdy youngsters in check before it’s too late.”

That frustration is understandable because it all starts in the home. But blanketly blaming parents ignores factors like widespread teen parenthood and father absence. Those elements complicate the dynamics of a family unit. Because of this, we cannot assume parents have the resources and tools to keep their kids disinterested in the streets. But that’s exactly what we presume when we gloss over complicating factors prevalent among too many Philadelphia families.

Teen parents, absent dads

In Philly, the causes of youth criminality are compounded because those complex familial factors are more salient in our city than elsewhere. Consider, for example, the rate of teen pregnancy. Nationally, the rate of teens between 15 and 19 years old having babies has declined, dramatically. Between 1991 and 2015, that rate decreased by 64 percent. But, in Philadelphia, teen pregnancy is still high.

Philadelphia’s teen pregnancy rate is 22.1 per 1,000 females. Nationally, the rate is 15.1 per 1,000 females. That is a staggering gap that means more children in Philly are born into a family unit ill-positioned to successfully rear a child.

Glibly blaming parents without acknowledging those intricate family schemes of 21st century America simply doesn’t cut it.

The picture gets more complicated when you add the adverse outcomes of teen parenthood to the mix. For example, teen mothers are likely to drop out of high school, and people without diplomas are inclined to have difficulty finding employment. This postures teen parents and their children toward poverty. On top of this, the children of teen parents are likely to become incarcerated, face unemployment, drop out of high school, have health problems, and repeat the cycle of teen parenthood.

All these factors create obstacles to successful child-rearing. So does widespread father absence. According to the National Fatherhood Initiative, one in four children lives without a biological, step, or adoptive father. That’s 18.4 million children who are more likely to commit a crime, have behavioral problems, go to prison, and abuse drugs and alcohol. These children also have a four times greater risk of poverty, two times greater risk of infant mortality, seven times higher likelihood of becoming a teen parent, two times higher likelihood of dropping out of school, and are twice as likely to face obesity. (Note: the National Fatherhood Initiative’s studies don’t examine less traditional households with, for example, same-sex parents.)

Those negative dispositions for children of teen mothers and single families complicate the family structure and make the causes of youth violence nuanced. So, glibly blaming parents without acknowledging those intricate family schemes of 21st century America simply doesn’t cut it.

Teachers, mentors, more

But be not dismayed. Products of single-family homes and teen parents aren’t irrevocably destined for criminality. I’m proof. My parents had me as teenagers, and in my formative years, I was raised by a single mother. Yet, she was able to raise me to be the person I am today, paving the way for my many early accomplishments, despite the negative dispositions I mentioned before. And that’s because I had teachers who believed in me, mentors who poured into me, and supportive family members.

For me, teachers were particularly important. While child-rearing isn’t part of their job description, teachers have a unique disposition of being able to fill some voids left by broken family structures. We should focus on this because they can be (and often are) part of the solution.

Young people spend much of their childhood in classrooms under the influence of their teachers. If those teachers are any good, their students are not only influenced — but also inspired by — them. This can make all the difference.

We’ve all heard the saying, “it takes a village to raise a child.” So too, then, must it take a village to fail one.

I, for example, didn’t perceive myself as an intelligent person until my third grade teacher, Mr. Edney, told me I was. That changed my self-perception and my understanding of the qualities that matter in a person. Being buff or playing sports wasn’t what mattered; being smart did. As someone who is neither buff nor sporty in a world where that’s all men are expected to be, it meant something — especially having come from a Black male educator.

Similarly, I didn’t realize I could write well until two of my seventh grade teachers, Ms. Conroy and Ms. McBride, told me I could. They encouraged me to pen a letter about the decline of my middle school. Once I sent that letter, I was praised for having the courage to say what others wouldn’t. Because of that experience — using writing for advocacy — I understood the effect of clearly expressed words.

From there, I took writing seriously, reading books about style and syntax, and studying great writers. Teaching myself to write well was one of the best things I could have ever done. It later allowed me to excel in legislative offices and write columns like this. But I only had the courage to because of Ms. Conroy and Ms. McBride. If not for them, you would not be reading this column.

I could go on, listing the impacts teachers have had on me for days. So could Oprah Winfrey, John Legend, Lin-Manuel Miranda, the late Maya Angelou, and many more. It shows there are ways for people outside the family unit — like teachers, mentors, and employers of young people — to positively impact the direction of a young person’s life, despite familial complexities. It is more prudent to focus on those ways than simply blaming parents.

We’ve all heard the saying, “it takes a village to raise a child.” So too, then, must it take a village to fail one.

It is incumbent on everyone to collectively pour into young people. Blaming parents who often are under-resourced does not abdicate social institutions like schools, employers, and communities of their duty to nurture and inspire kids. In a crisis where young people drive homicide rates and run large businesses out-of-town, we’ve got to evaluate everything and everyone influencing them — not just their parents.

Broke in Philly logo

Jemille Q. Duncan is a public policy professional, columnist, and Gates Scholar at Swarthmore College. He is the former aide of two Philadelphia City Councilmembers and a Pennsylvania State Senator.


Video still from the Wawa incident September 24, 2022. Photo via PPD

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