It's easy to agree that 13-year-old Devin Brown should not have been riding around South-Central Los Angeles in a stolen car at 4 a.m. on the Sunday morning he was shot to death by police.
It's easy to blame his family, and that's exactly what people are doing in letters to editors, calls to talk shows and conversations over vanilla lattes. "What kind of mother lets her kid run the streets in the middle of the night?" goes the radio talk show refrain. As if a 13-year-old asks Mom for permission before he slips out to steal a car. We might feel better if it were that simple, if we could hold that neglectful mother to account for her young son's tragedy. That would let "good" parents off the hook, allow us to look in the mirror and say, "Not me."
But how much control, really, does any parent have over a reckless, willful, impetuous teen?
Ask former LAPD Chief Daryl Gates, whose son has spent his adult life cycling in and out of jail for drug-related crimes that began when he was a teenager. Or former Orange County Assistant Sheriff Don Haidl, whose son is now on trial for participating in an alleged gang rape when he was 16.
The truth is that teenagers are intrinsically unruly, often unpredictable and uncharacteristically devious when they need to be. Even the best occasionally veer off course. Most ultimately right themselves without tragedy.
And rebellious, destructive behavior isn't only the province of broken families and inner-city teens. The graffiti that recently appeared on bus benches and trash bins near my home in Northridge was not the handiwork of gang members motoring up from Compton but bored, belligerent teenage boys from a nearby gated community. Where were the parents? Probably in bed. The only way to control some kids is for Mom and Dad to go without sleep.
Ask Bernard Melekian, the Pasadena police chief. He has three sons, now adults. "As a dad, I was very involved," he says. "Went everywhere with them, did everything, talked to them about values. They did everything a parent would want went to college, turned out great." But listening to them reminisce about high school, he learned things he still finds hard to believe.
As teens, they'd sneak out after Dad went to sleep, go party-hopping, run the streets with friends, congregate in a nearby canyon and drink. "The things I didn't know," he says now, "are mind-boggling to me."
Their misbehavior was no more or less the full measure of their character than young Devin's tragic escapade provides his full rendering. That night was merely one snapshot of his young life — proof of a boy's dumb choice and its dangerous risk. If the night had ended differently, if he'd never attracted the attention of police as he drove that stolen car, who knows what might have happened to him? Perhaps, like many of us, he would have changed course in time, gained wisdom with maturity. That night would have become a vivid, regrettable, cautionary tale, resurrected to shock his mom or warn his own wayward offspring. Instead, we pull back on the lens and see only the sad scenes and ex post facto plot line that accrues to a tragedy — a confused boy whose dad had recently died; an exhausted mom, now working two jobs; a neighborhood full of rudderless kids.
Maybe Devin had the makings of a heartless gangbanger, or maybe he was just a mischievous boy who would have grown up to be a responsible man. Either way, do not make the mistake of assuming it was solely his parent's fault. Devin's neighborhood, where violence is part of the background noise, is not as forgiving as mine or Chief Melekian's. And even the most diligent parents make mistakes, misjudge their kids, lose children to delinquent friends or dangerous streets.
Control your kids. It's a nice sound bite, aimed in radio talk show lectures at Devin's grieving mom and neighbors: "You're not going to get sympathy from the rest of this city until you learn to control your kids," one show's host said.
Too bad, because Devin's tragic end reflects not so much the failure of one mother as the limitations of parental influence. Who among us can say with certainty our kids don't lie, don't steal, don't cheat? A teen is a work in progress, struggling clumsily to weigh parental expectations against peer group credibility. So we guide them, lecture them, listen to them, watch them. We need help from our neighbors, pastors, teachers, coaches and even the police. And, ultimately, we hope our kids learn to control themselves.