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'Where were the parents?' a cruel question after Irvine crash

'Where were the parents?' a cruel question after Irvine crash
A makeshift memorial marks the spot on a charred shoulder along the 5 Freeway in Irvine where five teenagers from South Orange County died over the weekend in a fiery crash. (Los Angeles Times)

Five Orange County teenagers died this weekend in a fiery car crash while driving on the 5 Freeway in Irvine after a night out at Knott's Scary Farm. To think of those young lives ended so suddenly and horrifically stirs only sadness for the parents, family and friends suffering immense grief.

Or, perhaps, one would hope that would be the first response to kids dying, even if it's their own fault. Rather, the initial reaction by readers has been mostly anger rather than empathy. In letters to the editor, several offered their condolences, but most of them quickly segued into criticism. Some are upset at the bereaved parents, presumably for whatever shoddy parenting resulted in six teenagers packing into a BMW for a ride home in the middle of the night with an apparently unlicensed driver at the wheel.

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As a father of two young children, I admit that my own initial feelings of sadness were tempered somewhat by incredulity over the circumstances. Driving, though routine, is an inherently risky activity even in broad daylight; the picture of a car full of teens speeding along the 5 Freeway after a night out partying is disconcerting.

But it's a familiar picture -- not only to me (who, all evidence to the contrary, was once 16), but also to the countless teens who no doubt got behind the wheels of their cars when they shouldn't have that night and drove home from Knott's Scary Farm, a Halloween-themed attraction that tends to draw hoards of rowdy teens (but not their parents). Deadly car crashes happen for any number of reasons, many of them distressingly mundane, and those five dead kids in Irvine might have been only a 16-year-old's split-second decision away from surviving just another teenage coming-of-age experience, a memory to reflect upon whimsically decades later during middle age. Doing stupid things is a teenage rite of passage, and for those of us who grew up in Southern California, those stupid things typically involve a car ride.

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Ill-advised as those adventures might be, few of us would say we truly regret any of the ordinary but risky experiences we survived as teenagers. Those who don't survive, unfortunately, can't express their regret.

As for "where were the parents?" -- one of the more common questions asked by readers -- this nicely illustrates the modern dilemma in raising kids. Parents today face scorn for concealing their children in bubble wrap, holding their kids' hands so tightly through school and early adulthood that they never learn to navigate the real world on their own. Denying the occasional risk or opportunity for failure, we're told, leaves this generation of teenagers and young adults uniquely ill equipped to handle routine challenges. And tracking their lives on Facebook, their cellphones, at school and elsewhere denies them any freedom and is plain unhealthy.

But when something goes wrong, there's that cruel refrain: Where were the parents?

Meanwhile, the detective work grinds on. Investigators, who tend to reach conclusions much more slowly and judiciously than outraged readers, say it will take weeks to determine the cause of the crash. Until then, we might do well to offer the grief-stricken families and friends a little more unconditional empathy and less parenting advice.

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Follow Paul Thornton on Twitter @PaulMThornton

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