From “The Men They Will Become”
Eli H. Newberger, M.D.
Chapter 18 – ENABLING
In relation to adolescent development, the term “enabling” has a double edge. On the positive side, psychiatrist Stuart Hauser draws a distinction between “enabling” and “constraining” patterns of interaction in a family. Enabling interactions include explanation, problem-solving, and empathy. Constraining interactions are distracting, devaluing, or judgmental of a family member’s behavior or opinions. Laurence Steinberg writes of Hauser’s work and related research by others:
Not surprisingly, adolescents who grow up in homes in which the family tends to interact in enabling ways score higher on measures of psychological development than do those who grow up in relatively more constraining families.
One recent study found as well that adolescents’ needs for autonomy can be especially frustrated when their parents form strong coalitions with one another. Rather than viewing attachment and autonomy as opposites, these studies of family interaction indicate that the path to healthy psychological development during adolescence is likely to combine the two. In other words, adolescents appear to do best when they grow up in a family atmosphere that permits the development of individuality against a backdrop of close family ties. In these families, conflict between parents and adolescents can play a very important and positive role in the adolescent’s social and cognitive development, because individuals are encouraged to express their opinions in an atmosphere that does not risk severing the emotional attachment.
Some parents might consider individuality strivings by an adolescent to be categorically a challenge to family ties, but Steinberg suggests—correctly, I believe—that the adolescent needs the support of family ties as he explores individuality and independence. Likewise, parents might believe that open conflict between themselves and adolescents is unmistakably a sign of broken family bonds. Again, not necessarily so. The adolescent profits from a certain amount of conflict with parents, particularly when parents have the wisdom to make dear that the conflicts do not threaten the basic bond between them.
I shall return to this positive concept of enabling later in the chapter, but first I want to refer to another use of the term “enabling” that has emerged in the literature about human personality. Here enabling is used to indicate behavior that tolerates, sometimes ignores or denies. or even promotes self-destructive patterns of behavior by another person. In this chapter, I want to keep both definitions of enabling in view.
A neighbor told me that if I was interested in boys and character, I should look into a recent episode in the suburban town where I live. just outside Boston. In the spring of 1998, the neighbor reminded me, both local and Boston newspapers reported an incident that began with drinking at the senior prom and spilled over to the high school graduation ceremony three days later. I called the high school headmaster. Bob Weintraub, whom I had never met before, and asked him to tell me what had happened at the prom and afterward.
“The kids know that possessing alcohol or drugs at school is an expellable offense,” he began. “We reemphasize school policy at prom time because we know it’s a big issue. We would rather not have any tragedies in the community. Every student picking up a ticket to the prom signed a written contract acknowledging that he or she could not participate in graduation ceremonies if caught using, or even in possession of, drugs or alcohol at the prom or party after the prom.
“At the graduation rehearsal, one of the deans and I repeated the terms of the contract. We said it several times. We also said we knew some of the seniors weren’t present for the rehearsal, so their friends should remind them of the agreement.”
“Have you had any violations of the rule in the past?” I asked.
“There usually are one or two kids who violate the rules of the prom,” Weintraub said, “and we just send them home. Again, this year, a boy walked in drunk and fell down. Some of the other staff took him off to a room to tend to him. When they asked him where he had been drinking, he said there was a lot of booze on a bus that some seniors had rented for the night. About fifty kids allegedly had rented the bus, and one of the kids had signed for it. It was a private bus company. No parent had signed off on it. They rode in the bus from our town over to the town where the prom was taking place. I understand they took a rather circuitous route and spent about forty-five minutes on the road, drinking a lot.
“Once the senior told us there was more booze on the bus, the issue was no longer what to do, but how to do it. The prom was in its mid to late phase, but all the students were still there. With other staff members, I located the bus. The driver didn’t want to let us on, but we just said, ‘Get out of the way.’
“In the middle of the aisle was a huge plastic garbage pail already one-third full of empty bottles—Seagram’s and the like—and beer cans. We searched the backpacks in which the seniors had packed casual clothes for the after-prom party, and took a dozen of them off the bus because they contained significant amounts of alcohol. The confiscated bottles and cans covered a large table top the next day. Quarts of vodka, quarts of rum, lots of stuff. Most of it hadn’t been opened yet. It was to be drunk after the prom. I was stunned. You know, after the warnings and knowing the kids for a long time, I’m still stunned by it all.
“All of a sudden there was a second bus there. The two drivers moved all the kids’ packs that we hadn’t confiscated onto the other bus. They obviously were trying to eliminate any kind of liability they might have incurred. The kids came back and saw a bunch of us standing there. They started whispering to each other, knowing they’d been discovered. I told them to get on the bus so I could talk to them, which they eventually did, but it was a very upsetting scene.
“They weren’t obviously drunk—we had already sent home the one or two who were. They were in formal clothes with their dates. And they were in no mood to listen to me. A couple of them became self-appointed lawyers, telling me I had no right to search the bus because it was private. My colleagues couldn’t believe the abuse they gave me. You know… ‘Get off the bus’…’Get out of here’…some nasty obscenities.
“‘This isn’t working,’ I said to myself. So I negotiated with a couple of the senior boys. Off the bus and away from the rest of their peers, they were very reasonable. They said, in effect, okay, we’re not happy about this, but you warned us and we got caught, so whatever happens is fair. ‘I don’t need your clothing,’ I said, ‘but you have to identify whose stuff this is, and then I’ll take the booze and you take the packs and clothing.’ Most of them came and claimed their packs, and I took their names. Two of the packs went unclaimed. I put all the alcohol in the trunk of my car.
“There were nine seniors—seven boys and two girls—among the ten students identified by us as having alcohol in their packs. The prom was on Thursday night. Friday morning other staff members and I called the nine seniors’ parents and asked them to bring their kids to a meeting at the high school on Saturday morning.
“Graduation was to take place on Sunday. Some of the parents asked me over the phone if I’d made a decision about what I was going to do, and, if so, why we needed to have a meeting. ‘Because I don’t want to do this over the phone,’ I said. ‘I want to talk to you. This is a big issue.’
“The meeting lasted four hours. I ran the meeting by myself, but I had all of the major administrators of the school system with me, and the complete support of the school committee and the town selectmen. The parents of the nine had met together on Friday night and developed a strategy that all fifty-five seniors on the bus had been drinking, so none of them should be allowed to attend graduation. If I accepted their argument, they thought, I wouldn’t have the nerve to keep that many kids away from graduation ceremonies.
In my opening statement, I said: I have evidence on nine seniors. I am not so naive as to think only nine had been drinking or were going to. But I only have evidence on nine. I’m not going to ignore the rule because I don’t have evidence on forty other suspects. I understand the pain this brings to them and to their families.”
“How did they take your position?” I wondered.
“The tone of the meeting was up and down. There were both civil and ugly moments with the parents. Some of the parents are lawyers, so the group didn’t have to bring outside lawyers to represent them. But the anger was very deep, and some parents did throw expletives at me. The seniors who accepted accountability on Thursday night had changed by Saturday morning. To their families they had become heroic figures, martyrs.
“My job involves handling many disciplinary situations. For example, I’ve handled three expulsions of boys this year—one for weapon possession, one for assaulting a teacher, one for selling drugs on the school campus. One of the things I say from time to time, reflecting on my job, is that ‘No.’ is a complete sentence. In our town, for many parents, ‘no’ is not a complete sentence. It is supposed to be the first word of a process that leads to a compromise solution. Why not, the parents asked on Saturday morning, let the kids come to graduation and do some community service? I told them that community service is something everyone should do. I know it’s much used by the courts in place of other punishment, but it usually goes along with other punishment.
“Despite the fact that their kids had signed written contracts about alcohol and the prom, the parents still tried to argue that I hadn’t been very, very, very, very clear about the rules. Yes, I said to them, I was very, very, very, very; very clear. But they hated it that they had no power because their kids had disregarded the contract.
“They went crazy because it was going to be a public humiliation for them. You’re not punishing our son, they said, you’re punishing our family.”
“How did the parents evaluate your handling of the situation on prom night?” I asked.
“I think all of the parents acknowledged that I did the right thing in confiscating the booze. Begrudgingly, but they did. Some of them acknowledged that their children had done the wrong thing. But they didn’t want the penalty. One story within the story says it all. By way of background, everyone—parents and school staff—pitches in to help prepare the party after the prom; it’s a great community event.
“On Thursday afternoon, one of the senior class mothers helping to set up for the party came over to the superintendent of schools and the cochairs of the school committee, who were also doing their bit, and said, ‘I just want to congratulate Bob Weintraub on the great job he’s doing, taking such a strong stand against drugs and alcohol.’
“A few hours later I busted her son as one of the nine seniors caught with alcohol in their backpacks. Her son had two quarts of hard liquor. He was one of the boys who helped me negotiate a reasonable solution to the standoff in the bus. What is scary is that he told me his parents knew he was taking the alcohol to the prom, and told him to drink in moderation. When I spoke with his mother about the Saturday morning meeting, I said, ‘I have a tough question to ask you. Your son told me you knew he had those two quarts, and that you told him to drink in moderation. Is that true?’ There was silence at the other end of the line. Finally she said, ‘Sandy’s sobriety is his responsibility.'”
I couldn’t help uttering a murmur of dismay.
“That’s a true story,” Weintraub said, “and it’s not the only example of that kind of behavior I could cite. I believe that some of the parents must have bought the alcohol for the kids. One of the kids caught with alcohol on the bus had a party at his house during the school year that practically destroyed the house. Another of the boys wrote to our local paper after the story broke, saying he couldn’t believe he was being punished in this way for one thing. But his school disciplinary record just for his senior year shows he’s been in trouble from day one—fighting, being incredibly disrespectful to teachers, things like that.
“In addition to projecting onto me a lot of anger they were feeling toward their sons or themselves, the parents were also in heavy denial. I was about five minutes into my opening statement at the Saturday morning meeting, and had already made it clear that the nine would be barred from graduation ceremonies, when a parent raised his hand and said, ‘Bob, can you just tell us what you’re going to do and be finished with this?’ And I said, ‘I thought I was clear, but I can say it again. The kids are not going to be participating in the ceremony.’ The same exchange happened with three more parents. They weren’t listening.
“Toward the end of the Saturday meeting, the nine seniors went off with some alcohol and drug counselors, leaving me alone with the parents. We worked out an agreement with all of the families that the students would receive from one to ten individual counseling sessions—we have a very good drug and alcohol prevention program—and then receive their diplomas at some unspecified date.
“Saturday night, the mother I referred to before, who knew her son was going to break the rule, called me to say that maybe we should give the nine seniors their diplomas soon since they had made a commitment to counseling. I said I was flexible about the timing. ‘They’ve earned their diploma,’ I said. ‘Their diploma is not the issue.’ ‘Okay, that’s good, Bob,’ the mother said, ‘Let’s talk about the diploma on Monday.’ I said, ‘Monday, after graduation’s over? Fine.’
“Sunday night the nine excluded seniors and their parents came to graduation and sat in the audience out on the athletic field. They were very disruptive, the parents as much as the kids. They were shouting and harassing. During my talk, two of the senior boys who were excluded from the ceremony came forward and threw their caps and gowns at the stage, to the cheers of their parents. It was a miserable, miserable time. It ruined everything.
“After the ceremony was over, the mother I’ve referred to and another parent came over to me on the field. She was enraged to a level I have never seen in anyone before. She had her finger in my face, and she was shaking, and her face was about to explode in rage. ‘Bob, you just don’t get it,’ she said. ‘If you don’t give them their diplomas right now, you’re going to have a riot on your hands, and we’re going to destroy this place.’
“There were police with me who heard her. ‘I think she’s really threatening you,’ one of them said. ‘You seem to think this is going to be okay, but we’re nervous about it.’ For some reason I didn’t feel in danger. ‘I already told you the diplomas are not a big issue for me,’ I said to the two enraged parents. ‘The issue for me is getting some help for the kids. But I have to find out whether I can get the diplomas. Right now they’re locked in the safe.’
“The three plainclothes police insisted on staying by my side. A few minutes later, the superintendent of schools and I and the deans of students, accompanied by the police, walked up the steps of the high school between the glaring nine seniors and their parents. The atmosphere was just electric with anger. One by one the students were admitted to my office, received a diploma, and walked out to be cheered in the corridor by the other students and all the parents. I felt like I was in an Ionesco play.”
Walking the Walk
The complicity of parents in the problems of their kids doesn’t have to involve anything as dramatic as drinking at the prom.
“I have some examples at school,” Bob Weintraub says, “where parents are influenced by their kids in a way that’s not helpful to the kids. Attendance, for example. Too many parents call their kids out and make excuses for them. Kids say they don’t feel well—with no convincing evidence—or have to study for a math test, and parents take them out of school. Grades, another example. If the kid doesn’t get a good grade, parents are often in the teacher’s face saying the child deserves a better grade.
“I think there’s a generally critical environment about educators. I can’t remember one example from my own school years of my parents talking negatively about teachers or coaches; but I think it’s very common in our town for parents to criticize educators, and I don’t think that’s helpful to kids. When things are going well for the student, teachers are respected, and when things are not going well, teachers become the enemy, regardless of the family’s social class. This is a very diverse town. The seniors who got in trouble at the prom came mostly from affluent families. As you know, I’m not interested in squashing freedom of speech or openness; that’s not what this is about. This is about the impact of what you say in front of kids.
“Parents are not vigilant about the parties their kids go to. There’s lots of drinking and drugs going on at parties—mainly parties that lack adult supervision. And because parents don’t want their kids to be social isolates, they let them go and tell them to be good. It comes down to the fact that many parents talk a good talk, but when it comes down to their very own child, they refuse to walk the walk.
“I’m not about to cast anyone off into the tundra for making a mistake or three. That’s not why I am in this work. I understand all that. But I do think it’s critical to hold kids accountable for their behavior. If you don’t, they get very confused, and they push it until they do something tragic. So that’s where it’s at for me: getting parents to acknowledge that being strict is good, that saying ‘no’ to kids is okay. Even if it’s painful in the short term, it’s really good for the long term. And the short term, by the way, lasts for about six hours. If there’s pain, it’s over and you move on. When I penalize kids, we usually have a better relationship the next day than we did before, because the kids know exactly where I stand.
“Some people say to me, ‘Oh, Bob, you can’t have it both ways. You can’t be friends with these kids and then be their disciplinarian.’ And I say, ‘Excuse me. You don’t see what I do in this school in terms of discipline. I think most of the students will say that I’m nice, I’m a friendly person, but don’t cross the line or else you’re in deep trouble. I have a history of taking violations to the school community in a very serious manner.'”
I believe the point Weintraub is making here is another example of the point made at the beginning of the chapter. Some people assume that the disciplinary mode has to be harsh and unfriendly, and that the school administrator ultimately responsible for discipline should present a stern, seemingly unfriendly presence to students to buttress his authority; but Weintraub is taking the correct position that one can be firm, fair, and friendly without contradiction.
In Weintraub’s account—and in other true stories in this book—there are examples of families where there has been an inversion of power. The boy is controlling and manipulating his parents rather than his parents providing a framework of regulation, communication, and support for the boy. By caving in and defending their children’s wrongdoing, they are enabling it, and neglecting to encourage responsibility. This phenomenon cuts across all social classes. Pascal Lehman in Chapter 1 mentions a classmate whose affluent parents “act afraid of him.”
Mechanisms of Defense
What makes parents so vulnerable to being enablers of their sons’ misbehavior? Psychological mechanisms of defense can be contributors. Faced with the prospect of unpleasant reality, the self, the ego, has astonishing capacity at times to deny what to others may be fairly obvious. Bob Weintraub referred to two defense mechanisms—denial and projection—in his conversation with me. His knowledge of these mechanisms surely helped him to understand how to cope with this crisis without losing his poise and fair judgment. I want to refer to two other defense mechanisms, too—displacement and overidentification.
Parents who understand these mechanisms can sometimes interpret the behavior of their sons and spouses more sensitively and respond more appropriately. But a strong cautionary note needs to be sounded, too. Defense mechanisms are just that—they allow us to hold ourselves together in the face of unpleasant and even frightening feelings, impulses, or realizations. One doesn’t simply strip them away, or challenge them. It’s better not to understand the concepts at all than to misunderstand them and use them as weapons—as in, “There you go again, using denial to wiggle out of a jam.” That can force an even worse response.
A person using denial, for example, may resort in the face of threat to a more primitive and aggressive self-protection strategy, such as projection. People who have grown up in so-called “alcoholic families” know that breaking the code of silence imposed by denial may provoke verbal or physical violence. This is another reason that it is always well to keep in mind seeking the aid of mental health professionals or groups like Alcoholics Anonymous. Their useful guidance can be helpful, and it’s often in the process of counseling that parents develop insight about where these reactions are coming from—one’s relationships with one’s own parents, for example—and what needs to be done to change them.
I think it’s important to add that sometimes it’s necessary for parents themselves to get professional help to change. I’m a great believer in timely therapy with a psychologist or social worker for parents in the interest of their better understanding themselves and helping their kids, and a great skeptic about simply referring the child for treatment for his ostensible problem.
Parent groups, run by informed professionals, can also help immensely. It becomes clear that you’re not the only person with an important problem, and you can share insights and strategies, and seek and find support as you struggle through the complexities of addressing your child’s provocations.
Feeling guilt over a child’s misbehavior may motivate parents to respond inappropriately—trying to defend themselves rather than deal thoughtfully with the child. The parent may wonder: What did I do wrong? If I’d raised my son the right way, he wouldn’t have done what he is accused of doing. The fault must be mine. What should I do? The pain, the conflict, is just too much to bear. If a parent can get an accusation dismissed, then the guilt diminishes. Easy rationalizations—”Boys will be boys” or “You’re making too much of this” will do for starters. But if soft diversionary tactics don’t work, some parents attack the accusation with every weapon at their command. Parental guilt turns parents into unlicensed lawyers, and teachable moments into adversarial situations. The son who doesn’t understand what’s going on in his parents’ heads may take their tactics at face value, and conclude that he is indeed the victim of malicious prosecution.
Because of the very poised response of Bob Weintraub to the senior drinking crisis at his school, I think there was little opportunity for the parents to employ the defense mechanism known as projection. Projection involves attributing to another person in the situation the feelings we harbor ourselves. So, again, a parent might be angry toward a son for embarrassing the family, but elects—again, unconsciously—to project feelings of anger to someone like Bob Weintraub. If Weintraub, then, expresses anger for the disrespectful way some of the seniors responded to his exposure of their drinking plans, the parent can zealously defend the son from Weintraub’s anger—but really, from the parent’s own anger projected onto the headmaster. But Bob Weintraub didn’t give that defense mechanism an opening. At the final faculty meeting of the year at his school, one of the teachers stood up and said, “Bob went through this really difficult process showing an incredible amount of respect for everyone, and that wasn’t easy because he wasn’t always respected, and I just want to congratulate him.” All the faculty stood and cheered.
Another defense mechanism is overidentification. Some parents meld so completely with the lives of their sons that everything the son suffers is felt by the parent as an experience of the parent’s own. A son’s successes may be treated by his parents as though they were successes of their own; accusations by others of misbehavior by the son may be perceived by the parent as a personal attack on the parent himself.
The more public a son’s successes or errant behaviors become, perhaps the stronger a parent is tempted to overidentify, and, with respect to errant behavior, to behave in a way that might seem out of character compared to the parent’s usual conduct. A parent need not—should not—cease to be supportive of a son who has gotten himself in trouble. Being supportive includes being empathic and tending to the stress the son is experiencing. But the parent need not abandon his own values and adopt his son’s way of viewing the situation. Doing so lessens the parent’s opportunity to be a healing force—perhaps even to support a son in acknowledgment of wrongdoing and the penalty or restitution flowing from it, and then to help him move on to the next phase of his life
The boys I talked to in the course of preparing this book constitute mostly a well-parented population who have coped successfully with all the stages of their lives. Quite a number of them, however, have had brushes with disciplinary action at school or with law enforcement authorities. There they find even in childhood and adolescence that others identify with them differentially depending on their social class (expressed in dress and comportment, and in family status) and race. Bob Weintraub has already referred to occasions when courts seem to treat affluent kids’ misbehaviors lightly.
One boy I talked to mentioned this episode: “During ninth grade I started stealing, like a lot. In February of that year I got caught shoplifting and actually went to court. The people there were totally biased. I went in with a tie. The others were mainly black kids. The prosecuting attorney was like, I’ll take care of you because you’re not like this guy over here, this scum. They recommended to the judge that it not go on my record, but I bet that’s not how the others got treated. It’s not like I stole a thousand dollars’ worth of merchandise. It was petty theft, but, still, they bent the rules. Like, look at my privilege.”
Another defense mechanism is known as displacement. I suspect there were elements of displacement in the reactions of some of the parents in the story Bob Weintraub told. The parent, upon learning that a senior son has been excluded from high school graduation for possessing alcohol at the prom, feels embarrassed and humiliated for its effect on the family reputation.
The parent is angry. The son would appear to be the appropriate object of his or her parental wrath. But something stands in the way of the parent expressing anger toward the son. Perhaps the parent also feels guilty about the son’s misbehavior. Or perhaps the parent overidentifies with the son. The sticky thing about defense mechanisms is that various combinations of them can coexist in a single parental reaction. In any case, the parent might direct toward someone else—displace—the anger that logically would be directed toward the misbehaving son. Someone else might be a high-school headmaster.
The Dangers of Denial
The most widespread and supple of the mechanisms of defense is denial. Denial has been much publicized in the 1990s as a defense mechanism frequently employed by people addicted to alcohol or drugs; the same literature has targeted the families and associates of addicts as “enablers” because they tolerate rather than challenge evidence of addiction, maybe even protect addicts from others who would challenge them. Denial is a convenient defense in many other situations. An example is the well-publicized story of Alex Kelly.
In 1983, when he was a high school student in Darien, Connecticut, Alex and three other boys began a series of burglaries of neighbors’ houses. They used the money to buy drugs. Eventually they were caught; Alex pleaded guilty to nine burglaries as a juvenile offender, and was sentenced to a maximum of thirty-five months in a juvenile detention institution where he entered a drug rehabilitation program. To his more rebellious contemporaries, Alex was “cool.” A young journalist who grew up in Darien remembers: “People who knew about this at the time said, ‘Yeah, that’s crazy. This guy is crazy.’ But they said it with a touch of admiration, like, this is real rebellion. A lot of people staked their rebellion on being associated with Alex Kelly rather than doing the things he did.”
Sixty-eight days after Alex was sent away, he was released on probation by a judge who found him essentially rehabilitated. For a year, Alex made the judge look prescient. He studied himself onto the academic honor roll, starred on the football team, captained the wrestling team, and warned other students about drug abuse. Some called him “the comeback kid.” His principal says, “He was the charming All-American boy. ‘With it.’ as the kids say. He was in the inner circle, an accomplished athlete, lots of things that kids want to be.”
Then Alex was arrested again in February, 1986. A seventeen-year-old Darien girl told the police that Alex offered to drive her home from a party, drove instead to a deserted country club parking lot, and raped her. Police were already investigating the complaint of another sixteen-year-old girl, who said that Alex had offered her a ride home four days earlier and choked and raped her. Both girls claimed that Alex threatened them with repeat rape or even death if they told anyone of his sexual assaults.
Alex’s father, in a 1996 ABC Turning Point documentary narrated by Forrest Sawyer, recalled the moment he heard of the arrest. “I got a telephone call from the police department, so I dropped everything and ran down there.”
Forrest Sawyer: “Did it ever cross your mind that it was possible?”
Alex’s father: “No.”
Forrest Sawyer: “Not once?”
Alex’s father: “No. I know Alex. To this day there’s no question in my mind.”
Forrest Sawyer asked Alex’s mother: “Why would two young girls come forward and accuse a young man of rape under similar circumstances?”
Alex’s mother: “Good question. Unbelievable. I don’t believe it.”
Alex’s high school principal told Forrest Sawyer that she first heard of the arrest of Alex in a telephone call from the chief of police. “He said to me, ‘We have come this close to two possible murders this week:” Sawyer reported her words to Alex’s parents: “This close. . . to two murders.”
Alex’s father: “It’s got to be one of the most irresponsible things I’ve ever heard for a chief of police to ever say…if that is the truth. Irresponsible!”
Forrest Sawyer: “There were, according to the two alleged victims, threats of murder.”
Alex’s father: “I don’t believe that.”
Concerned that Alex’s presence at school while he awaited trial would cause anxiety and distraction, the school administration graduated him in absentia a month after his arrest and forbade him to return. Alex noted that “All of these people that were so supportive and so behind me—they did all they could to, like, take credit for what I was doing. But the second any sort of rough times came. any allegations. they just jumped off.”
A few days before he was to go on trial for the second of the alleged rapes. Alex Kelly jumped bail, flying to Europe with a ten-year passport in hand. Ten years later, with capture virtually certain, Alex turned himself in, was extradited to the United States, and went on trial. The first trial ended in a deadlocked jury. At a second trial, Alex was found guilty and sentenced to twenty years in prison. The judge rationalized the severe sentence not on the flight to Europe but on the nature of the crime and on Alex’s lack of remorse.
Probably none of the parents whose stories have been told in this chapter were motivated principally by concern for their own or their family’s reputations. What stirred them was the urge to protect and support their sons.
The parents of Alex Kelly were said to have had greater hopes for Alex’s success than for his two brothers. Alex was to be the star of the family, and he showed considerable promise of fulfilling these expectations. There wasn’t anything the family wouldn’t do to enable Alex to be a success. The burglaries conviction was a trouble sign apparently largely ignored in the glow of his sports achievements and his academic record. Alex’s arrest on two different rape charges was a stunning blow to him and to his family.
One can feel compassion for them—the family’s hopes collapsed as swiftly as a house of cards—while believing that denial and flight simply delayed a resolution of wrongdoing. Alex will be middle-aged before he leaves prison. One of his two brothers died of an overdose of drugs while Alex was hiding out in Europe. The only way the family seemed to be able to survive these tragic changes of fortune was through denial: Alex still protesting his innocence, his parents still believing him.
Parents sometimes believe they are showing unconditional love when they really are exhibiting mechanisms of defense—denial. displacement, overidentification, and the like. We can’t any of us be simply objective in our evaluation of others’ behavior; our hopes and expectations inevitably are going to be entangled to a degree with our perceptions of what is going on. But there is no reason to be confused in principle. Loving a son does not require denying his wrongdoing; his wrongdoing never justifies ceasing to love him.
While one might expect single parents to confront unique challenges in nurturing good values and behavior in their sons, one of the families who demonstrated positive ways of supporting character as sons grow up was a divorced mother and her fifteen-year-old son.
When I asked the mother, Marilyn Bendix, about her situation, she said, “I always correct the term ‘broken home’ when I hear it applied to a family like ours. Brett lives in a ‘fixed home.’ In many ways, his dad is a wonderful person, but in the family he was very self-centered, resentful of any time I spent on anything else, even Brett. And he was an alcoholic. There were incidents of drunk driving. I’m the adult child of an alcoholic, so I know the problems an alcoholic brings to a family. When Brett was four, I could already see evidence of his becoming an enabler for his dad. I decided then to get a divorce, even though I had been married for sixteen years. It was very awkward and uncomfortable. It took Brett’s dad a few years to forgive me for divorcing him, and to stop drinking.
“Brett has told me that one of his only memories of living in our old house is peeking through the upstairs banister into the foyer below and watching us starting to fight—though our fights were never physical. My goal as a single parent is to provide Brett with a safe and peaceful environment. In fact, our life is a little sheltered from typical family dynamics. There is no sibling rivalry, my attention goes nowhere else, I’m here at his beck and call. In some ways that’s unnatural, and in some ways he’s definitely spoiled.
“There have been times when it was very difficult for Brett not to have his father here. I remember as early as day care when they had a ‘father’s day’ and Brett couldn’t deal with all those boys and their dads. For me, it has been hard in some respects to be the mother and the father. In other respects it’s much easier to be the one making all the decisions.
“My main job is supporting Brett. I work my job around his schedule as much as I can. I have to work, but I make sure that I am home every night. I go to his sports games. When he was little, I would throw balls to him. I’m the one that took a baseball in the leg.”
Marilyn is aware of the contribution male mentors can make to a boy growing up with a single mother—not to underestimate the contribution they can make to boys living with both parents. One of Brett’s mentors has been a coach Marilyn and Brett met when Brett was playing in the Pop Warner football league. The romance didn’t last between Marilyn and the coach, but the friendship among them all did endure.
“He was really nice,” Brett says, “and I think from coaching football he really had an interest in being involved in kids’ lives. He would stop by and take me to a sports store, and he actually got me involved in taking pictures. Different interests than my mom. He told me things not to do and stuff like that. One time my friend and I had a campfire in the woods and we got in trouble with the police. I didn’t know what I had done wrong, and he told me.” The downside of the Pop Warner league was that the coach prescribed large numbers of pushups and other exercises before their musculature could support it. Brett developed osteochondritis and now can’t fully extend his elbows. His once promising development as a pitcher in the town baseball league is on hold for an indefinite period. “I love to pitch,” says Brett, “but I guess I’ll just have to work on another specialty. For example, I went to kicking class for football.”
“It amazes me,” says Marilyn, “that Brett doesn’t have to find blame for this situation. I backed over our cat once with the car by accident and killed it. Brett told me later that it wasn’t anyone’s fault. He’s very fortunate to have the ability to be accepting of things that he can’t really have any control over. He also has an amazing amount of compassion that I would like to take credit for, but he had it too early for me to take the credit. He’s always had a sense of people’s feelings. As a little two-year-old, he never let me kill an insect. I had told him that ‘you should never kill a living thing,’ and he said to me, ‘that’s a living thing, too.'”
The single child of a single parent can certainly tempt the parent to zealous protectiveness that some kids might read as overprotectiveness. “When you are a single parent, I think you have more love for the single child,” says Brett. “For example, some of my friends will be gone for the whole day without calling home and I have to call every two hours. So I think she feels closer because she needs me to call so much and stuff like that.” But Marilyn’s need for closeness is something that Brett can reciprocate. “I tell my mom way more things than my friends would tell their moms.”
Brett’s life is full of the cliques and crowds that I discussed in Chapter 15 as the center of the adolescent’s social life. His mixed crowd consists of about thirty peers, six or seven of them girls, all of them interested in athletics. They hang out at each other’s houses. “There isn’t much to do in this town; that’s why I think some of the older kids turn to drinking,” Brett suggests. Marilyn is naturally concerned about Brett and drinking, but when she brought up the subject recently Brett said to her, “Mom, how could you think I would drink? That’s what separated you and Dad.”
The girl Brett likes most is not in his crowd. “My group are kind of the ‘cooler’ group, and she’s not considered ‘cool.’ I told one of my friends, and he told me that if I really liked her it shouldn’t matter just because she’s not in our group. I liked another girl from second grade until ,this year. I’ll probably like her all my life, but she’s not possible anymore. She’s way too gorgeous—out of my league.” “Would you be comfortable going outside your group to date a girl you like?” I asked. “I would want to,” he replied, “but I don’t think I would have the guts. None of my friends would care. They might joke around, but they’re just kidding, I know that. But I don’t think anything will happen this year. As we get older, I think everybody will be more in the same group. I think we’ll always be tight, but the guys might start seeing girls from other groups and bring them into our group. That’s happened before.”
Brett Bendix’s life is a model of the right kind of enabling. It begins with a parent who has made a resolute decision to put parenthood first in her life, even though that commitment has led her, without complaint or self-pity, through divorce to single parenthood. Mother and son have excellent communication. All of the elements of enabling stressed by Hauser—empathy, explanation, and problem-solving—are richly present in their descriptions of their lives. I particularly admire their ability to explain their lives as well as to describe them in terms of feelings or incidents. Her protestations to the contrary, I’m sure that Marilyn had a great deal to do with nurturing Brett’s early capacity for empathy. He has already had some valuable experience with a mentor and will undoubtedly attract more mentors in the future. The crowd Brett belongs to is the kind of athletic, ‘cool’ crowd in which boys often adopt a macho veneer in adolescence, hiding their uncertainty and stifling their capacities to be sensitive. But Brett, thanks in large part to articulate and attentive parenting, has a very distinct sense of who he is—and isn’t yet—as a boy on the threshold of late adolescence.
Chapter Eighteen: Enabling
S. Hauser, B. Book, J. Houlihan, S. Powers, B. Weiss-Perry, D. Follansbee, A. Jacobson, and G. Noam, “Sex Differences Within the Family: Studies of Adolescent and Parent Family Interactions,” Journal of Youth and Adolescence 16 (1987), 199-220.
Steinberg, Adolescence, 168.
adolescent autonomy S. Vuchinich, R. Vuchinich, and B. Wood, The interparental relationship and family problem solving with preadolescent males. Child Development 64 (1993), 1389-140.
Kelly, interviewed by Forrest Sawyer, Turning Point, American Broadcasting Company, broadcast April 9, 1996.
W. Glaberson, “Alex Kelly, Convicted Rapist, Accepts a Plea Deal in a Second Case from 1986,” New York Times (December 24, 1998), A18.