Spend Time with your Children so They Don’t Do Time
by Margret Kopala

Published in the Ottawa Citizen - May 15, 2004

This week, in the banal setting of a Wal-Mart store in Abbotsford, British Columbia, a thirteen-year-old stabbed a seven-year-old girl with an X-acto knife when she refused his offer of candy. He was a complete stranger to her.

The girl’s wounds were minor but other victims of senseless acts of youth violence in BC haven’t been so lucky. Teenagers Jomar Lanot and Reena Virk were beaten to death by gangs in Vancouver and Victoria, respectively, while the 2002 rape, throat slitting and incineration of a Maple Ridge mother of three suggest that the Clockwork Orange world of Anthony Burgess is no mere work of fiction.

According to experts and activists in British Columbia such as Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Maté, Chuck Cadman and Katy Hutchison, such horrors are the result of society gone awry, starting with parenting. Neufeld and Maté speak as specialists but Cadman and Hutchison speak from experience.

For Katy Hutchison, it was the death of her husband in 1997. A 40 year old lawyer, Bob intervened in a New Year’s party in his upscale Squamish neighbourhood where he was attacked by drunken youths. For Chuck Cadman, it was the death of his 16 year old son in a random, early morning attack on a Surrey street by a group of older teenagers.

Chuck Cadman responded to his loss by taking up community and political action. This led to his election in 1997 as Surrey North’s Reform member of Parliament and opposition critic on youth justice issues. Katy Hutchison responded with a determination to prevent other youths from committing similar crimes. So far, some 35,000 BC youths, parents and others have seen her power point presentation entitled “The Story of Bob”.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu himself could not construct so compelling a story of truth and reconciliation. Here, the wife of a lawyer and internationally competitive triathlete cut down in circumstances which should never have taken place – an unchaperoned party of teenagers – completely embraces the restorative justice process. She forgives and even takes an active interest in the young man who killed her husband. He, in turn is remorseful, accepts responsibility for his deed, and is serving out his 5 year prison term. Today, Hutchison exhorts parents and youth alike to take charge in situations where they anticipate or witness wrong doing.

Chuck Cadman, too, believes in intervention but for the young man who killed his son the time had passed. A series of minor offences which never went to trial and a father who didn’t enforce a curfew laid the groundwork for an attack that killed.

Cadman’s private member’s bill to establish parental accountability undertakings has been incorporated in the Youth Criminal Justice Act, but he remains a vocal critic of its failure either to provide resources for community programs or to empower judges, Crown prosecutors and police to apply the law meaningfully. Indeed, frustration with a justice system that makes the 15 year old perpetrator of the Maple Ridge killing – himself a victim of fetal alcohol syndrome – eligible for parole in 7 years has increased support for the death penalty in British Columbia to 60%.

Scientific work on the role of mental disorders in criminal wrong doing proceeds apace but a long overdue discussion of how conscience is created in the first place gets a valuable start from Vancouver psychologist Gordon Neufeld and physician Gabor Maté, in their book, “Hold on to your Kids: Why Parents Matter”.

Technology, mobility and income requirements have undermined the traditional roles of community and family, they say, and with it the ability of children to attach and relate to their parents. Failing to have their deepest needs for an empathic child-adult relationship met in the home, one which encourages deferential yet enthusiastic behaviour by the child towards the parent, young people instead seek this from peers who are not equipped to do the job. If a parent is lucky, simple acting out and rudeness are the only result. Too often, though, the result is a scene from The Lord of the Flies (or A Clockwork Orange).

For today’s beleaguered parents, the lessons from Cadman, Hutchison, Neufeld and Maté are clear. There is no substitute for ‘quantity parent time’, particularly in a child’s early years when habits, routines and attachments are established. Only through intelligent observation and intuitive interaction, but mostly by simply being there, will we become the parents our children and society need.

Margret Kopala’s column on western perspectives appears weekly.

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