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
Some parents might consider individuality
strivings by an adolescent to be categorically a
challenge to family ties, but Steinberg
suggestscorrectly, I believethat 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
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
bottlesSeagram's and the likeand 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 drunkwe 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 seniorsseven boys and two
girlsamong 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
"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 yearone 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
"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
"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,
everyoneparents and school staffpitches
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
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 onefighting, 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 sessionswe have a very
good drug and alcohol prevention programand
then receive their diplomas at some unspecified
"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
"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 wellwith no convincing
evidenceor 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 partiesmainly 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
"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
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 accountand in other true
stories in this bookthere 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 mechanismsdenial and
projectionin 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,
toodisplacement 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
thatthey 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
weaponsas 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 fromone's
relationships with one's own parents, for
exampleand what needs to be done to change
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
Feeling guilt over a child's misbehavior may
motivate parents to respond
inappropriatelytrying 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
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
electsagain, unconsciouslyto 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
angerbut 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 notshould
notcease 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
forceperhaps 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'
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
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
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
elsedisplacethe 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
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
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.
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
methey 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.
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 themthe
family's hopes collapsed as swiftly as a house of
cardswhile 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
Parents sometimes believe they are showing
unconditional love when they really are exhibiting
mechanisms of defensedenial. 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
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
"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 fightthough 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
"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
mothernot 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
gorgeousout 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
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 Hauserempathy, explanation, and
problem-solvingare 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 isand isn't yetas a boy on the
threshold of late adolescence.
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),
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.
©2010 Eli Newberger
M.D., a leading figure in the movement to improve
the protection and care of children, is renowned
for his ability to bring together good sense and
science on the main issues of family life. A
pediatrician and author of many influential works
on child abuse, he teaches at Harvard Medical
School and founded the Child Protection Team and
the Family Development Program at Childrens
Hospital in Boston. From his research and practice
he has derived a philosophy that focuses on the
strength and resilience of parent-child
relationships, and a practice oriented to
compassion and understanding, rather than blame and
punishment. He is the author of The
Men They Will Become: The Nature and Nurture
of Male Charaacter
and lives in Brookline, Massachusetts with his wife
Carolyn, a developmental and clinical child
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