Defending the PS 29 vandals — and their parents

A group of kids, 16 years old and younger, destroyed the playground equipment at PS 29 a couple of weeks ago. We can all agree that what they did, from forming the idea to make a “Jackass”-like video, to pouring the alcohol on the slide, to running away as the flames shot up into the sky, were a series of stupid choices, one worse than the other, leading them to hope that the whole mess would just go away and they wouldn’t get caught. It didn’t and they did.

This is where their parents come into the picture, hiring a lawyer and coughing up $50,000 to replace the decimated jungle gym and turning their children over to the police. Sure, my own newspaper called it “Junk justice at PS 29,” but from my point of view, these parents have joined with their offspring to stand up and take responsibility for the damage that was done.

But I’ve heard and read a lot of negative comments, saying these parents are trying to buy their kids out of trouble, keep these misguided youth from facing the consequences of their irresponsibility, keep them out of jail. This is a bad thing? Is there really a parent out there who wouldn’t do the same thing if he or she had the cash and connections to do it? I certainly couldn’t watch my teenage daughters face time in the slammer without doing everything I could to prevent it.

In fact, I can’t think of a parent of teenagers, who were not already felons-in-training, who would throw their hands up and say, “You deserve whatever you get. I’ll try and visit you in prison, but don’t hold your breath.”

Don’t get me wrong, if this had been my girls, they might be grounded for the rest of their lives, have babysitting wages garnered to repay all that money, fed very thin soup for dinner every night. But these are consequences that I control, not a criminal conviction that would follow them the rest of their lives for a dumb prank done at 16. No question in my mind, I’d be doing everything I could to help them avoid those consequences.

Parents try to control the impact of life on their children all the time. Usually these actions seem morally neutral, like hiring a tutor so your kid scores better on the Stuyvesant test or the SATs. But sometimes, we enter that gray area, families using a fake address to apply to a better school or calling in a favor from some Board of Ed employee. What about parents who convince doctors to put their child on medication that might enhance the student’s test performance?

And we spend money on our progeny to give them a leg up on the competition. It doesn’t matter if Music Together made my daughters smarter, or that I enjoyed meeting other parents, if all the other kids are doing it, I’ll find the money so my kids can do that, too.

I’m just trying to keep my daughters’ futures secure, through education, experience, safety and mitigating the consequences of their stupid decisions. They’ve got to be responsible for their actions, sure, but I’m going to try and control the fallout in a thoughtful, meaningful way instead of letting them face the arbitrary punishment of the blogosphere, newspapers and an overburdened justice system.

Most adults are pretty poor role models for taking responsibility for our actions. I know I’ve fought traffic tickets I deserved to keep from getting points on my license. I know one or two people who cheat on their tax forms or pay cash to avoid sales tax. When was the last time you heard anyone accused of a crime stand up and say, “Yup, I did it”?

I may see the kids involved at PS 29 as unthinking, misguided, idiotic, self-involved, stupid teenagers. But their parents, I suspect, have dreams for their children, that they will grow up, have jobs, and families and come home for Thanksgiving. Perhaps some of the parents hope their child will develop an AIDS vaccine, discover a renewable and clean source of energy, become a great artist, a chef or just a decent human being. I can’t blame those parents for believing in their children and their futures.

Once my daughters are grown, they’ll have plenty of time to screw up their lives. As a parent, I’m just trying to keep them from screwing it up now, before it’s really begun. That’s all these other parents are trying to do, and it makes them real, honest parents who are taking on the struggle. Good luck to them.