There was nothing surprising in the news that Ethan Couch sits in a Mexican detention facility while lawyers quarrel over his extradition.
Few can forget the trail of devastation left by the Fort Worth, Texas, teen, who decided one evening in 2013, with a blood-alcohol level three times the adult legal limit, to go on a joyride in a truck piled full of friends.
Couch killed four people that night and critically injured two others. He was 16.
His youth was presumably a factor in Judge Jean Hudson Boyd’s confounding decision to send him to treatment and put him on probation. But it was the testimony of a psychologist, who argued that Couch was himself a victim of wealthy parents that had “strongly enabled” his irresponsible acts and led him to feel “there was no rational link between behavior and consequences,” that stretched the limits of credulity.
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Because authorities found Couch in Mexico with his mother, Tonya, one might conclude his suspected probation violation (a video emerged showing Couch at a drinking party) and subsequent flight across the border (where some reports suggest the now 18-year-old was seen “very drunk” at a strip club) were just the latest abuses by his mom.
To call Couch a victim, particularly after what appears to be a brazen attempt to avoid further punishment, is insulting to those whose lives he destroyed.
Still, it’s hard to consider Couch’s circumstances without regarding how similar — albeit far more extreme — he is to many in his generation.
I refer specifically to the coddling by his mother.
The helicopter parenting phenomenon — the obsession with excessively protecting one’s child from any physical or emotional harm, managing their every activity while seeking to ensure their success — has been a subject of criticism and debate for some time, and for good reason.
While many children suffer because they grow up in homes with one or absentee or indifferent parents, the opposite can also be damaging.
Helicopter parenting is generally viewed as an “overparenting” problem. Children can become so dependent on their caregiver they never learn even the most basic elements of taking care of themselves. As they age, they become paralyzed when faced with major decisions or even moderate adversity. Others absorb their parents’ obsession with success, fearing failure so desperately that any modest misstep could send them into an emotional tailspin.
These children may never learn how to become adults, and they may never learn how to accept responsibility.
According to a September article in Psychology Today, university faculty and staff are overwhelmed with the increased fragility of students, many of whom “are increasingly seeking help for, and apparently having emotional crises over, problems of everyday life,” like a disagreement with a roommate or receiving a “C” on a term paper. In Declining Student Resilience: A Serious Problem for Colleges, author Peter Gray describes how students also increasingly blame the faculty for low grades, for poor instruction or inadequate guidance, instead of internalizing lessons and learning from them.
Without the crutch of a hovering guardian, some young people enter adulthood lacking not only the skills to achieve but the ethics needed to resolve problems and the perspective obtained through failure alone.
But as one critic posits, helicopter parenting may not be the problem. It’s “really a symptom of underparenting,” writes Ashley Bateman in the online magazine The Federalist. Bateman argues that parents who spend most of their waking hours separated from their children might overcompensate by increasing their parenting “intensity.”
It stands to reason that what parents cannot provide with regular engagement, they will seek to provide elsewhere, whether it be completing their child’s homework, pulling strings to guarantee acceptance to their chosen college or driving them to Mexico to avoid arrest.
Ethan Couch is no victim. He’s an example, however extreme, of what failed parenting looks like.
Cynthia M. Allen is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
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