When should parents be held accountable for the actions of their children? According to the government of Bermuda, the time is now. On 9 July 2010, the government voted the Parental Responsibility Act, which is intended to ensure that parents uphold their responsibilities toward their minor children and that minors are equally held to account when they do not adhere to acceptable standards of social conduct. This act is a big deal for Bermudians who have seen a sixfold increase in juvenile probations between 2005 and 2008. Almost a fifth of these juveniles in the courts are repeat offenders. During that same period about 270 children under the age of 18 were part of the government-operated Child and Family Services with 35% of them classified as “out of parental control”. I suppose the concern is how did the country get to this point. Here is my idea.
In 2000, of the 29,107 households in Bermuda, 15% were single parent households. There were 6,328 children living in single-parent families. Of this number, there were 2,125 Bermudian children under age ten in single-parent families. The Bermuda 2010 census is currently underway and I fear those figures will be even more disturbing. As counselors, we know the likely outcome of these facts. These kids are more likely to be poor, to drop out of school, to be involved in violent crimes and girls are more likely to become pregnant as a teenager.
Children need both parents. Of course, as a counselor I realize there are situations where it may be better for a particular parent to be ‘out of the picture’. Under normal circumstances (though rare these days), children actually do much better overall when both parents are in the home especially if they are playing active parental roles. Although the act will have the benefit of objective evaluation of the social circumstances in any given situation before taking action against young offenders and their parents, single parents who may already feel hopeless, may experience added pressure. Parents who have not ‘reined in’ their children could find themselves faced with a penalty of up to BD$10,000 (BD$1: USD1).
The cost of living in Bermuda is extremely high. For example, in 2008 gasoline for automobiles was BD$2.00 per liter (not per gallon). This is at least three (3) times more than in USA and Canada (though prices have made huge jumps). Food is about 2-3 times more overall than in the USA and Canada. You can understand why it is the norm for a single parent to have 2-3 jobs to make ends meet. There is no doubt in my mind that societal conditions such as these further deteriorate family life. With the responsibility of being the sole provider, single parents spend very little time with their children. They sometimes have little option but to leave the care of their children in the hands of family, educators, friends and even strangers. Unfortunately, they are forced to compromise some of their parental responsibilities to meet others they deem more important.
The government has indicated that the act is no threat to parents who have fulfilled their parental responsibilities. The government stated, “The intent here is not to penalize those parents whose children carry out such actions in spite of responsible parenting. Therefore, provisions are made for defenses against parental liability such as ‘exercising reasonable supervision’ and ‘making reasonable efforts to prevent or discourage’ the delinquent actions which resulted in the loss.”
While I believe special consideration should be given to single parents, being a Christian counselor, I am inclined to compare this new act with certain situations in the Bible. A number of parents were made to accept the responsibility and in some cases pay the ultimate penalty for the actions of their children. Two examples that immediately come to mind are that of the Priest Eli and King David whose sons’ behavior and their failure to discipline them disappointed God so much that He penalized both parents.
I am obviously in support of this new act, primarily because it demonstrates the country’s willingness and commitment to uphold family values (it was reported that 7 out 10 residents are in agreement with this new act).
There are three other reasons why I support the Parental Responsibility Act. Firstly, it encourages stronger families and what I will call community parenting. I grew up in Jamaica (the beautiful Caribbean island) and whenever I did something wrong in the presence of any respectable adult member of the community, they were free to give me a nice spanking. Furthermore, if I was silly enough to complain to my mom or other family members, they would immediately initiate the sequel. My family had confidence that since I was disciplined by someone in the community, I must have done something wrong. I am not suggesting that our children should be ‘knocked around’ by others in the name of discipline. However, I do believe that if we show an interest in all children and not only our own, it has the potential do some good and maybe save a parent $10,000.
Secondly, this new act will very likely lead to an increase in demand for professional counselors. More parents will be seeking or forced to seek professional help for themselves as well as their children. The act includes the right by the government to force parents of nuisance children to attend counseling sessions for up to three months. As fellow counselors, I am confident you may have spotted a few things wrong with that picture – force, nuisance children and three months to name a few. I will not get into that today. The point is, if you are looking for a change of scenery or to work in a place where vacation is interrupted by work, then you may want to consider Bermuda.
Finally, to whom much is given, much is expected. As such, I anticipate that this increase in demand for counselors will eventually lead to further improvement in the quality of counselors available to Bermuda’s residents. We will undoubtedly receive a significant amount of attention – some good and some not-so. We will be expected to perform miracles in some cases. Parents who felt hopeless before will embrace our services as an opportunity to immediately ‘fix’ their child and/or their family issues. It will be even more important for us not to take short-cuts with solutions. I believe those who do, will embarrass not only themselves but counselors in general. The Bermuda Counsellors Association will need to take additional steps to ensure that all counselors deliver consistent quality service to their rather desperate clients.
The Bermuda Parental Responsibility Act of 2010 presents many opportunities. Parents are encouraged and given a chance to be more involved in the lives of their children and build stronger families; counselors’ perception by residents will likely improve and we will be seen to play a more active role in serving to restore and strengthen families; communities can be drawn closer together to combat attacks on families; and the government is in a position to really change lives for the better.
It is certainly not only my opinion that strong families produce strong citizens which in turn produce strong and stable societies. Dr. James Dobson, renowned psychologist and author who started Focus on the Family over 30 years ago stated in his book Bringing Up Boys “…Historically, when the family begins to unravel in a given culture, everything from the effectiveness of government to the general welfare of the people is adversely impacted.”
Pete Saunders is a graduate student at Capella University. He also writes a weekly blog and conducts a weekly video interview on manhood at razorsanddiapers.com