The Don't Blame Me Generation

By Patricia Dalton
Sunday, March 5, 2006

I once got a call from a couple whose son, a student at an elite college, had run up a huge credit card debt. His parents realized they had a problem and called to make an appointment for therapy. I told them that I wanted to see them along with their son. But when the parents showed up, they told me that their son had refused to come. "Tell me," I said halfway through our discussion. "If you had insisted, would your child be here?" The mother answered quickly, "Well, yes." The dad paused, then said, "That's a very good question."

The incident reminded me of the Warren Zevon song:

Send lawyers, guns, and money

Dad, get me out of this.

Except in real life, it wasn't funny. These parents weren't requiring their son to take responsibility for his actions. And he didn't respect them enough to shoulder it. The young man was in charge, not the parents.

The tendency to shirk the burden of responsibility permeates our family rooms and our boardrooms. I saw it in Vice President Cheney's belated response to the shooting incident last month. And it has characterized former Enron chairman Kenneth Lay's public statements since his company's debacle: "Of anything and everything that I could imagine might happen to me in my lifetime," Lay said in Houston in December, "the one thing I would have never even remotely speculated about was that someday I would become entangled in our country's criminal justice system."

Whether or not he is found guilty, Lay sounds like the spokesman for our culture of victimhood. It is a culture that reflects a studiously nonjudgmental attitude toward one's own behavior, while ignoring its effects on others. And it is based on a belief system like this: I am more important than most people; I am good; therefore, I am incapable of doing bad things.

The upshot?

Excuses, excuses, excuses . . .

Evasive attitudes are learned, refined and reinforced in the home. And they ultimately lead people to become so divorced from the impact of their actions that they freely take advantage of others.

My clients have included parents who shrug when they realize that their son or daughter has been stealing. One even said, "I have bigger fish to fry," referring to his true priority -- which was his child's all-important transcript for college applications. And I remember hearing about local parents who were outraged when a group of high school seniors were expelled for cheating on their SATs with the result that their prized college acceptances were rescinded.

Parents who want to raise mature young people who will contribute to society must not only have values that infuse their own lives but must also be willing to enforce them in their children's lives. Young people need to be taught, before reaching adulthood, that taking a powerful position involves a weight of responsibility to others.

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