The Washington Post

Parental schadenfreude: A dangerous game to play


If you devoured the story of a simple vandalism case this week because the suspect is the son of a prominent Washington journalist, you weren’t alone.

For many people, there is an undeniable and guilty satisfaction in seeing the offspring of luminaries screw up.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

We were riveted when former vice president Al Gore’s son was charged with marijuana possession a decade ago and when the 19-year-old son of Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) was arrested in January on accusations that he assaulted a flight attendant and was drunk on an airplane.

This isn’t just about the children of rockers and film stars. Of course those kids were clubbing when they were toddlers.

But what makes us consume — and maybe even secretly relish — the misdeeds of youth is when they are the spawn of the seriously accomplished. The kids who grew up in affluent, highly educated homes with brilliant parents who led spirited and lively debates at the dinner table.

In the Type A world of the achievement Olympics — ground zero, the Washington region — a less-than-perfect child is salve for the underachievers’ soul.

Hearing that your own offspring are less felonious than those of just about any really famous and successful person makes it ALL worth it.

“See?! That’s why I didn’t become governor! I sacrificed my ambition, kept the lousy job filling out TPS reports, all so I could focus on my kids!”

That sliver of parental schadenfreude explains the headlines about 23-year-old Louis Levine Arenstein.

He’s the son of Howard Arenstein, an award-winning journalist and the Washington bureau manager for CBS Radio News. The son was in court Wednesday, accused of ramming his car into a parked motorcycle.

Police said they caught him doing this while they had the neighborhood staked out to snare the vandal who has been scratching swastikas on German luxury cars parked on a Northwest street. Arenstein was neither charged with nor connected to the hate vandalism.

His prominent father is why he made the news.

Parents across the D.C. region shook their heads in mock sadness when they read about the Arenstein family’s legal troubles Thursday morning, but all the while their little hearts were
tap-dancing inside because it wasn’t their kid in court.

That same feeling was quietly indulged last month, I’m sure, when Sean McDonnell, 21-year-old son of embattled Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R), was popped in Charlottesville on a public swearing and intoxication charge.

So is that what happens when dad’s away and being powerful and famous all day long, rather than tossing a football in the back yard with his son? We wonder. Then we congratulate ourselves for missing work for the Boy Scout camp out last month.

How about Jeffery M. Rush, son of Rep. Bobby L. Rush (D-Ill.)? He was convicted of using his job at the Illinois Department of Corrections to have sex with inmates in 2008, then made news again when he violated his probation a couple of years later.

And how about when Rudy Giuliani’s daughter was charged with shoplifting at an Upper East Side Sephora in 2010?

Feeling better now about your family-track job as assistant to the assistant regional manager?

You’re not feeling good because you’re a bad or mean person.

No, this comes from the perpetual work/life balance struggle of all parents. And the culture of judgment where we measure our self-worth by our Klout Score, salary and office nameplate.

And when you’re facing mediocrity, it’s easy to blame a failure-to-launch career trajectory on the little Dementors who suck the life out of you on an hourly basis.

So in hyper-competitive towns like this one, maybe our secret delight in any way we outperform a bigwig is inevitable.

But remember, comparing your own children with those of others is a dangerous game. There but for the grace of God goes your Junior.

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