Children whose parents give them everything but time and structure have been put on the road to delinquency, criminologist E. Kent Hayes says.
"These are the kids who grow up with this tremendous empty space, knowing that something's missing," he said. "But they don't know what it is, and they keep trying to fill it with things."Hayes, who lives in Lawrence, Kan., started his career as a probation officer in Kansas City in 1961. He has spent the last 15 years with the Menninger Youth Advocacy Project in Topeka, which operates 57 group homes for delinquent children in eight states and the District of Columbia.
Hayes is on a nationwide tour to promote his latest book, "Why Good Parents Have Bad Kids" (Doubleday).
From the ranks of prosperous, upper-middle-class teenagers come bank robbers, drug dealers, myriad other criminals and emotional cripples, Hayes said. Their parents are partly to blame.
"These are the parents often who have spent a lifetime ignoring the child and overindulging him," Hayes said recently. "Then when a kid gets too expensive and loud they say, `It's your fault; now I'm just going to give it back to you.'
"But the child just doesn't have the skills to put his own life back together."
Hayes' suggestions for mothers and fathers looking for clues to the mysterious process of raising children sound more basic than magical. But they are among the lessons learned through watching thousands of delinquent children in group homes set up across the country by Hayes and his co-director, Alex Lazzarino:
- Wake up with your children on school mornings and cook them breakfast.
- Consult teachers often, and keep track of your child's homework.
- Don't buy your 2-year-old everything he asks for at the toy store.
- Find out what interests your daughter and encourage her pursuits.
- Sit down to dinner together as a family and talk about the day's events.
At the heart of being a good parent, according to Hayes, are discipline and structure. That doesn't mean parents should turn their home into a boot camp. "Somehow," Hayes writes, "we associate structure with punishment when, in fact, that is clearly not the case: Structure provides security and freedom.
"Families that adopt and live within a caring structure are comforted by the compatible rhythms associated with their everyday routine, (which) enables the individuals within the family to function without being overwhelmed by moment-to-moment decisions."
Likewise, Hayes says, the best disciplinarians are those who let children know what they expect, then follow through, consistently, every time.
Hayes is encouraging about even the toughest cases of delinquency. "There is no age at which you give up and say they're beyond repair," he said.
"We've had kids 17 years old come in (to a group home) and spit in our face and a year and a half later walk out as fairly well-put-together people. I haven't found a `bad seed."'
Hayes developed the group-home concept at the Menninger Foundation in 1974. The basic formula has the Advocacy Project buy a home in a middle-class neighborhood and hire a couple to act as parents.
The project then contracts with the state to accept children who otherwise would go to reform school.
"Our success rate is quite a bit better than the state," Hayes said, although the program fails with about 12 percent of its children.
Whenever people hear of plans to start a group home in their neighborhood, protest always follows, Hayes said. After a time, however, "the neighbors find out that we're normal people."
"What we end up being in lots of cases is kind of the gathering place for lots of kids" in the neighborhood, he said, "because our parents respond to them; our parents know how to talk to them."
Although the group homes were the source of many anecdotes for his book, much of it "is based on either the accomplishments or failures of my own parenting," he said.
That experience includes having dealt with the alcohol addiction of one of his five children.
"It was the most miserable time of my whole life," he said, "but we lived through it and I never gave up."
Hayes didn't give up his evening beer, either.
"It's not a matter of whether Dad drinks," he said. "It's a matter of how dad acts before and after he drinks that makes a big difference.
"One of the things I say in the book is `Watch your own consumption.' Dad comes home grumpy and takes two beers and all at once he's happy and smiling and slapping everybody on the back." That sends the message to kids that "if you want to get happy, do the same thing Dad does."
A beer or two before dinner "relaxes me, and I feel better," Hayes said. "But I don't think I act any differently than I did when I walked in the door."
Helping a child avoid the pitfall of substance abuse is one more benefit of being closely involved with a child's life, Hayes said.
"Drug and alcohol addiction is a fact of life in our society. If the parent is on top of things, they can begin to nip it in the bud" by seeking help early on from experts.
We as a society "are in the pre-primitive stage of understanding human behavior," Hayes said. "But we have knowledge that we need to impart to others, and through that we will learn more."