MAXWELL: When bad kids happen to good parents

4/2/2003 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper

From outside, the Jordan Park housing complex, on the south side of St. Petersburg, seems like a nice place to live. I spent part of Tuesday morning and afternoon visiting there, and I spoke with several residents.

I had not been there in nearly two years and was surprised by the many changes. All of the buildings look like real homes, and the yards have plush, green lawns. Everything is clean. Before the remake, Jordan Park had few streets, giving it the claustrophobic feel of a warren. Now, wide streets crisscross the complex, giving it the feel of a real community.

I mention the above to highlight how fortunate people are who live in Jordan Park, where rents are affordable. Along with its new look, the complex _ now privately operated by Landex Management Corp. of Baltimore _ has strict rules and harsh punishment. One punishment is that an entire family can be tossed out if a family member breaks a rule or engages in unacceptable behavior or commits an unacceptable act.

Authurine Jenkins and Carlene Byfield _ both single working mothers _ learned the hard way that living at Jordan Park is a privilege and not a right. Until a few days ago, the women thought their leases would not be renewed because their children were accused of spray-painting graffiti in the facility.

Kemoi Brown, 13, Byfield’s son, confessed to police, and Ebony, 12, Jenkins’ daughter, is said to have witnessed the spray-painting. Both were issued juvenile citations that require 30 hours of community service.

In February, the women were told their leases would not be renewed, but a few days ago, Landex reversed that decision. The leases are to be renewed soon. Company officials, who have a bad reputation among Jordan Park residents, should be applauded for giving the families a second chance.

I have written often about bad parents who duck their responsibilities and let their children virtually rear themselves. From all indications, Byfield and Jenkins are good mothers. My point is that good parents often have children who will do what they damned well please. My son was that way. He had every advantage, but he could not resist the allure of the streets and the company of thugs who stayed in trouble with the law. Counseling, scolding, whippings and jail did no good. No matter what my wife and I did, our son emulated and followed his peers.

He fought in school, and his principals called me constantly. He robbed people and broke into homes. He was a little criminal. People said to me: “Why don’t you start raising that boy right?”

Right? What could I say to them? That we were raising him right? That he wanted no part of being raised right? That he had his own mind? After several bail bondsmen, a string of expensive lawyers and raising a lot of hell, I grew up and decided on tough love. I stopped bailing my son out of jail, and I stopped lining the pockets of lawyers. My son had to stay in jail.

In time, he came to his senses and decided that being in the free world with a good job, a nice apartment, a car and the power to come and go as he pleased were not bad things after all. My son grew up on his own. I had nothing to do with it _ just as I had nothing to do with his criminal behavior.

I do not recommend my kind of tough love for everyone whose children misbehave. But I do suggest that parents of such children understand that they can do only so much. When their influence and efforts fail to penetrate a hard head, they should not blame themselves, and they should reassess their responsibilities.

Many of my acquaintances and relatives said I was a cruel father who had turned his back on his boy. In my mind, I had done all I could or should. I recognized that my son was a self-actualizing creature who lived in a world I could not enter. No amount of parenting theory was going to turn my son around.

He had to turn himself around. He alone had to recognize the folly of being handcuffed and roughed up by the police, of rotting in jail, of having perfect strangers tell him what he could and could not do.

I like the way that Byfield and Jenkins responded to their predicament. They did not shift blame to the management company or the police _ or themselves. They responded as I would have.

“When you’re around other people who are doing something that’s not right, you can be considered just as guilty,” Jenkins, a certified nurse assistant, told the St. Petersburg Times.

Landex decided correctly by letting the women remain in their homes. In this instance, they did not deserve to be punished for the behavior of their misbehaving children.