It’s hard to remember that he has parents. It’s hard to imagine him as part of a family.
But Jared Loughner, the 22-year-old man who was recently charged with killing six people and wounding 14 others (including a congresswoman) in Arizona on January 8, does have parents. And based on the brief statement they released to the press, it seems as though Randy and Amy Loughner are just as confused and horrified by their son’s actions as the rest of us.
How do we, as parents, make sense of this senseless violence? It’s certainly tempting to seek out some fault in Loughner’s parents, to create a comforting distance between us and them. Clearly, they must have failed in ways that we never would, as we would never raise a child who will one day take another life in such a heinous matter. Right? Right?
Well, not necessarily.
I’m not going to speculate on the Loughners’ parenting style or their relationship with their son. Here is what I do know: at some point, our children become independent individuals, beyond our control. Furthermore, the amount of influence we have over who they will become is debatable. It’s easy to lose sight of such obvious truths in the fog of anxiety and hope that clouds the daily life of parenting. The illusion of control is powerful–if we can’t believe that the right combination of breastmilk, playdates, and affection will guarantee that our child will grow up to be a mensch, then what hope do we have as parents? And what responsibility do we have for who our child becomes?
Not surprisingly, the Talmud has something to say about this: “A father is obligated to do the following for his son: to circumcise him, to redeem him if he is a first born, to teach him Torah, to find him a wife, and to teach him a trade. Others say: teaching him how to swim as well” (Kiddushin 29a).
While the language is clearly a relic of the time, the message is useful. As parents, we must introduce our children to a community, provide religious, intellectual, and vocational training, and give them basic survival skills. Interestingly enough, we are not told that we must raise a good person, presumably because such advice would be useless. We can offer our children the best education, nutrition, resources, and support possible, and they may still grow up to make choices that will bewilder, offend, or even horrify us.
What a terrifying thought.
But parenting is nothing if not a leap of faith. We devote years of our lives to the development of our children in hopes that they will make the world a better place. Yet there is much in this world that is beyond our control, and sometimes it just doesn’t work out that way. As President Obama noted in his speech at the Tucson memorial, “We may not be able to stop all evil in the world, but I know that how we treat one another is entirely up to us.”
President Obama’s words echo a familiar quote from the Talmud, which reminds us that while we are not obliged to complete the work, neither are we free to desist from it. Perhaps that idea applies to parenting as well–although we are not responsible for who our children ultimately become, we must raise them each day as though we are.