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How Does a Single Mom Raise A Good Man?

Common logic does not always play out

This article originally appeared on OZY on January 5, 2016.

By Michele Weldon

We told the first part of the dark joke sparingly — among a select few of my parent friends only.

“Take him to Disney World.”

“Let him have sleepovers.”

We were weighing the outcomes of a denied indulgence. Next, the punch line illuminated our greatest fear: “Or he’ll grow up to be a serial killer.” We laughed. As a single parent raising three sons with an electively absent father, for me the threat seemed all the more urgent — everything I did or didn’t do seemed cloaked in imminent failure. We all intended to raise good men and considered it motivation to envision the worst possible outcomes.

My generation grew up looking over our shoulders in fear of killers like Richard Speck. We emerged into adulthood with the headlines of David “Son of Sam” Berkowitz. We shepherded our sons as toddlers in the age of mass shootings at the University of Iowa and the popularization of the phrase “going postal” — a term that did not mean you were headed to the post office to buy stamps. Our children grew as teens in the shadows of post-Columbine hysteria, and attended college amid the mass shootings at Virginia Tech.

Incentivized by those who appeared to be ordinary boys transformed into demons, as parents we held fast to the conviction that nurture trumps nature. We considered it our responsibility to add to the world good men who would save it, not harm it further. We believed we were in control. The emerging profile of the single mother of the 26-year-old shooter at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon, accentuates our parental lifetime of fears.

Laurel Harper, the mother of the young man who in October killed nine and injured nine more on a rampage before killing himself, lived alone with her son in an apartment where police say eight firearms were found. Her online writings appear to confirm her coping with her son’s difficult childhood and adolescence; she was a single mother complicit in her son’s fascination with weapons. Her profile is eerily similar to that of Nancy Lanza, a single mother who lived alone with her son, Adam, who killed 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012.

But for me, it’s not just the headlines that incited fear. Closer to home, Tommy Schaefer was an acquaintance my younger two sons knew from high school. My middle son would occasionally drive Tommy home since he did not have a car. The young man from Oak Park and River Forest High School in the Chicago suburb where we live is the son of a single mother, too. He is now serving an 18-year sentence in Indonesia for the murder he and his girlfriend, Heather, committed in August 2014.

On a recent Sunday morning, a 24-year-old college graduate who lived down my neat tree-lined street killed his mother’s boyfriend and shot his mother and two police officers. The officers returned fire, killing Matthew Watson, who throughout elementary school played baseball on Saturdays with my middle son.

What can I do as a parent to ensure that it all goes as planned? In the early years, I banned Super Soakers and Nerf guns from the house. I wrote on Waldo-themed birthday party invitations: “Please, no weapons as gifts.” Some guests complied.

Unknowing what was ahead, other young parents I knew — mostly white, middle-class — were clenched together, bunkered in the frail certainty that we were in charge of our sons’ successes, that our intentions of raising good men would be enough to make it so. All we had to do was every right thing — no detours, no missteps — and our sons would grow up unscathed. Sign them up for sports and music lessons. Take them to museums and G-rated movies; occupy their every free moment.

Still, the unpredictable forces were hovering: mental illness, a sudden diagnosis, a fatal accident, some disastrous circumstance so severe it could not be erased from the permanent record. But we did not dwell on those. Everything else we could fix. We could overcompensate. We possessed an arrogance born of privilege, I realize.

I convinced myself that some invisible trampoline stretched beneath my sons and would bounce them back into normalcy if they faltered. That is because white sons like mine are not an endangered species; they’re not targeted for anything but the next internship or pat on the back.

I hear of so many parents who did every right thing and yet are shrouded in tragedy and grief and regret. I can’t help but wonder: Why not me? We all know that sons with diligent parents can still grow up to open fire at schools, universities, parks, Army bases, movie theaters. And some sons of parents who do every right thing are shot when they do nothing but ask for directions.

My sons are now 27, 24 and 21, and I have time to reflect. I did it. My sons are more than fine. Two employed college graduates and another soon to don his cap and gown. They are productive, happy, good men.

And yet it is still unclear. How does a mother make a good man? I am not sure.

- Michele Weldon is an emeritus professor of journalism at Northwestern.

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