Should parents apologize for their kids?

Story highlights

  • The controversy over University of Oklahoma students reciting a racist chant raises a number of issues
  • Ruben Navarrette: Is it necessary for parents to apologize for the bad actions of their grown children?

Ruben Navarrette is a CNN contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. Follow him on Twitter: @rubennavarrette. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)The recent controversy over a video showing University of Oklahoma students, who also were members of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, reciting a racist chant revealed a key difference in approaches to parenting.

The university said Levi Pettit and Parker Rice encouraged their brothers to sing the lyrics, which included multiple references to the "n-word" and mention of lynching. The two young men were expelled. And the fraternity was shut down.
Ruben Navarrette
What caught my attention was the reaction of the families — the Pettits and the Rices. They couldn't have been more different. That convinced me that this story wasn't just about racist and juvenile behavior, but also about parenting.
    Who raised these kids? And shouldn't they have been taught better? At some point, didn't it occur to these young men that they were not only shaming themselves, but also their families?
    In Dallas, protesters gathered outside the Rice home, holding signs with messages such as: "Racism is taught."
    Parker Rice issued a statement, which was delivered to the Dallas Morning News by his father, Bob Rice. In it, Parker apologized for actions that he called "wrong and reckless."
    However, Bob Rice had no response to the controversy. He told reporters: "At the moment, we are not doing interviews." That is not good enough. Parenthood isn't like politics. It doesn't come with a "no comment" button we can press when the job gets uncomfortable.
    We haven't heard from Levi Pettit. His parents, Brody and Susan, addressed their son's misbehavior in a statement, which was given to the newspaper and posted on the family's website. It read in part:
    "As parents of Levi, we love him and care for him deeply. He made a horrible mistake, and will live with the consequences forever. However, we also know the depth of our son's character. He is a good boy, but what we saw in those videos is disgusting. While it may be difficult for those who only know Levi from the video to understand, we know his heart, and he is not a racist. ...
    "Of course, we are sad for our son -- but more importantly, we apologize to the community he has hurt. We would also like to apologize to the entire African-American community, University of Oklahoma student body and administration. Our family has the responsibility to apologize, and also to seek forgiveness and reconciliation."
    That's an impressive statement. I applaud the Pettits for stepping up and refusing to blindly defend their son, as many parents might have done. They did what parents are supposed to do: They took responsibility for the actions of the person they raised.
    Who knew that would be so controversial? Ever since the apologies were offered, there's been discussions in this country about whether it's really necessary for parents to apologize for the actions of their grown children.
    Last week, while hosting a radio show in San Diego, I brought up the story of the video and pointed to the different approaches that the Rices and the Pettits have to parenting -- all the way from "we are not doing interviews" to "our family has the responsibility to apologize." The Pettits had the right idea, I insisted. A caller disagreed, saying he didn't see why he should have to apologize if his adult son did something wrong. "He's his own person," he said.
    Based on what I've heard in the last few days, I would imagine that there are many people who agree with the caller. They seem to believe that, when their son or daughter turns 18, their job is finished. They can't wait to wash their hands of any additional responsibility, and they might even frame their retreat as a way of advancing the principle that everyone should take responsibility for his own actions.
    That sounds good. But I don't think it's either/or. Of course, individuals should take responsibility for their actions. Yet, as the Pettits demonstrated with their statement, when something goes terribly wrong, there is usually enough responsibility to go around. When appropriate, parents can take a slice.
    Besides, I bet a lot of parents believe -- as I do -- that we should never stop loving our children. But at some point, it's perfectly fine for us to just stop claiming them as our own? It just looks like some parents can't wait to find the exit.
    Here's an idea. We tell people to drink responsibly. We tell them to drive responsibly. We need to start telling them to parent responsibly.
    After all, parenting a child is the most important job that many of us will have in this world. And there is no date of retirement.