Jewish World Review Sept. 26, 2003/ 29 Elul, 5763

Marianne M. Jennings

Marianne M. Jennings
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Consumer Reports

Les infants terribles | My heart aches for Gérard Depardieu, the Robert De Niro of France. He has washed his hands of his 32-year-old son, Guillaume, who was arrested for firing a gun in a bar after a patron insulted the young Depardieu's clothing. The French apparently still duel, but, rather than taking paces for honor, they spar over Christian Dior and Versace.

Mr. Depardieu issued a statement, upon Guillaume's arrest, "He's a real poet who touches me enormously, but who is very difficult, incorrigible. At the moment, we have no ties. I cut things off because I no longer want to be the wall, or the trash bin where one dumps everything one wants. He has tried to contact me but I don't reply because I think that's better for his mental health."

Ah, les infants terrible. Those impossible children who, well into adulthood, deposit daily drama at the homestead and instill in their parents a strong desire for codification of Deuteronomy 21:18 -21, "If a man have a stubborn and rebellious son, which will not obey the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother, and that, when they have chastened him, will not hearken unto them: Then shall his father and mother lay hold on him, and bring him out unto the elders of his city, and unto the gate of place; And they shall say unto the elders of his city, This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton, and a drunkard. And all the men of his city shall stone him with stones, that he die;"

All in all, not a bad plan.

Much is written about wild spawn who are the products of divorce. Even more ink graces the pages of journals and books regarding permissive parents who raise spoiled ankle-biters. But there is yet another group of long-suffering parents who have been given short shrift in the "how to" literature: those who have given raising children their all and still reared children who would be black sheep even in the Corleone family. These parents trudged through homework and multiplication tables, trekked to Little League, schlepped to PTA and even attended church as a family. Still, they ended up with Billy Carters, Robert Downey Jrs. O.J. Simpsons, and Nick Noltes.

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Parenting books address the difficult child, a Dennis the Menace or the Van Trapp children from The Sound of Music with their frogs in pockets, pine cones on chairs, and brown paper packages tied up with used dental floss. But, nay, few books mention 32-year-old children who fire weapons in bars over sartorial splendor. Books on difficult children have no epilogues: they end at adolescence. Authors and experts aren't doing much with the post-25 teeny boppers.

Gérard Depardieu has not led an angelic life, but he was married for 22 years to the mother of his 2 children. He raised a daughter who still works with him and has tried to nurture and embrace the troubled Guillaume, even making 2 movies with him. The Euro tabloids portray an indefatigable father with a son who resists maturity. Mr. Depardieu faced a parent's worst dilemma: Do I part ways with my child and risk his self-destruction? Or do I continue protective facilitation? Mr. Depardieu's heart surely aches too. Tough love is tough.

Perhaps these parents' aches pound more incessantly because of those who sit on the sidelines in judgment or even astonishment that a father could turn away his son. They have not walked a mile in the Deparideu moccasins, pumps, mules, or whatever footwear the French favor. I dare not risk another apparel duel.

For those parents who have not experienced the trials of an incorrigible child, you have been blessed. Or perhaps, as a wise man once said, "Wait." Or perhaps you are a Dickens' Mrs. Heep, fancying yourselves as having raised a "umble" Uriah, when, in reality, you have an unctuous child, tolerated by others who wince each time he approaches.

Pity the parents of these infant terribles, these impossibles, these children who never quite get to the point of daily jobs, normal lives and even a tattoo-free month, despite their parents' efforts. Adam and Eve had one. Warren Buffett has created incentive trusts for his children under which they "earn a dollar and get a dollar," because, as the Oracle of Omaha has explained, "I want my children to have enough to do anything but not enough to do nothing."

Children! Can't kill 'em, unless we get that Deuteronomy deal passed as law. We are left with the Depardieu dilemma. The Corleone conundrum. We love these children and see their talent, potential, and even a poet and whimsy, but despite our best efforts, they are incorrigible adults. They cannot grasp that swinging ladder of responsibility and commitment that dangles before them from our moving plane that would ferry them to happiness and fulfillment, and toward which they occasionally run, but never quite catch. Each miss brings disaster to all, including the parents seeking to pilot the plane on a path of lasting peace.

Turning away from an infant terrible is not an unfeeling or selfish act. Rather, the parent sacrifices his heart with the hope that the child's life can be rehabilitated. Weaning the incorrigible child -- one can only hope that both the child and the parent's heart survive the deliberate and often necessary alienation of affection. No greater love hath any parent.

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JWR contributor Marianne M. Jennings is a professor of legal and ethical studies at Arizona State University. Send your comments by clicking here.

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© 2003, Marianne M. Jennings