parent opinion

Ethan murdered four students. Are his parents to blame?

Parents in the United States have been charged with involuntary manslaughter after their then 15-year-old son shot and killed four students at his school. James and Jennifer Crumbley have been accused of giving their son Ethan access to a gun, and of failing to address his mental health issues.

The case will set a precedent for whether parents can be held accountable for crimes committed by their children. And whilst it involves very specific issues of access to firearms – which is, thankfully, much less of a concern here in Australia – it raises a question that is relevant for all parents. How responsible are we for our kids’ bad behaviour?

I’ve been thinking about this question for many years, since one of my own three kids had behavioural problems in primary school. They had an extremely low frustration threshold, and used to lash out at other kids whenever they were angry or upset. It has been the work of my lifetime to teach them how to manage their difficult emotions, and to think of other people’s feelings as well as thinking of their own. 

It wasn’t my fault that my kid was challenging. Some kids are just born with difficult temperaments, or with neurodivergence, or the propensity for mental illness. But I brought them into the world, and it was my responsibility to do my very best. Had I ignored my child’s issues, had I been too busy or too preoccupied or too disinterested, things could have gotten a lot worse, and that would have been on me.


Watch: Gun culture in America compared to Australia. Post continues after video.

Video via Mamamia.

There are many parents who work hard to raise decent, thoughtful kids. There are parents who teach their kids about kindness and social justice, who model compassion and generosity every day. 

‘I want my son to be a good partner to some nice feminist girl,’ a friend of mine used to say, and I reckon there’s no better goal for the mother of a son.  

But there are a hell of a lot of parents who fail entirely in their duty of care, or who are hateful or bigoted and pass on harmful attitudes to their kids. They may not buy their kids guns, but they encourage their sons to boast about their sexual conquests, or slut shame other girls to their daughters, or tacitly support classroom bullying. When the children of these parents grow up to be abusive, when they’re misogynist or racist or just plain mean, it is absolutely the parents’ fault.

It is not easy to raise a child to adulthood, and there is so much we cannot control. Our child’s peer group is incredibly influential in their development. We may have an ex-partner or co parent who models shitty values. We may have our own health challenges, or work or family responsibilities, that prevent us from being emotionally present for our kids. 


Still, we have a responsibility to try. And we need to focus both on our kids’ happiness, and on the ways in which they impact on other people. When we abdicate that responsibility – when we ignore poor behaviour, or dismiss mental health issues, or simply throw up our hands and say, ‘What can I do?’ – we are failing our kids and society.

I used to think that the hard work of parenting lay in the drudgery: the laundry, the cooking, the endless shlepping. But the truly hard work lies in keeping track of our children, in knowing how they are behaving when they’re out of our sight. It lies in being alert, and keeping the lines of communication open, and working hard – really bloody hard - to turn our kids into good human beings.

I don’t know what will happen in the Crumbley case. I do know that the US legal system will blame anyone for gun deaths bar the gun laws themselves, and that mental health services there – as in Australia – are woefully under resourced. Whatever the outcome, one thing is for sure: parents all around the world will be taking note.

Feature Image: Oakland County Sheriff's Office.