After Watertown, Can We Blame the Parents?

violence against children, mass shootings, families grief, death of a child, father's grief, raising children, raising killers, compassion, grief

JD Roberto asks: What can the fathers of children lost in other American tragedies—Oklahoma City, Columbine—teach us in their responses to grief?

The bullets have stopped flying, the bombs are defused and one epic manhunt is over in Watertown. And as satisfying as it is to have some small amount of closure on the horrors of the last week, a chasm remains between the end of the police work and the beginning of understanding how something like this could happen. Sitting in front of the spectacle of TV news infotainment and melodrama, my brain traverses the geopolitical—I try to puzzle out the agendas and grievances that led two young men to cram nails and ball bearings into a pair of pressure cookers and then kill and maim families on a crisp Monday morning. I think in terms of indoctrination and world-view.

But when I lay in bed at night, I think like a father—I think about the more treacherous questions of how, why, and what could have been done differently for the children that eventually became these men. How much, if at all, can we lay some portion of the blame at the feet of the people brought these two murderers into the world?

I know very well that my own kids were born with distinct personalities that have nothing to do with how they’re being raised. My son, Z, is a rule follower, a negotiator, and deeply concerned about winning the approval of the authority figures in his life. Pebbles, my four year old girl, spends most of life laughing and dancing, but try to make her follow the rules and you’ll have a wailing ball of drama on your hands. This is who they are. My wife and I have tried to sand down the sharper edges of their personalities with love, reason, and patience. But—and I think every parent gets this—they are who they are and all you can really do is try to add a solid moral structure and healthy dose of responsibility to what the cosmic personality generator has handed you.

I remember having something of a small panic attack when Z came home from school with a little blood on his sleeve from a bumped lip at recess. A game of ‘Harry Potter’ had gotten a little out of hand and Z, who had insisted on being the bad guy, had gotten tackled on the pavement. But it wasn’t the blood that bothered me, it was the idea that Z wanted to be the bad guy. Was this a sign of something sinister brewing in my 6 year old? Did I need to worry that, despite all my admonitions about kindness and love, Z was attracted to the dark side? When I asked him, Z told me that the bad guy is the one that gets chase and, after all, he really loves to run. Crisis averted, for now anyway.

But surely Susan and Tom Klebold loved their son as fiercely as I love mine. Susan was, by most accounts, an engaged and involved mother. By nine years old, her son Dylan was in the gifted program at school and a regular chess partner for his father. By seventeen, Dylan was dead in the Columbine library after participating in the worst school massacre in American history.

Do his parents own part of that tragedy or are they victims of it?

Bud Welch lost his daughter when Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols blew up the Alfred P. Murrah building in Oklahoma City. One night not long after, Bud saw McVeigh’s father, Bill, on TV and told a friend, “Timothy’s father’s pain has to be incredible. As best I can tell, he did everything right.” Three years after the bombing Bud sat down with Bill McVeigh and Tim’s sister Jennifer. After two hours of talking, Bud Welch went to leave. Jennifer McVeigh wrapped her arms around Bud and began to sob. Bud, thinking of his own daughter, held her and said, “Honey, the three of us are in this together for the rest of our lives.” They had all lost someone they loved and none of them could tell you precisely why it had happened.

Maybe some human beings are fundamentally broken at birth. If so, can they be course corrected by family? Straightened out by discipline? Overwhelmed by love? Can we, as parents, see this kind of thing coming, can we know the difference between a kid who’s different and a kid who’s dangerous? Do we have any chance of seeing the line between solitary and sociopathic before it’s too late? It’s hard to believe we’re helpless but it’s equally hard to pinpoint what the Klebolds or Dahmers or McVeighs might have done differently.

I suppose it’s possible that taking Dzhokhar Tsarnaev alive provides a chance of inching closer to some kind of epiphany—but I doubt it. It’s far more likely that he’ll simply be added to a long list of disaffected and destructive young men.

Like everyone that loves Boston and has agonized over this attack, I want justice. And it looks like we will get some measure of that. But what I truly want is to understand. And that, I fear, is never going to happen.



Read more Breaking Stories of the Boston Marathon bombing suspects.

Image credit: GollyGforce/Flickr

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About JD Roberto

JD Roberto is a writer, actor, and the Emmy nominated host of The Better Show, a nationally syndicated daytime talk show seen around the country. Game show fans known him from shows like The Price is Right and Shop 'Til You Drop, plus reality shows like Outback Jack, Are You Hot? and E! News Live. His writing has appeared in Parents Magazine, Huffington Post, the Los Angeles Times and on Check out his parenting blog at The Hands On Dad and follow him on twitter @jdroberto.


  1. Hey JD … just had a strange observation. Why it’s always the boys in these violent acts…thoughts?

    • That it is always males doing these acts is nature, not nurture.
      A few 100 thousand years ago due to nursing & sperm competition males went off hunting, protecting and seizing resources and humanity evolved this way. The people with penises didn’t hold a secret meet and decide to exclude the people with vaginas from cool stuff like hunting and warring- it was natural selection.

  2. Tom Jenkins says:

    I think, also as a Father, I have 2 boys 12 and 7…and the only thing we can do is to raise to the best of our abilities and at that point, we can only hope that the example we gave them of how we act/behave, because our children ARE watching us…we can only hope that we do right by them.

    My Dad, was in the Navy, at a time when the women who were serving, could NOT serve on the ships. This meant for a stretch of 10+ years, I did NOT get to see my dad for 6 – 8 months of every year. These years from from my ages of 7 – 17, I was missing my Dad. However, the times he was in port, were at times frustrating, exasperating and also great. My Dad would leave for sea, and for him, time would be at a standstill, while my sister and I would be another half + year older and my Mom WOULD sometimes change the rules as you do with with growing children. This WOULD cause confusion and frustration on his part, because he felt left out and left behind. However, he still did the best with what he had, which was his upbringing in a strict Catholic household as well as a time in a Catholic orphanage while his parents went through a divorce. My dad was given discipline at times with a belt, a hand, and a fist. I was disciplined at times with a hand, a ruler, and a green plastic shoe horn. I however, do NOT use any of these items. At most I have pinched an ear lobe, and that only once. I try to impart on my boys some ideals given to me by my Dad on how men SHOULD behave.

    NEVER throw the first punch…but DO throw the last one.

    NEVER hit first…but DO hit back twice as hard.

    NEVER start anything you will not finish.

    ALWAYS treat girls/women as Ladies first…until they prove otherwise.

    NEVER LIE…too damn easy to stick with the truth.

    After we do what we can, all we can hope is that the time we spent with our children is enough. We CANNOT do any more than that. Will we second guess ourselves at times? YES! It IS human nature to do so…however, I realized at the age of 14, that what I choose to do, is NOT the fault of anyone else…it is MY choice. I will live and die based on MY choices and MINE alone. All my Dad could do was at times, shrug his shoulders, see what I was coming my way and blurt out in a near exasperated tone “Son, I could tell you what you SHOULD do, but you ARE too much like me…got to learn things the hard way…”. It was only in my 30’s that I fully realized how RIGHT my Dad was in most of the situations I found myself in…

    …now to end the ramble and back to the subject of JD’s post…My Dad did what he could. HE DID awesome. Based on what my Dad raised me with, my morals, my sense of right and wrong (and my Mom had a LOT to do with both as well…she raised us in a Japanese way…) I DO NOT do what I often think…in terms of violence when I feel I have been wronged. I DO have a temper…I call it a steam valve…I have almost NEVER really lost my temper. However, when I do, I do NOT THINK PLEASANT things. Do in part to my Martial Arts training, what I imagine is Awful violence upon who is pissing me off or challenging me…but due MAINLY to my Dad, I don’t do those things. Because I DO NOT want to disappoint myself or my Old Man.

    My Dad did Enough and more…I just have to hope that I do the same for my boys.

  3. I’ve also noticed that assimilation has become a negative concept. Back in the day, my Dad got smacked by his own father if he dared speak Italian. They had come to America for a better life and, dammit, they were gonna speak American! Funny that I speak Italian because I studied it and my father does not because he’s the immigrant son of Italians. But, obviously, thats not the way anymore. Asking someone to melt into the melting pot is, apparently, offensive.

  4. This idea is explored in an amazing book, We Have to Talk About Kevin and I think the movie is coming out soon. Crazy timing.

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