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Devon Corneal Headshot

The Real Tragedy of the Rachel Canning Case

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You gotta love Jersey. Because here in the Garden State teenagers sue their parents for child support. Yep, you heard that right. Eighteen-year-old Rachel Canning is suing her parents for child support and a few other things too. Here's the basic gist: teenager starts fighting with her parents over things kids fight about with their parents -- curfew, boyfriend, drinking, etc.; teenager leaves home around her 18th birthday because she refuses to follow parents' rules; teenager moves in with best friend's family; best friend's dad is a lawyer and advances teenager legal fees so she can sue her parents for child support, high school tuition, medical expenses, transportation and college costs; teenager alleges inappropriate parenting; family goes to court; evidence introduced includes vulgar voicemail teenager leaves for her mother; judge is horrified; parents cry; everyone gets to play this out on the national stage.

There are so many reasons to be saddened and disgusted by this case. What appears to be a decent family is unraveling. I don't know if that's because these parents couldn't manage their child or because this child was unmanageable, but something is terribly wrong. No one appears to have gone to individual or family therapy, although both may have been appropriate. A young woman's adolescent rebellion will be stored on the web for every future educational institution, employer and romantic partner to peruse. It's hard to see how headlines labeling her a "spoiled brat" are going to help when HR does a background check. Someone is going to be paying significant legal bills, and those will likely cut into the money Rachel feels she is owed. Rachel is a legal adult but she is worlds away from being an adult emotionally, psychologically or financially and, frankly, she's in over her head. Things are being said and memorialized in court documents that can never be unsaid or forgotten. A series of parent/child conflicts that are familiar to most parents of teenagers have exploded into nasty allegations, ultimatums and estrangement.

Knowing what I know now (which is, I admit, not the whole story), I'm firmly with the parents on this one. The Cannings seem strict, but not draconian. (I doubt Rachel would last a week in Amy Chua's house.) As parents they are obligated to set out rules and standards for their home that they believe will give their children the best shot at developing into healthy, successful, responsible adults -- regardless of whether their children agree with those parameters. The fact that Rachel doesn't want to adhere to those rules is understandable -- she wants to see her boyfriend, stay out late, drink and do what she wants. It's an intoxicating freedom to come and go as you please. Yet, if freedom is "the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint," then it only exists when you are independent and don't require or rely on others for things like financial support, medical insurance or tuition. Rachel doesn't want to be independent. She'd like her parents to get off her back and leave her alone, EXCEPT when it comes to paying for everything. It's a classic adolescent struggle. In most families, it resolves after some trying times that force parents and children to sit down around kitchen tables and on living room couches and sometimes in therapists' offices to figure out what went wrong and how to fix it.

The Cannings, unfortunately, can't do this and that's the real tragedy here. Rachel doesn't have to sit down with her family and work things out because the Inglesinos, her best friend's family, have changed the dynamic, and not in a good way. By allowing Rachel to live with them indefinitely and advancing her money for legal bills (and perhaps encouraging her to sue in the first place?), the Inglesinos undermined Rachel's parents' ability to resolve things with their daughter and empowered a young woman who appears unprepared for the level of responsibility she claims to want. I'd like to think that the Inglesinos just wanted to help their daughter's friend when she was fighting with her parents. However, there's a line between helping and improperly inserting yourself into a family conflict and the Inglesinos crossed it a long time ago. Unless the Inglesinos believed Rachel was being emotionally or physically abused or neglected, at which point they should have notified the authorities, they had no place in her dispute with her parents. I'd have no problem if they had listened, sympathized, offered Rachel a bed for the night (after letting her parents know where she was) and told her she was always welcome in their home. But in the very next breath, they should have told her that she needed to go back to her home and work things out with her parents. Nothing more, nothing less.

It's first and foremost a matter of respect for the Cannings and every other parent struggling with a rebellious teen. Families deserve the opportunity to muddle through crises together -- it's how children (and parents) learn respect and compromise and perspective and how to navigate conflict. Slammed doors and frustrations and the occasional "I hate you" are part and parcel of that process. We don't want kids to run away when things get hard -- otherwise, they'll spend a lifetime sprinting away from challenges. But ultimately, it's more than just giving parents the benefit of the doubt and not substituting our own values or judgments for theirs. Refusing to try to solve someone else's problems is also a matter of self-interest. If I give someone else's kid an "escape hatch" when things get tough, will they turn around and give my son a crash pad when we have an argument? Will I come home one day to find myself on the receiving end of court papers when my kid wants an iPhone? It's a slippery slope and not one I ever want to be on. I wonder if the Inglesinos thought about that when they turned themselves into a long-term hotel for their daughter's friend. Here's hoping they never have to find out.