Girl sues her parents, but who owes whom?

by | Mar 16, 2014 | Comment, Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

I remember when my free ride ended. I had been complaining about doing my chores and the size of my allowance, and my father took me by the shoulders, pointed a finger and said, “No more allowance. It’s time you pulled your own weight around here.”

I was 11.

Shortly thereafter, I began my working life, selling programs at a baseball stadium. I’d work five hours and sometimes make $4, lugging a canvas sack of programs up and down the stadium steps, sweating in a smelly uniform that had been worn by other workers.

I might not have loved it. But I never thought about calling a lawyer. All I knew was that my father said it was time to grow up, and that’s the way it was.

That’s obviously a different approach than the one taken by Rachel Canning, an 18-year-old who left her New Jersey home nearly five months ago after her parents disapproved of her boyfriend. She then sued them for her tuition and living expenses.

Yeah. Like I might have tried that.

Most people from my generation — or any before it — read this story and rolled their eyes at the details: Rachel cutting high school, getting suspended, her boyfriend doing the same, her moving in with her best friend’s so-called “concerned” family, then seeking high school and college tuition costs, and $654 a week in living expenses.

Six hundred fifty-four a week?

I know iPhones are expensive, but really?

Legally breaking from your family

In her lawsuit, Rachel claimed that she was “non-emancipated.” That’s a new one. I was just getting used to kids being “emancipated,” which is another way of saying your dad is Will Smith. Used occasionally in cases of terrible abuse, “emancipation” is mostly accessed by young celebrities and movie stars. Macaulay Culkin wanted out of his family. So did Corey Feldman and Drew Barrymore. It enabled them to keep the money they were earning.

Rachel Canning did the opposite. She left and wanted her parents to pay for everything, while taking responsibility for nothing.

Something’s wrong with that equation.

Now, we can’t judge this case too strictly from afar. There are many details we can never know. But based on the legal process, certain things were determined: This young woman was not being enslaved, starved or physically abused. She went to private school. Was an honor student. She claimed she was emotionally abused (she complained her mother called her “fat,” among other things), but an investigation by the state’s Division of Child Protection and Permanency ruled the claims were “unfounded.”

So, from a distance, it sounds like a fairly typical “I’m in love and you can’t tell me what to do” dispute between a teen and her parents.

The question is, how did it get so far?

Pressure or parenting?

The answer is media that now act as if reality TV is the barometer of what makes news.

The answer is a legal system gone haywire, in which anyone can sue anyone for anything.

The answer is a knee-jerk society that too quickly hears the words “emotional abuse” and immediately wants to imprison the parents.

The answer is kids who have grown up with all of the above.

And have figured out how to use it.

Whatever happened to “as long as you’re under my roof”? And, while it’s good and common, who says it’s an obligation for parents to fund college or private high school — let alone living expenses for a runaway?

People say that kids today mature faster. I would argue that only applies to sex and the Internet. Beyond that, our kids strike me as far less mature than their predecessors. An 18-year-old today seems almost juvenile compared to the ones who went off to fight World War II. When my father told me to pull my own weight, I knew he had been taking care of my mother’s family since her father died when she was 16. How could I complain?

Last week, after a judge had denied pretty much her every claim, Rachel returned to her family. Her attorney protested that she was being “pressured.” Maybe she was. But if that pressure came from her mother and father, it’s not called pressure, it’s called parenting.

And while none of us has all the details here, I can’t help thinking that this isn’t more about the time we live in than real abuse. It should have been worked out with conversation and maybe therapy. The fact that it became an internationally watched lawsuit says a lot about our misplaced priorities.

As the judge in this case said near the end, a family is still “well worth the effort to salvage.”

It’s a shame that thought has to come from the bench.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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