Education is not optional [Commentary]

The parents of a willful N.J. teen who's suing them for support and tuition have an obligation to pay for her education

March 07, 2014|Susan Reimer

A New Jersey high school senior, who claims she was kicked out of the house but whose parents claim she left rather than abide by their rules, has filed suit against them demanding financial support.

Rachel Canning, who is now 18, moved in with a friend in October. She is asking a judge to require her parents to pay more than $650 a week in support, to pay the remainder due on her Catholic high school tuition and to give her access to a college fund they have for her. In addition, she wants them pay $12,000 in attorney's fees to the father of the friend she now lives with, who filed the suit on her behalf.

Superior Court Judge Peter Bogaard denied Ms. Canning's request for immediate financial relief and scheduled a full hearing for April. But he suggested — he can't require it — that the family seek counseling.

When news of the young woman's suit went viral, the Internet trolls unsheathed their knives and went after her, calling her a spoiled, entitled brat, slamming her parents for creating a monster and, yes, blaming President Barack Obama. The language used in their comments was filled with hate and often obscene.

And, of course, I have some thoughts on the matter.

My husband has said more than once that we never beat our son because he never would have given us a reason to stop. He was a terrific kid — the best — but stubborn as hell.

Anyone who has tried to control an obstinate teenager knows exactly what my husband meant. They can simply hold their breath longer than you. My guess is the Canning parents were trying to manage just such a teenager in Rachel — the oldest of three girls, an honor student and an athlete — and they grew incredibly frustrated with her determination.

It is also the case that the parents, Elizabeth and Sean, were in the middle of a separation when Rachel started to act out. Though they have since reconciled, nothing frightens children more than the impending disintegration of the family, and they might do just about anything to exert control over a situation they feel is spinning out of control.

The mother hated her daughter's boyfriend and wanted Rachel to either limit the time she spent with him or to get rid of him altogether. They had words, terrible words it appears, and there was shouting. This never works. Think Romeo and Juliet.

Whether Rachel stormed out or was thrown out, there should have been a cooling off period, and then her friend's parents should have shown her the door. Attorney John Inglesino was wrong to come between parents and their child by providing a long-term safe haven without their agreement. And you don't let your kids live indefinitely with the neighbors because they are being a pain without the blessing of a family therapist or mediator.

Judge Bogaardsaid he was loath to rule in this case because he feared other teenagers might hold their parents hostage for "an Xbox, an iPhone or a flat-screen TV."

"Do we really want to establish a precedent where parents live in basic fear of establishing rules of the house?" he asked from the bench.

But there is no equivalency between Xboxes and educational expenses. As parents, we are obligated to educate our children. The Cannings made the commitment to Rachel to do that in a private Catholic high school. They are obliged to keep up their end of the bargain unless there is financial distress. You can refuse to pay for an obstinate teenager's car insurance or the cell phone plan, but you don't get to withhold education as punishment.

The same is true of the college fund the parents have apparently accumulated for Rachel. That fund represents a commitment to her education as well, and you don't get to deny your child the opportunity for college because she won't dump her boyfriend and refuses to do the chores she is assigned.

The support request is nonsense.

The judge must decide if Rachel is an emancipated adult or not. And if not, are her parents obliged to support her? On this point, I am with the Internet chorus that suggested, sometimes in very unpleasant language, that if Rachel wants room and board she can return to her parents house and live by the house rules. If not? Then, my dear, get a job to pay for your own apartment.

Things are a mess in the Canning household. Some awful things have been said, and real pain has been inflicted. The world is now watching and passing terrible judgments.

It is easy to say that it never should have gone this far, but you'd only say that if you have never tried to be the parent to an obstinate teenager. You get louder and angrier, and then you realize that they are never going to give you a reason to stop.

Susan Reimer's column appears on Mondays and Thursdays. She can be reached at susan.reimer@baltsun.com and @SusanReimer on Twitter.com.


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