Sunday, January 3, 2010

Arizona Teen Runs Over Brother, and Assigning Blame Isn't So Simple

Dwight J. Brock, Jr., age 17, died on Saturday evening after being hit by a car driven by his sister, Nicole, 16.  Nicole had just dropped him off at a Mesa, Arizona mall and the two were goofing around.  Dwight would jump in front of the car and Nicole would slam on the brakes.  During one such interchange, she couldn't stop in time and ran him over.

This is an unbelievable tragedy for the Brock family, I think we can all agree.  Losing a child is awful to begin with, regardless the cause.  But this situation is really complicated.  I don't know the parents, but it seems likely that they, like most parents, would have told their kids not to play this game, and this accident shows why.  However, I also think they probably, even if they saw their kids doing this, could not fathom that one of them would lose their lives playing this game.  They way this story is "supposed" to end, at worst, is with some kind of minor injury that teaches the kids a lesson, and the parents say, "See, I told you so."

The online comments on this incident, as usual, are all about blame.  Here's a sampling from the local ABC affiliate's web site:
  • This girl should be charged with a crime and made an example of.  Ignorance of the law is not an excuse.
  • This foolish child may well be on the road again. Do you really want to be anywhere near a kid who thinks the vehicle she's driving is a toy?
  • Why is this any different then a kid getting killed by a gun? Where is the demand that the owner of the car be held accountable for allowing kids access to this dangerous weapon?
  • If she would have hit your child, mother, husband, wife, or grandma, what would you say then? It sure wouldn't be "Oh she's just a child, it was an accident." I don't think so, you would be screaming to have her locked up.
  • Do you feel pity for someone who plays Russian roulette and loses? That's essentially what they did and he lost.
  • The blame should rightly rest with the parents also, because the parents should have taught and insisted on them driving responsibly. Problems with kids today are a result of terrible parents.
These comments represent a very all-or-nothing view of the world.  Someone is either guilty or innocent.  Parents are good or bad.  Someone is to be vilified or pitied.  You can never have both.

The problem is that this incident is all about the gray areas in between.  The parents are most likely furious with their daughter and want to support her.  They are livid at their son, but they mourn his death.  Nicole feels terribly guilty and she has also just experienced a tremendous trauma.  Simply saying she's bad (or she's not) will not resolve those tensions.  Whether or not the daughter should be charged, that won't be the end of the story.  I suspect the whole family is going to need a lot of help for a long time to come to a place where they can make sense of what happened and look each other in the eye.

Science tells us that teenagers do not have a fully developed frontal lobe of their brain.  This means that they cannot fully appreciate the consequences of their actions.  All of us did stupid things when we were teenagers.  However, the fact that doing stupid stuff is age-appropriate doesn't mean we don't try to teach kids to do better.  Just as we teach our toddlers not to bite at the same time as understanding that biting is developmentally appropriate for their age, we try to instill in them the idea that people can get hurt playing games like this.  Sometimes they listen, sometimes they don't.  Rarely, they pay the ultimate price.  When they do, "I told you so" just isn't helpful.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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