Parental responsibility, then and now
Greenwich Time

Children of privilege freely roaming the streets unchallenged by their parents, whom they see infrequently. Teens getting together for drinks and smoking, doing whatever they want. Nights spent on the prowl, on the make, on the sly, with youngsters fearing nothing because they are sure they can get away with it all.

That was the picture painted in evidence and testimony during the trial of Michael Skakel, who was convicted for the 1975 murder of his Greenwich neighbor Martha Moxley, back when they were both 15. But some of the lessons of the Skakel story have just as much relevance, if not more, today for every town and city in lower Fairfield County.

During the trial, the public learned quite a bit about teenage life in Greenwich's exclusive Belle Haven section a quarter-century ago. For instance, the defendant went to dinner the evening of the murder, Oct. 30, 1975, with other family members and a family tutor. At the Belle Haven Club, Michael Skakel ordered rum and tonics and a planter's punch -- and was served those alcoholic drinks. Martha Moxley shared a smoke with the Skakel boys that night in the back seat of patriarch Rushton Skakel's huge Lincoln auto, which Michael later said they had called "the lustmobile." And Michael Skakel claimed he left his house hours later to climb a tree near Martha Moxley's room, an alibi troubling in part because of what it implied about a boy who didn't see any need to account to any adults for his actions in the dead of night.

Witnesses who were contemporaries bolstered the impression that the Skakel brood -- six sons and a daughter born of wealthy parents -- had been raised without parental supervision. Accounts indicated that the household staff were more responsible for attending to the children than their father. Even the victim's diary, which typically dealt with boys she liked and disliked, noted that Martha Moxley enjoyed hanging out with the freewheeling Skakels and had smoked marijuana with them.

Shocking? The more things change, the more they stay the same. In 2002, we suspect many teenagers in Stamford, New Canaan, Darien and Norwalk would recognize the restless activities described in testimony. Driving across town to see a TV show at a friend's house late on a weeknight is commonplace. So, too, is drinking and drug use, based on studies that show a majority of local teens are involved in one or both activities.

As for parental supervision, there can be extremes:

There are parents whose own lives are so busy with jobs, social activities or other commitments that their teenage sons and daughters are self-directing, with no one asking where they are going, where they have been, who they were with or what they were doing. Consider this group's similarities to the Skakel household circa 1975 that led Michael Skakel into daily alcoholism from the age of 13. Think about the weekend parties that happen today when parents are away, and about the youngsters arrested for drug possession -- even in school.

Then there are parents who push their children to fill their waking hours with activities that will bolster the resumes they send to college admission officers. These moms and dads know everything -- or think they do.

We recognize that not all families with adolescents fall into these two stereotypes. There are plenty of engaged, concerned parents who try to stay informed about their teenage children by asking who are meeting, where they are going and when they will be home. That is true now, just as it was in 1975.

But the teenage years are a time of rebellion. Even good and popular teens keep secrets from their parents, just as Martha Moxley did. That doesn't absolve parents from keeping track of their sons and daughters as much as they can.

The Moxley murder may be a Greenwich case, but the attitudes and values it disclosed can be found throughout our area. The concentration of high-achievers in lower Fairfield County allows and even encourages the kind of lifestyle that made Michael Skakel write of his family: "I have come to see this dysfunction as the price of wealth and power in a society that worships romantic myth at the expense of truth."

The question now is whether, and how, it is possible to end this kind of behavior, for the good of our communities and their children.

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