On the suicide of a child and parents' luck

Posted: Dec 28, 2005 12:05 AM

According to police, it appears certain that the cause of the sudden death of James Dungy, the 18-year-old son of Indianapolis Colts' head coach Tony Dungy, was suicide.

 On four levels my heart goes out to Tony Dungy and his wife.

 First, the death of a child is the most painful loss a human being can experience.

 Second, the death of a child by suicide inevitably causes even more pain, as parents engage in self-doubt at best and self-recrimination at worst.

 Third, the uninformed -- meaning most people -- at least initially wonder what the parents did wrong when a child commits suicide. So there is the possibility, if not likelihood, of humiliation added to the parents' terrible pain.

 Fourth, because Tony Dungy is so well known -- his team has the best record in professional football -- his son's suicide is known around the world.

 Given the widespread admiration for Tony Dungy as a man, not just as a coach -- he is reported to be a kind, socially active churchgoer who apparently devoted many hours to being with his son -- there is an important lesson to be learned from this tragedy.

 That lesson is this: There are children upon whom parents have had little influence. This is true for some wonderful children, and it is true of some troubled children and even of some who turn out to be evil adults.

 Now, it is almost axiomatic that parents usually play the major role in how their children turn out. I was the director of a college-age study institute where students came for a month at a time to live and study. The staff and I got to know these young people very well, and when we met the parents, we were rarely surprised. The finest ones usually had fine parents, and the unimpressive usually had unimpressive parents.

 Usually. But not always.

 There were times we were shocked at how different the parents were from their children. It is probable that every reader of this column knows at least one truly impressive person who came from a very difficult home. And many know the opposite: anti-social people who came from wonderful homes.

 Only parents fully understand how true this is. There is nothing in life as humbling as being a parent. Among many other reasons, half of what we are sure of before we become a parent has to be jettisoned when actually raising a child.

 The ancient Jewish high court, the Sanhedrin, required any judge sitting on that court to be married and have children. These life experiences were deemed necessary to have the wisdom and empathy required to render proper judgments.

 What we learn over time, from our own children and from the children of our friends, is how powerful are the traits built into our children -- and not only those of personality and bio-chemistry, but more important and even frightening, of character. Some people are born good -- naturally inclined to be kind, thoughtful and considerate of the impact they have on others; while for other human beings, empathy -- the ability to put oneself in the place of another -- is very hard and sometimes impossible to inculcate.

 In parenting, as in virtually every other area of life, as we get older we become increasingly aware of the role of luck -- including how some children turn out.

 And that is why the only reaction any of us should have to the suicide of 18-year-old James Dungy is profound sorrow -- for him, his parents and all those who loved him.

 From every account of that family, if it happened to them, it could happen to anyone.