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ATTITUDES / AURORA MACKEY

Some Difficult Questions of Right, Wrong

March 25, 1993|AURORA MACKEY | Aurora Mackey is a Times staff writer.

If it had been another time, perhaps I would have told my son a story.

It would have been about a little girl--not a bad girl, really--who was playing at her friend's house one afternoon many years ago when she slipped a pretty ring she saw into her pocket.

But having it, she discovered once she got home, wasn't the same as wanting it: Every time she held it in her hand, she was reminded of what she'd done. And wearing it would have been tantamount to flaunting her thievery.

The problem was, it was too late to take the ring back. If she did, they'd know who had taken it. And so she left it in her room instead, until one day when her mother found it.

The mother looked into her daughter's eyes with shock, sadness, disappointment and disbelief.

She would have to take it back, she was told. She would have to face up to what she'd done. And the girl's face had burned in unforgettable shame when she stood on her friend's doorstep with her outstretched hand.

But I didn't tell my son that story, or that the little girl had been me.

I didn't tell him, either, that I understood the allure of simply taking what you wanted, of having things you otherwise couldn't have.

Instead, I thought of the 12-year-old Monrovia boy--a good boy, never in any trouble before, his parents said later--who police say walked into a bike store March 11 intending to rob it and shot the store owner in the back of the head.

I thought of 10-year-olds taking knives and guns to school, of the 11-year-old down the street from me who threatened a young neighborhood child for $2, and of all the things that make parents shudder with the thought that the world is a different place for children now.

That the forces pulling at them are stronger than ever before.

And as I sat on the edge of my son's bed, the $1 object he had stolen in my hand, I wrestled with the same issues that Christine Hester says she confronted when her youngest son got into trouble for stealing.

How do you instill morality and values in a child? How do you make certain your child feels the full consequences of his actions?

The difference is, Hester didn't just punish her son and tell him that what he did was wrong.

Last week, she also sued the store where he shoplifted.

*

"I'm not the kind of mother who tries to get my kids out of trouble," Christine Hester says in a soft voice. "If they do wrong, I face it with them."

And last year, she says, when her 12-year-old son walked into the Thrifty drugstore not far from her Moorpark home, he definitely did wrong.

The boy slipped what she says was a 59-cent rubber ball into his pocket and was stopped by a security guard on his way out of the store. The guard handcuffed him, she says, and took him into a small room.

"I think it would have been good for him to go to jail in handcuffs," Hester says. "By getting caught, he'd think twice. I'd rather that it's a ball he gets caught with than he gets older and goes on to bigger things."

But according to Hester, a single mother who is bedridden with multiple sclerosis and who says she could not go to the store that day, her son wasn't taken anywhere. She says he was kept handcuffed in the room for three hours and a security guard refused to release him to Hester's father.

Greg Gaske, assistant manager of Thrifty in Moorpark, says he can't comment on the case. Generally, though, he says it is his store's policy to call the parents of children who shoplift, and to call police if the parents can't be reached.

"Finally, my 24-year-old son, who's a police officer, came from Alhambra and they let him go," Hester says. The next day, she says, she saw bruises on her son's wrists where the handcuffs had been.

It was then that Hester says she "did a lot of soul-searching" about hiring an attorney.

"It's gotten where he can't go into a store without being very uncomfortable," she says. "His schoolwork has really suffered. He feels like he's being watched all the time. Like he's being judged."

Hester's lawsuit against Thrifty, for unspecified damages, was filed last week in Ventura. It alleges that the store caused "irreparable physical and mental injury" to her son.

*

Personally, I'm glad I won't be a jury member on that case, which Hester's attorney expects will come to trial in May.

The protective mother part of me understands the desire to shield a child from perceived abuse. No one wants to see that.

But another part of me says it's better that painful lessons are learned early.

That the cheeks of a child who steals be allowed to burn with shame.

That having felt the full strength of society's condemnation, the child will learn swiftly what choices to avoid.

Call me old-fashioned, but it worked for me.

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