It all starts with compassion. You love your children. You want the best for them. You would give your life to save theirs. But sometimes love is not enough. Bad things happen to good families. Would you have compassion for a family in which a little girl died because she got into an unlocked medicine cabinet while her mom was on the phone? Would you feel compassion if a little boy were hit by a car while out riding his bike after his father had warned him many times not to ride in the street? To paraphrase Thich Nhat Hanh, the Zen master and peacemaker, compassion is not a principle, it is an energy in us waiting to manifest.
In the movie Seven Years in Tibet, there is an unforgettable scene in which Heinrich Harrer, played by Brad Pitt, is asked to build a movie house for the young Dalai Lama, at the Potala Palace, in Lhasa, Tibet. As the excavation begins, Heinrich arrives at the site and is greeted by a group of monks rushing toward him, looking absolutely frantic. They gesture toward the ground and implore the unsuspecting Heinrich to stop all digging; they explain that the worms hiding in the earth are being trampled and destroyed. Stunned by their concern for even these lives, Heinrich is left speechless.
He returns to see his friend, the young Dalai Lama, who explains to him that Tibetans believe that all living beings are to be protected against harm and suffering. This compassion is at the core of their spiritual practice and beliefs as Buddhists. When Heinrich protests that such compassion is impractical, the Dalai Lama reassures him, confident that he will find a creative solution to the problem.
The next scene reveals the solution. The monks kneel on the ground in two rows: one row of monks digs and places the mounds of dirt into bags, while the second row goes through the bags, gently removing each worm and placing it in a bowl for transportation to another environment where the worms can continue to live happily and fulfill their purpose. Why is this so important to us? Because it is a true story. This scene is not some movie fantasy, but rather a true portrait of Tibetan Buddhist belief and an accurate reflection of a people's nonviolence and respect for all living beings, great or small. For the Dalai Lama, it all starts with compassion.
Decades later, the adult Dalai Lama says of compassion: True compassion is not just an emotional response, but a firm commitment founded on reason. Therefore, a truly compassionate attitude toward others does not change, even if they behave negatively. Through universal altruism you develop a feeling of responsibility for others, the wish to actively help them overcome their problems.
In the summer of 2000 we spent a week listening to the 65-year-old Dalai Lama teach compassion. We were fortunate enough to have an audience with him, along with 200 other Americans, and we recommitted ourselves to living lives of compassion. The goal of this chapter -- indeed, of the whole book -- is to bring this commitment to parenting. So, following the counsel of the Dalai Lama, we begin with the process of understanding, which is the most reliable foundation for compassion. We want you to know why and how parents are under siege -- why maybe you are under siege -- and encourage you to use understanding to act with compassion, with your own children, with other parents, with yourself.
The challenges parents face exist on a spectrum. At one end are the day-to-day issues -- for example, getting infants to sleep through the night, toilet training toddlers, getting first-graders to pick up their toys, ensuring that sixth-graders do their homework, and making sure teenagers don't drink and drive. At the other end are the frightening problems that confront a minority of parents -- an infant with spina bifida, a child with cancer, a teenager who is paralyzed in a car accident. But certain difficulties require even more compassion than the child damaged physically through chance, some genetic defect or some lurking virus, or some random danger: Some children seem to volunteer for trouble, resisting everyone who tries to help and guide them toward a positive path.
Anything Can Happen
In Chicago, a mother walked her 7-year-old son, Dantrell, to school every morning. Their inner city neighborhood was a dangerous place to walk alone, and she always feared for his safety. One day in 1992, she accompanied Dantrell to school, and as the daily ritual goes, she let go of his hand to let him walk the last 75 feet to the front door, where teachers were standing on the steps to greet him. As usual, cops were sitting in a parked car at the corner. But this time, as he walked toward the school, a shot rang out and Dantrell fell dead, shot in the head by a gang member out to revenge himself against an opponent's little boy. It happened in broad daylight, in everyone's sight.
Seven years later, on April 20, 1999, a mother in the affluent Denver suburb of Littleton, Colorado, watched her beloved son get on the school bus to Columbine High School. Content in her knowledge that the day would unfold with the same predictability only such a small, affluent community enclave can provide these days, she went on with the rest of her day. Such peace of mind was, after all, why they had moved to this area. A security guard was stationed at the school, and surveillance cameras protected the building. A few hours later she learned from television reports that her son was dead, shot in the head by two of his classmates.
Anything can happen. This is the lesson American parents have taken with them into the twenty-first century, the one that resonates the loudest and ultimately leaves no parent unaffected. This is a parent's "Vietnam," the strange war that happens in faraway places and then suddenly hits home. It has profoundly affected the way parents think about other people's children and their own. Like the Vietnam lesson of the 1960s and 1970s, the anything-can-happen lesson of Littleton, Colorado, is part of our national consciousness. We want this terror to go away, yet it won't completely disappear.
For some of us it is a whispering voice inside; for others it is full-blown terror. Parents are uncomfortable with the status quo. The discomfort is hard to articulate for most, but undeniable. Not everyone's eyes are open, though when it is your child who is in trouble, you see it clearly. A mother tells us this. "My husband and I have given everything we have to being good parents, and our son is only getting into deeper trouble. We don't know where to turn anymore, and all we get is 'What are you doing wrong?' Not in so many words, but in the way some other parents look at us, or in the comments they make." Parents sleep better at night believing that if only they do things right, they are guaranteed good outcomes. Thus they resist compassion. They resist empathy. They yearn to believe they are immune. It's an understandable impulse. But the more you know, the more you know you must resist it.
In September 2000 we were participating in a program with Frank DeAngelis, the principal of Columbine High School. The moderator asked him what he had learned from all that had happened. He replied that if someone had asked him on April 19, 1999, if it was possible there were boys in his school so angry and troubled that they were planning to destroy the school, he would have said, "Impossible." But what he learned on April 20, 1999, was that it was possible, that it is possible anywhere in our country. Ask any American parent who has looked with open eyes, without the comfort of denial.
"If I work hard as a parent, my children will turn out okay." That is the unspoken guarantee of the American Dream of Parenting. We are told that you get back what you put in, a guiding principle that has sustained parents for generations because it seemed logical, and it seemed to work for most of us, most of the time. It made sense. It offered direction, order, and predictability to our ongoing efforts to make something of our children. It promised a reward at the end of a job well done. Some among us still believe it.
After one of Jim's lectures in the weeks after the Columbine High School shootings, a school board member in a small town in New York State stood up and said indignantly, "It couldn't happen in my family! Not with my kids! Not in my school!" We wish he were right. Frank DeAngelis would have agreed -- until the day it happened in his school. So would Dylan Klebold's parents -- until the day it happened to their family.
The 1990s threatened the American Dream of Parenting as never before. The problems surrounding our children and youth became increasingly more serious: rising suicide rates, drug abuse, explosive youth crime, and increasing rates of depression in young people. In 1999 USA Today asked American parents to comment on the difficulty of being a parent then compared with twenty years ago -- specifically, whether parents thought it was more difficult to raise children to be "good people." Almost 90 percent answered "Yes." Three out of four indicated that materialism and the negative influences of pop culture and the mass media were a "serious problem" in trying to raise good children.
No single event brought this home more than the school shootings committed by Dylan Klebold and his friend Eric Harris in Littleton. While we don't know Eric's parents, we know Dylan's parents, and we can assert without a doubt that they are good parents -- attentive, involved, and loving. Yet Dylan still developed a bizarre rage against humanity that he and Eric documented in a series of chilling home videotapes made in the months before their attack on their school. We know Dylan's parents are good parents, and still he reached the point where he planned and implemented the massacre of his schoolmates. The shooting left a dozen kids dead, and their parents in shock that this could happen. While their story is extreme, many good parents have discovered that their children are not who they think they were.
Listen to one mother's account.
I remember having had some concerns about Christopher when he was little, and again in Grade 5 when he was caught stealing something at the corner store, one aisle away from where I stood. Toward the end of grade school, his teachers also started complaining about how he was acting-out in class. We took him to a psychologist for testing, and he concluded that Christopher had mild Attention Deficit Disorder. We had never considered such a thing until then, and we were not particularly knowledgeable about ADD. We thought that although Christopher could be hyperactive at times, he could also be super-engrossed in activities. He could be very focused. However, as I began to read about ADD and ADHD, the description of the syndrome seemed to fit so many things in Christopher that we accepted the diagnosis. At the time, the therapist said it was not something that required therapy or medication. He did warn us that things might become worse, because as they become more academically challenged, there will be problems. He left the option of treatment open as a possibility in the future. The psychologist also relieved us of guilt and the great feeling of responsibility my husband and I felt regarding Christopher's behavior. Some of the impulsive behaviors he engaged in didn't make sense to us, and I actually thought there was something we had failed to teach him. I think when he was shoplifting in the next aisle, I took it as a moral failure on our part, and I do have to admit that one day I had him write all Ten Commandments at the kitchen table. But the psychologist said that all the Ten Commandments in the world are not going to change an impulsive type of decision making, and if you love him you hang in with him but be prepared that there will be difficult times. It isn't a moral problem, it is an issue of impulsiveness and unpredictability. The therapist was right. Things did become difficult. Christopher became a habitual truant, and we eventually found out that he was using drugs, probably more than we will ever really know. He disengaged more and more from our family and started spending the night away, then several nights at a time. We would call all his friends, at least the ones we knew of, and often could not find him until he came home on his own. Devastated as we were, we continued to hope.
The promise of getting back what you put in doesn't seem like such a sure thing. Growing numbers of American parents have come to realize that things have changed. To be sure, some of us hang on to the old comforting rationalizations. A mother in Mississippi tells us, "I still insist that if you are blameless, nothing bad can happen." But more and more parents look at what is happening to families like the Klebolds' and say to themselves, "I think I've been a good parent -- but what happened to them could happen to me." Parents are afraid and confused, bombarded with contradictory advice from the Right and the Left, blamed if their children turn out screwed up, and swinging between hysterical overreaction and numbed resignation. Parents need compassion, based on understanding.
But Do the Issues Ever Really Change?
The philosopher George Santayana wrote, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Many Americans are unwilling to look at history in more than a casual way, but when it comes to understanding parenting, we need to start with history. Ten years ago Jim was asked to deliver an address on the occasion of the hundredth anniversary of the founding of a family service association in Chicago. The topic was to be the challenges parents and families would face in the coming millennium. To prepare himself for that assignment, Jim sat in a public park that had been in operation for 100 years and read over some old newspapers from the 1890s. The exercise was illuminating. The issues for parents and families as the twentieth century dawned were these, among others:
1. Substance abuse (opium) and addiction (alcohol) were recognized as insidious and powerfully destructive forces in family life.
2. There was evidence of a widening gap between rich and poor, and many voices called for action to improve the conditions of the poor -- particularly the "worthy" poor, what we today would call the "working poor."
3. Traditional American values and institutions were being challenged by the influx of immigrants who did not speak English, were perceived as making disproportionate demands on social services, and who were suppressing wages by accepting low pay, long hours, and inferior working conditions.
4. The legacy of slavery and the reality of racism lurked behind the public facade of democracy and broke out in dramatic incidents of lynching and race riots from time to time.
5. To their contemporaries, growing numbers of girls and women appeared to be in moral jeopardy due to the frequency of premarital sex and pregnancy; and the sex industry flourished.
6. Child abuse was entering the public consciousness, and there was a sense that juvenile crime was escalating.
7. Significant numbers of families were not intact, as mothers frequently died in childbirth and fathers often abandoned families.
Does this sound familiar?
The French have a saying that translates as "The more things change, the more they remain the same." There have been changes in the past hundred years, of course: divorce and unmarried-teen births have replaced maternal death and paternal separation as the main causes of "incomplete" families; openly gay and lesbian adults now publicly claim the right to be parents; more women combine employment and motherhood; and scientific and public understanding of child abuse as a social problem has increased. Looking back even thirty or forty years to our own childhood, we can see these changes coming. But all this is nothing compared to what parents are facing today.
Most adults recognize that things have changed in the last decade when it comes to children. A survey conducted in 1997 for the Gannett News Service revealed that "adults have a very pessimistic view of children's lives." In comparison to when they were children, 79 percent of adults said they thought children live in less stable homes, 75 percent said they thought children are growing up in less safe neighborhoods, 64 percent said children have poorer role models, and 50 percent said they thought children are less happy today than they themselves were as children.
But in our efforts to understand the rapidly changing situation of parents and children, let us not forget that some of the dilemmas we face have deeper roots in the American experience. After all, it was as we entered the twentieth century that some of the major themes in public debates about parenting were laid down: the costs and benefits of industrialization and a global economy; multiculturalism; "big government"; a human rights perspective on racism; militarism and empire; the emergence of mass media; and a search for the ideal American family.
In 1900 the United States was being transformed by the seemingly unstoppable power of industrialism and was becoming a major player in the global economy. These changes had massive implications for families. New economic relationships emerged between husbands and wives, and young girls became independent economic entities as they entered the cash economy. The look of America changed dramatically as we started full scale the process of giving everything a dollar price in the economy (moving activities from what an economist would call the "nonmonetarized" to the "monetarized" economies). For example, child care first emerged as a job with a salary, and today it is a multibillion-dollar-a-year industry. And as America moved from an agrarian to an urban society, a new residential form emerged: the suburb.
It was then, a hundred years ago, that progressive leaders like President Theodore Roosevelt began to believe that "big government" was required as a counterforce to "big business" if the best of America's commitment to human rights was to be preserved. As private industrial and financial entities grew, they began to achieve a political power outside the scope envisioned by the Founding Fathers. This stimulated a constitutional crisis. On one side was our traditional belief in small government and a narrow interpretation of the Constitution. On the other stood the need to grow the federal government to preserve the people's rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness amid the complexities of a modern industrial society. This conflict led the Franklin Roosevelt administration to throw the weight of the national government behind efforts to end the Great Depression, and the conflict has continued to this very day.
The year 1900 saw the initial creation of Imperial America, the America of the military-industrial complex, projecting power globally and putting forward commercial markets as the basis for foreign policy. At the same time, America was challenged to refine the meaning of its identity as an Anglo culture. De facto bilingualism in schools and neighborhoods contested with a strong prejudice favoring English-speaking Americans, who saw themselves as the real Americans. This was, of course, ironic, since truly Native Americans were excluded from this culture. All these events were taking place in the context of what historian Frederick Jackson Turner had described in 1897 as "the closing of the American frontier." Free access to open public lands in the West -- which had served as a pressure valve for American society by allowing the disaffected to move rather than deal with conflict -- was ending. Thus began the process of confronting rather than simply displacing social issues that continues to this day.
Finally, the rise of a mass media created a force to shape a truly national consciousness and perhaps a collective unconscious formed by the implicit images that permeate the shared experience of those who read, listen to, and watch the same material. Current analyses of television and movies and homogenizing cultural forces have parallels a century ago, when American families could partake of a national experience of fashion, music, and important events.
Much more could be said about the late nineteenth century and its relevance to understanding our approach to parenting in the twenty-first. Our responses to challenging historical events have always reflected some deeply rooted themes in American culture. These themes mattered then; they matter now. Understanding the specifics of parenting requires that we understand the context in which we raise the questions and provide the answers.
How and when families are private and how and when they are public are key questions at the heart of many parenting issues. How far can parents go in doing what they want with their children? How far can government go in setting limits and enforcing them?
Are children first and foremost citizens, with a direct relationship with society, or private members of families, or the private property of parents? Americans tend to see families as the primary unit of society, and the state having authority only as a last resort. Some societies (such as the Puritans of colonial New England in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries) see parents as the agent of God; others define parenting as a purely secular matter. Some societies define parents as child-rearing agents of society, as did the former Soviet Union. These are important distinctions.
Today, the United States is one of only a tiny number of countries that has not ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Why? Among several reasons is a well-organized and well-financed campaign to defeat the Convention because of its perceived threat to parental autonomy and power, and its general opposition to using physical force against children (including a prohibition against the death penalty being applied to teenagers).
The more we see the child as a part of society, not just the family, the more we are likely to regard conceiving a child as tantamount to entering into a contract with the community. The social-contract approach provides a moral basis for public efforts to ensure the safety and quality of the resulting child, since a contract implies mutual obligations and rights. The opposing vision portrays the relationship between families and society as voluntary and entirely up to the parents.
Today's public debates about families reflect these basic differences. They show up in discussions about child welfare (is it an entitlement? a privilege? a tool for social control?), about teen pregnancy (who has authority over a girl who gets pregnant?), and about divorce and child support (is financial responsibility for a child part of the private contract between divorced adults, or is it a public responsibility?).
And more and more it shows up in debates over parents' accountability when their kids commit antisocial acts. The parents of Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris were sued for $300 million by their victims' families, who charged them with being negligent to have failed to see what was happening with their sons and intervene effectively. As we write this, the claims have been settled for about $2 million.
Raising Children in a World Full of Social and Cultural Poisons
It's not easy being a parent. How many times a week does this thought dance through your head? But lurking around the edges of this common awareness is every parent's worst nightmare: that something terrible and beyond your control will happen to your child. Some of the challenges parents face have plagued them for generations: understanding temperamentally difficult children, disciplining without breaking the child's spirit, teaching confidence and bravery in unsafe neighborhoods, and dealing with economic hardship. At the same time, parenting always takes place in a particular time, place, and culture -- what many social scientists would call the social environment or context.
In our work we often refer to the culture of North America as socially toxic. Just as the physical environment we live in can become contaminated by the presence of lead, PCBs or radioactivity, social contaminants can become hazardous to our emotional and psychological health. The peril to our youth rises in the presence of violence-saturated media and a base exploitation of children through predatory advertising that stimulates or overstimulates cravings for specific snacks or toys -- often unhealthy sweets and games without any redeeming character-building effects.
Let's consider the various challenges that have emerged over the last few decades, the kind that can try any parent's soul and resolve:
• Managing our children's access to the Internet, where even doing one's homework can lead to such nastiness as researching the White House for a fifth-grade social studies assignment and ending up in a pornographic Web site named Whitehouse.com.
• Evaluating the seriousness of children's TV viewing (leaving children alone to watch TV, even during the day or early evening, can expose them to material that is viciously degrading).
• Constantly responding to children who are in league with advertisers whose main interest in them is as consumers, and who are shameless in exploiting their naivete (a shopping trip to the mall can be like running the gauntlet when every store displays some attempt by marketers to develop new and younger consumers of their products).
• Coping with the widespread availability of illicit drugs more powerful and deadly than our generation ever experienced. (Try to explain to a 14-year-old that the marijuana available to him is many times stronger than that with which our generation's college students could experiment.)
• Maintaining authority in the face of relentless media portrayals of parents as either bumbling or vicious (like the movies and television shows in which the only people who seem to know what they are doing is the kids, often in stark contrast to their troubled and dysfunctional parents).
• Developing spiritual values in a culture that hammers home the message that our self-worth depends on the cars we drive, the clothes we wear, and the ski resort, private island, or ranch where we last vacationed.
• Dealing with the threat of guns and bombs being used against children and teenagers in schools and the community.
All adults who care about children grapple with these poisonous influences, regardless of income, race, and social status, or whether they live in urban neighborhoods, in the suburbs, and in small cities, towns, and hamlets in rural areas. What is more, in this toxic social environment, the costs of failure are greater than ever, the challenges more daunting. We see that in the lives of the most affected: kids who kill.
What Lessons Can We Learn from Kids Who Kill?
Perhaps no issue highlights the controversy over parental responsibility as much as assessing blame when teenagers commit murder. In the days after the Littleton shootings, it was natural for anyone to wonder, How could those parents not have known that their sons were collecting guns and building bombs? How could they not have seen how troubled and angry those two boys were?
Boys commit about 85 percent of all youth homicides, and there are two pathways that lead to lethal youth violence. The first -- which accounts for about 90 percent of the cases -- conforms to a predictable pattern in which the line from "bad parenting" and "bad environments" to murder is usually clear. Their cases rarely make the national news, and in our work we see these boys and young men in the courtroom, in prison, and on death row with depressing regularity. We wrote about such unfortunate youngsters in Lost Boys. Their home life is often characterized by physical abuse, emotional deprivation and neglect, rejection, abandonment, and inadequate guidance. They face threats from the world outside their door -- neglected neighborhoods, the illicit drug economy, the gang culture, and often the added trauma of racism. Put all this together, and it is not surprising that in a violent society like ours these damaged children become lethally violent teenagers.
But what about the other 10 percent of kids who kill, the boys who have not been abused, who have loving parents, who are not poor, and who have not been on the receiving end of social deprivation? What about affluent and loved boys like Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris in Littleton, or Kip Kinkel in Springfield, Oregon? What about boys who come from "good homes," yet still take the pathway that leads to murder? Are parents to blame when these kids become killers? What we have learned is that the answer is no. Here's why.
Most children are robust and resilient, but some children are fragile. Good parenting may not be enough to protect fragile children and ensure their healthy development. Swedish psychiatrist Barbro Lundquist sees it this way. Some children are like dandelions: they thrive if given only half a chance. Others are more like orchids: they do fine while they are young enough to be sheltered and nurtured by loving parents, but wilt when they enter adolescence and are thrown to the wolves of peer competition, bullying, and rejection, particularly in big high schools. Research shows that while only 10 percent of children who are born temperamentally "easy" have adjustment problems in elementary school, 70 percent of those who are temperamentally "difficult" have such problems. And, while many young children who are fragile do fine in early childhood, 50 percent have significant difficulties once they enter adolescence.
Parents are not the only influence. Beyond the front door, children respond to the powerful effects of their peers, their community, and the larger culture. Psychologists Rolf Loeber and David Farrington report that while in some communities only 20 percent of seriously troubled and aggressive 10-year-olds become chronically violent teenage delinquents, in other communities the figure is 50 percent or more. And the link between being a troubled teenager and committing murder is much stronger in American society than it is in others. For example, at the height of the murder epidemic during the mid-1990s, the youth homicide rate in the United States was about ten times higher than in Canada, due in large part to the use of guns by troubled teenagers. It remains much higher today.
Today's "normal" adolescent culture contains elements that are so twisted, degraded, vicious and dark that it becomes harder and harder for parents (and professionals) to distinguish between what in a youth's talk, dress, and taste in music, films, and video games indicates psychological trouble and what is simply a sign of the times. And these influences are being felt by younger and younger kids. Preteens as young as 8 are often steeped in that culture. For example, most kids who subscribe to the trench-coated Goth lifestyle, or who have multiple body piercings or who spend time listening to Marilyn Manson and play video games like Doom and Resident Evil 2, are just emotionally normal kids caught up in the pop culture of the day. It is often extremely difficult to figure out if a kid is just a chameleon changing colors to fit in with his peers by looking and sounding like what MTV says is cool, or if his attachment to the dark culture is a way of expressing his internal troubles. And the task becomes all the more difficult because it is more common for kids to be seriously troubled today than even twenty-five years ago.
In the mid-1970s, 10 percent of our kids were troubled enough to require professional mental health services; today the figure is about 20 percent. What is more, the very love parents have for their children may blind them to their dark side. How many parents can truly think the worst of their child? Where do we find the fortitude to imagine our son may be harboring murderous fantasies and might go as far as acting them out, or that our daughter takes part in a sex ring that engages in weekly orgies? In the real world of parenting today, parents have had to come to know this about their kids.
Here's what one mother told us:
I never knew my daughter was involved in all these problems until I had to identify her at the morgue. Then I found out she had been selling drugs and spending a lot of her time with other kids who use drugs. I believed her when she told me she was just "hanging out," thinking that is what teens do. She was fine at home: she did her homework, she did her chores. She kept to herself a lot, but we thought that was normal. They told me she died from taking laced ecstasy. We didn't even know what ecstasy was. We thought things were going fine until that phone call that turned our lives into hell. We had no idea.
Many troubled kids develop secret lives, and parents often don't have all the information they need to know what is going on. Intelligent kids with good social skills and plenty of resources can be very good at hiding who they really are from their parents. They may do this to avoid punishment, to escape the shame of being identified as "crazy," or to protect the parents they love from being disappointed or worried. For example, in the wake of the shooting rampage that took the lives of his parents and schoolmates in Springfield, Oregon, Kip Kinkel confessed that he had been hearing voices but didn't tell anyone. Dylan Klebold successfully hid his inner turmoil from his loving parents. He put up a false front of normality -- for example, visiting campuses in anticipation of starting college -- at the very time that he and Eric were planning their deadly assault on Columbine High School and their own suicides. The shame and stigma of mental illness is still so strong that most kids, especially boys, cannot bear to admit to themselves or to their loving, concerned parents how troubled they really are.
Peer influence produces situations in which two kids will do what one would not do alone. This means that even if parents know their child as an individual, they may not (perhaps cannot) understand what that child is capable of when in the company of another child. Truman Capote described this in his classic book In Cold Blood, when he concluded that neither of the young men who massacred a family in Kansas would have committed that act on his own, but that together they produced a lethal synchronicity. From what we know, it appears that Dylan Klebold was not a killer on his own. It took his relationship with Eric Harris to make it happen. When The New York Times investigated cases of mass murder in the United States going back over many decades, they found one thing that differentiated those committed by teenagers from murders committed by adults. The adults were all isolated loners, while the teenagers acted with peer support.
In cases where parents abuse, reject, neglect, abandon, terrorize, and ignore their children, at least the link between parental behavior and the murders their children commit seems clearer. But what if parents love, nurture, and generally look after their kids? Then, we think, we must refrain from blaming and judging. Bad things do happen to good people.
Even good parents can lose their children if those children are temperamentally vulnerable, develop a secret life of distorted thinking and troubled emotions, get caught up in the dark side of the culture, and form dangerous peer alliances in person or through the Internet. This may be frightening to acknowledge, but it's the starting point of our explanation of parents under siege, rearing difficult children in a difficult society.
Blaming Never Helps. Only Understanding Heals.
Shared responsibility and understanding hold the seeds of progress toward relieving parents under siege. Our spiritual beliefs, our experience as parents, and our academic research convince us that blaming never helps. Rather than simplistically pointing the finger at parents -- and offering parent responsibility legislation, as others have done -- we offer a realistic and sympathetic look at parenting in today's world. We recognize that parents are often frustrated when they seek help for their troubled children and teenagers. Simply lecturing parents on the need for responsibility or threatening them with penalties if things go badly will not work. It is essential that we embrace the idea that parents are responsible, but not to blame, if we are to get real about parents and parenting in the twenty-first century.
In Seven Years in Tibet, when the Dalai Lama was alerted by the Tibetan monks that worms were vulnerable to the damage that digging was doing to their environment, his response was not "It's their own fault." Or "Only the strong survive." Or "Blame it on the worms' parents." Instead, the whole community of monks acted with compassion and gave the worms what they needed: protection from harm and help in finding a safer environment. Lucky for the worms they were not parents and their children living in America.
Lesson: Compassion based upon understanding is the starting point for relieving parents under siege and helping kids grow toward health and the virtues of character they need for a successful life.
Copyright © 2001 by Claire Bedard, Dr. James Garbarino, Ph.D.