A lesson of Littleton: make children our top priority

May 02, 1999|By T. Berry Brazelton and Joshua Sparrow

THE MASSACRE in Littleton, Colo., is a national tragedy. It is also a national indictment. It should not be seen as just a high school tragedy or a breakdown in preventive care for two disturbed teen-agers. It is an urgent call to our country for help.

The recent episodes of teens and preteens murdering their classmates have sent a message that our nation is in deep trouble. We are a violent society. How many more young lives must be lost before we finally face this?

We are all asking: "Why did this have to happen?" We don't know for sure what drove the two teens in Colorado, but we do know that there is no other country in the world where anything like this schoolyard bloodshed has happened so often. It is time we looked at what sets us apart and whether we are harboring risk factors here that we must address before tragedy strikes again.

To start, no other country in the industrialized world tolerates such easy access to guns. We are paying for this with our children's lives. The overall firearm-related death rate among U.S. youths is 12 times higher than in 25 other industrialized countries combined, according to a recent study. For firearm-related homicides, the rate is 16 times higher. Added now to this menace is easy access to bomb plans on the Internet.

Murderous pair

To be sure, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold had to have been profoundly disturbed to have done what they did. But if we hadn't made it so easy for them, maybe they would have started by slashing tires or throwing bricks through school windows -- and maybe somebody would have noticed before lives were lost.

Access to violent television shows and video games has also exacted its price. In the early '60s, Albert Bandura, a psychology professor at Stanford University, demonstrated that after being exposed to violence on television, young children will spontaneously introduce new aggression into their play. If a child spends hours shooting a virtual gun at a virtual human target -- the goal being to splatter virtual brains, intestines and blood on the screen -- isn't it common sense that at some point the taboo against this behavior will be eroded? Harris and Klebold belong to the first generation of children who grew up from the beginning with such games and with the new permissiveness for televised violence. If we can't change the television and toy industries, we certainly can hold ourselves as parents responsible to know -- and to say no. Do you know what your own children are watching?

Family support

To do their jobs, though, parents need more support than they are getting. Families today are dealing with more stress than ever. Often parents need to work full-time, and very few workplaces are "family-friendly." Parents are struggling to get home in time to discipline, to model values for their children with their own behavior and to foster self-acceptance in their children.

It's clear that families can't do all of this on their own. When will we stop clinging to this outdated notion and take some steps toward helping families?

Without paid parental leave in the first months of a child's life, most parents cannot afford the "luxury" of caring for their infant at this critical stage when attachment to other human beings is first set in motion. We can no longer risk depriving children of this early basis for intimacy and, eventually, self-esteem. We are facing the cost of raising children whose sense of self and connection to others is too tentative to withstand the taunting of later years.

Many parents who do notice signs of trouble often can't turn to a professional for help because they lack adequate health insurance to pay for it.

If we are to avert future tragedies, we will have to include these and other ways of supporting parents in a new definition of community.

School-age children need a community more than ever. The school day ends at mid-afternoon, leaving several unsupervised hours every day for children of working parents. Children need either longer school days or after-school activities -- in community or church groups or schools -- that continue until at least 5 p.m.

Klebold and Harris have taught us that children also need a community to provide them with opportunities for acceptance in as wide a range of activities as possible, so that they will not have to seek out acceptance in racist hate groups and cults. Schools are an integral part of the solution, and we are asking them to do much more than ever. Yet, too often we don't provide them with the resources they need. We must revive our children's respect for their teachers by demonstrating our own -- and show that we mean it by providing the funds and support that teachers deserve.

Our schools can no longer tolerate bullying or hatred based on differences. Teachers must help children take pride in the activities in which they excel, channel their creative energies constructively and find acceptance within themselves and from their peers.

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