On Knowing and Responding
On this the liberal and the right-wing columnists seem to agree: Adults are responsible for not controlling the behavior of Littleton, Colorados trench coat mafia killers. Eileen McNamara, liberal columnist for the Globe, suggests that the parents of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold must have known what their kids were planning and that they surrendered parental guidance and authority. Right-winger Jeff Jacoby claims that these kids lives were filled with adults who never set limits, never imposed rules, never made it clear that certain kinds of behavior would not be tolerated.
How these particular columnists know this about these particular parents, I am not sure. For all I know their guesses might be accurate. But their attempt to lay blame on certain individuals no matter how accurate shifts us away from addressing the more complex reality of kids and parents lives. It is more difficult to investigate this complex reality, but the benefits of doing so are far-reaching and long-lasting. Deeper investigations might lead to real change. At a minimum they will be more constructive than the bandaid measures being taken by school principals such as the ban on wearing black trench coats and playing Marilyn Manson. They might actually lead us to examine how our cultural, social and economic institutions tolerate and support isolation, racism, and violence.
Eileen McNamaras April 25th column is headlined, Parents must have known. In it, she details the overwhelming evidence that the parents could not conceivably have missed the Hitler paraphenalia, the stockpiling of weapons, the diaries detailing shooting plans, and their sons ongoing alienation from school peers all of which, at least in hindsight, appear to be stepping stones leading clearly, directly, and irreversibly to a massacre.
There are two things I believe Eileen McNamara is not considering. One is the power of denial. The other is the overwhelming difficulty of overcoming denial when doing so will cause you to confront hopelessness and powerlessness.
On denial, here are some anecdotes. My sister, working in a womens health clinic, meets a teenage patient, visibly in advanced stages of pregnancy, and her mother. The girl thinks she might be pregnant and wants to see if she can get an abortion. My sister examines her and finds her to be 8 and a half months pregnant. By law, my sister tells her, she wont be having an abortion, shell be having a baby. In about 2 weeks. Mother and daughter are aghast. How could that mother not have known?
Mothers routinely stay in marriages when there are clear cut signs that a daughter is being abused by her father. How could she not have known?
My guess is that on some level these mothers did know. But facing into these situations would require taking on more than they felt they could. Coming to grips with the fact that your teenage daughter is pregnant requires delving into her sexuality; helping her assess her life prospects with and without a kid; determining her options all of which are potentially painful and life-changing abortion, childbirth, adoption, motherhood; and rallying resources to pursue some path. For many, these are extremely different issues to entertain. They may call to mind your own inadequacies and will confront you head-on with numerous systemic difficulties such as, drawing from the examples above, the difficulty of finding and being able to afford an abortion, admitting to being sexually active, recognizing the extreme difficulty of being a teen mother raising a child in poverty, the economic hurdles faced by a woman leaving her husband, the overriding of lessons learned all her life to trust and depend on a man, etc.
Here are two more examples of denial that have very different endings. I walked into my third floor apartment after having done some very dirty demolition work on a house we were buying. The air seemed blurry somehow. I rubbed my eyes thinking the plaster dust was affecting my vision. After taking a shower, everything still looked cloudy. I went down to the second floor apartment where a friend was taking care of my baby along with her own. Now I smelled something. We both sniffed the air and, puzzled, actually checked our babies diapers for the offending source. As it turned out, the house was on fire. We called 911 and the fire department put the fire out within minutes leaving little damage. When I look back on that incident, what strikes me is that, despite obvious signals smoky air and a burning smell I had a hard time allowing it to seep into my brain that the house was actually on fire.
In another incident, I left my 4-year old at a swimming pool in the care of her aunt. Some time later, I realized I had forgotten something at the pool and so returned only to find a small blond-haired child in a pink bathing suit submerged underwater. Clearly, it was my daughter. But my brain at least for a second completely shut down against the possibility that that could be her. If it were her, then that would mean she would be drowning. A completely unacceptable possibility. I actually lifted my eyes from that submerged child for a moment to scan the rest of the pool for my real daughter. It took me about one second to get over this insane denial of reality, at which point I raced over and pulled her out. She was fine. I took away from the experience a new consciousness of how powerfully our minds can work to shut out a reality that seems too painful to bear.
In these last two stories, denial is powerful but momentary. Why? Because the action that needed to be taken was relatively straightforward, involved no self-reflection, did not challenge major societal institutions, would be 100% supported by any parties involved, and would almost definitely be effective. In the first case, I called 911. In the second, I reached into the water, grabbed my kid by the hair, and pulled her to the surface. Neither action confronts long-held biases or threw me into an abyss of poor choices with little support and no resources for acting on them.
In his Globe column that self-righteously blames parental lack of discipline for the Columbine killings, Jeff Jacoby fondly remembers the scolding he got when he told a lie at school. The lie had to do with claiming his parents had given him permission to avoid some school activity. His punishment was thorough, and he claims to have carried away from the whole experience the important lesson that adults were watching over him. He claims that simple discipline is a thing of the past.
I disagree. His parochial school probably had a clear and straightforward approach to meting out punishment when its authority was challenged. Scolding a kid for lying about gym class (or whatever) is easy and helps maintain the status quo. But what if a teacher overheard a racial epithet in the playground? Would that infraction bring about a swift uncompromising adult response? Its unlikely partly because there is no swift uncompromising response to racism. A proper adult way to address a kids racist expression would be complicated at best: The adult might have to come to grips with her own racist preconceptions; she might have to uncover the ways the child picked up on racist thinking from popular culture; she might have to analyze the systems that perpetuate racism, the institutions that carry it out every day, and the myths that give racism weight. She would have to figure out how to tell the child that racism is wrong even though multiple examples exist in force all around. She would have to go against the grain of mainstream social norms, customs, and institutions. And she would have to do all of this effectively for a child. She would have little support or role models. If she went so far as to think through all of this she might reasonably conclude that its hopeless, and do nothing.
Discipline and parental guidance are easy in some instances. Your kid pisses in his pants, you select from an array of potty-training methods. Nobody goes into denial about it. You simply choose from the plethora of books, experts, and approaches to fit any parenting style from the child-led method to the wetness-triggered alarm that you can wire to your bedwetting kids pajamas. But what do you do when you discover your child is taking on explicitly racist thinking? Who do you go to? Who will take you seriously and help you respond? What if your childs racism at least partly reflects your own so that you are more inclined to relate to his feelings rather than reject them? Then who will deal with you?
Harris and Klebold of Columbine High clearly took their brand of alienation, anti-social violence, racism, and hatred to an extreme. Their parents harbor responsibility for seemingly not paying attention to their teenagers attitudes and behaviors. Surely, denial played a role. How difficult it would be to face the possibility that your child might literally be planning a massacre. Its unthinkable. I imagine there would be no limit to the contortions you might go through in an effort to avoid such a reality. Combine that with the fact that if you were to face into it, what would you do? Turn to your local anti-violence, anti-racism trainers and their support staff? Look to popular culture for examples of people solving problems with words rather than guns? Expose your child to more mainstream media and institutions which are clear organs of democratic expression and fulfilling activities? Just as for the mother of the pregnant teen and the abused daughter, options are few, support is nil, consequences are dire, and power is overwhelmingly concentrated elsewhere.
Bill Clinton says, We must do more to reach out to our children and teach them to express their anger and to resolve their conflicts with words, not weapons. This while diplomatic opportunities in Yugoslavia are squandered and the bombs rain down. How come no one is suggesting Clinton is responsible for the Columbine killings? After all, Clinton actually modeled aggression, and legions of societys institutions contribute to making it look like a moral choice. Harris and Klebolds parents, all they did was nothing.