A Child's Dilemma: Get Along or Go Along?

real life

Aug 19, 1999 at 2:06 pm

In a perfect world, I'd just beam with contentment while my 3-year-old danced around the family room in time to the theme song from his favorite TV show.

Instead, I'm reading another one of those Columbine High School stories in the newspaper while the Arthur song and my son's latest dance moves compete for my attention.

It's not the school-related shootings themselves — at Littleton, Colo., as well as Paducah, Ky., Jonesboro, Ark., and Los Angeles — that I have been engrossed in. Instead, it's how the media and certain groups have clamored to assign the single, defining reason for the violence — a reason that often seems to serve their own purposes.

How, I wonder, are some people so sure that they have all the answers?

Some reports have distilled the Columbine story into one of a couple of outcast teen-agers losing it and taking revenge. Of course, there has been the parents-aren't-watching angle, which is probably why these stories have had my attention. More recently, national wire stories are pointing to a trend of violence being exerted by angry white men who have been raised to think they're automatically entitled to financial success and social leadership positions.

Among the examples fueling the idea that certain groups are using the incident is a gay alternative newspaper columnist, whose story was reprinted by CityBeat June 10. He got to the heart of what many think is the issue when he recounted tales of bullied classmates and talked about how high school always had been painful for the teen-agers who were taunted and beaten instead of appreciated for their differences.

But then, he concluded there was a "silver lining," which was the threat posed — to bullies and their parents — by an emerging attitude that the outcasts, who sometimes were gay and referred to as faggots, weren't going to take it anymore. In other words, knock it off or we'll kill you.

"That analysis of Columbine makes me kind of giggle," says Christine Clark, an associate University of Cincinnati (UC) professor and gang intervention and community conflict resolution expert.

More likely, Clark says, is that Columbine gunmen Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, who killed 12 students and a teacher before killing themselves, were part of a growing, angry group nationwide that thinks it's entitled to everything.

"They go over the edge because they don't get everything," she says. "They've been raised as spoiled brats."

While Clark and other experts across the country being interviewed on this topic have varying opinions on the causes of violence, most agree the problem is complex.

"The problem is that, usually, the general public is looking for the one reason," says Gerald Bostwick, a UC associate professor of social work and expert on family violence. "There isn't one reason."

Still, the concern locally was great enough to bring almost 1,000 people to a two-day FBI seminar in Sharonville last month. On Aug. 18, a two-day summit hosted by Gov. Bob Taft and Attorney General Betty Montgomery began in Columbus in an effort to boost safety in Ohio's schools.

While I've always thought that a successful solution depended on an accurate description of the problem, that description might have to take a back seat to efforts to increase school safety. The recommendations include tougher anti-crime laws, tighter security and early intervention for at-risk students.

In a perfect world, UC's Clark says, all students would feel respected.

Stopping the violence, she says, hinges on school administrators, teachers, parents and students "co-investigating," defining what they view to be violence and devising an action plan. Clark also advocates a multicultural curriculum that makes children aware of everyone who has contributed, regardless of race, ethnic background, religion, sexual orientation or geographical differences. Success, she says, also depends on appropriate intervention by school personnel both in situations that could quickly escalate into violence as well as more everyday occurrences that include kids calling other kids names like "fag," "bitch" and "nigger."

"When teachers don't say anything, (the students) think it must be OK," Clark says.

In this column in December 1997, some other UC experts cited reasons for bullying that included:

· A failure by parents and adults to foster acceptance of others.

· Overly physical, hostile and authoritative discipline, sometimes mixed with bouts of undue permissiveness.

· Bullying of children by their parents.

Bullying is a serious problem that ought to come immediately to mind when discussing school violence, Joseph Zins, a psychologist and UC professor of education, said at the time.

The biggest mistake parents, child-care workers and school personnel make is not putting a stop to it as soon as it starts, Zins said.

But in a perfect world, UC's Bostwick says, it is the parents who should be paying the most attention.

"We tend to expect teachers, schools and educators to do everything," he says." They don't always have the resources."

Parents, Bostwick says, should know that teen-agers who are at risk for violent behavior tend to be poor problem solvers. So they are easily overwhelmed when a problem presents itself.

The reason violence is on the rise today, he says, is because of easier access to firearms and less supervision by parents.

"In the old days, they would have gone and thrown rocks through windows," Bostwick says.

There's something else going on today that Bostwick has heard about from his own teen-agers. As has been the case throughout history, cliques among teen-agers are strong and, he says, an important part of adolescent development because they need to feel a part of a group outside of their families. But the level of harassment and disdain between these cliques is more intense than ever, he says.

He does not give me a reason. He does give me signs to watch for. When a teen-ager is having trouble coping, he or she might start talking about not wanting to go to school. And he or she might start committing to, not just experimenting with, an extreme behavior or appearance. Hardly anyone familiar with the Columbine incident hears this without thinking of Harris' and Klebold's love of swastikas and pipe bombs.

But noticing the red flags isn't enough. A parent has to explain his or her concerns, and the teen-ager needs to have alternatives, Bostwick says.

"(The parent) needs to work together with them to find other activities to get involved with," he says.

No matter how much the experts differ, their solutions carry common themes. We can conclude, then, that we have parents involved with their children. We have the knowledge to recognize warning signs and help get our kids back on the right track. We know to nurture confidence so that our children are not devastated when they don't have group support. Our children feel they can confide in us. We know we must teach them to respect others, appreciating instead of ridiculing their differences. Our children must know that they all have an equal right to the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness.

But these goals are ages-old. We say we know, but then many of us go right on doing what we're doing.

A father, after watching several days of news reports following the Columbine massacre, says he knows how important it is for all kids to feel accepted into peer groups. But two days later, he's making derogatory remarks in front of his sixth-grader about a new family in the neighborhood that doesn't belong there because one of the parents is African American.

A mother says she clearly understands the importance of building her young daughter's self esteem — it's about gaining confidence in her own ideas and abilities instead of her looks, figure, designer clothes and sex appeal. But when the mom's demands at work are not met by her immediate superiors, she starts making dinner dates with the company's owner, who, this woman has told her co-workers, has made unwanted advances toward her.

A white teen-ager's repeated invitations are declined by a black classmate, whose parents have told him that, despite their behavior, whites will always view blacks as slaves.

A gay student, not knowing where to turn for acceptance, contemplates suicide. A lone gay activist, fed up with discrimination, begins urging other gays to exclude heterosexuals, regardless of their attitudes toward gays.

A couple steadfastly teaches their children to be accepting and considerate of others but worries that the children will be alienated, bullied and heartbroken.

And a 3-year-old dances around his family room, belting out the words as soon as the theme song of his favorite TV show, begins: "Every day when you're walking down the street, everybody that you meet has an original point of view. And I say, 'Hey, what a wonderful kind of day, we're going to learn to work and play and get along with each other.' "

Like I said, in a perfect world.