Sticks and Stones, Words and Guns

The latest incident of young people who've struck back at school tormenters with guns is a shocking twist on the danger of firearms in our society. In order to protect our children, people are responding with new efforts to keep lethal weapons out of school. Yet there is another issue here that is passing almost entirely unnoticed. This is the issue of provocation. Words do hurt.

As a society, we're starting to grapple with the fact that battered wives sometimes see no choice but to strike back to save themselves. Is there a parallel here with young people? I think most people would be unwilling to consider such a parallel--because the implications are so enormous. First, we would have to decide that bullying, malicious name-calling, unmerciful teasing was absolutely unacceptable behavior (as we are just beginning to do with wife-beating). That is a big stretch in itself, since the phenomenon is so pervasive, so much a part of our picture of childhood. After all, probably we and everyone we know experienced this kind of behavior as a child, either as victim or perpetrator. We've defined it as normal.

Yet things change. Segregation has been seen as normal in our past, and is now considered unacceptable by most people. Male dominance in the home was the norm for centuries, and even that is beginning to change. Perhaps now is the time for women and minorities to be joined by children as yet another group of human beings deserving of full respect at all times.

Even if we were able to make that stretch, to agree that malicious teasing of young people is unacceptable, we would still have to grapple with root causes and solutions. And these go way beyond increasing surveillance at schools. The implications for adults are staggering.

Children who have not been teased themselves, as a general rule, don't tease. Children who have been consistently treated with respect by adults, and who have been allowed other ways of venting their frustrations and their anger, don't tease. I come down hard on my older son--criticize or require of him and don't allow him to express his feelings about it--and he takes it out on his younger brother--always. I listen respectfully, consider doing it his way, or allow him to be mad without getting mad back at him--and his younger brother goes unscathed.

As adults, we can take the traditional role with the children in our environment--treating them as somewhat less than fully human, requiring their quick and quiet obedience at all times, prohibiting their show of anger or frustration. But we shouldn't be surprised at the results.

Everybody needs a way to unload all the negative messages that are handed to them; everybody needs a chance to work things through, a place to blow. If we as adults refuse to listen or to provide those places for our children, then they will figure it out among themselves. Many will try to relieve themselves of that burden by turning around and unloading it on children who are younger or weaker or somehow more vulnerable, and do it over and over again. Others will internalize all the negative input and be the perfect victims and targets--most likely for the rest of their lives. And some will take that abuse for too long, then finally strike back in desperation, with all the power they can lay their hands on--and with frightening results.

We need to control the proliferation of firearms in our society, but that may be the easier task. Ultimately, what is required is a massive change in our perspective, and in all the institutions of our society that include children. Are we big enough to model treating the smallest members of our society--in our homes, on our playgrounds, at our schools--with complete respect?