From small-town Arkansas to Oregon's Willamette Valley, school shootings in recent months have sent shivers into the hearts of parents everywhere. That could have been my kid running for cover, we think. And then the questions pile up: Why is this happening now? Is it possible to find a safe place? And?most important?how can we help our children?
In his new book, Raising Nonviolent Children in a Violent World (Augsburg Fortress), Dr. Michael Obsatz provides both informed perspectives and practical tools for parents. Obsatz, an associate professor of sociology at Macalester College in Minneapolis and a family therapist, talked with CPT about what parents can do to raise nonviolent kids and keep them safe.
Is school violence getting worse, or are we just hearing more about it in the media?
The statistics are clear: From 1985 to 1995 there was a 153 percent increase in the number of juveniles murdered by firearms. You've always had violence, but in the past it took the form of knives and fists. With guns, violence is much more lethal now.
Why now? What's going on with kids?
A lot of the violence stems from unhealthy attitudes, inability to control impulses, a lack of empathy.
There's violence in the media, and it isn't only the overt kind of someone shooting someone else. Take sitcoms: Often they show parents as stupid, so they erode respect for parental authority. There are messages glorifying drug abuse, drinking, materialism. There are crude words and putdowns, which are verbal violence. The statistic that jumps out at me is that only 4 percent of programs emphasize nonviolent solutions to problems. If kids watch enough of this, they get desensitized.
Some video games, like Mortal Kombat, are unbelievably violent. In fact, I read about the boys accused of the various school shootings this past year, and many of them were involved in these games.
Some popular music sends terrible messages. Significantly, Kip Kinkel, the boy in Oregon, listened to a Nirvana cd that expressed nihilistic values. Even though by all accounts he had caring parents, they probably should have paid more attention to his choices of entertainment.
How early should a parent start worrying about her child's exposure to such media violence?
When a kid is 2 and starts watching Saturday morning cartoons, which have all kinds of violence in them.
Parents should be planting a base of spiritual values, compassion and responsibility in a child at least by the time he is 6 or 7. Sunday school is important, because it provides education in values that can't be taught in public schools.
One difficulty for parents is that we can't shelter a child from everything.
Some parents take the attitude, "I can control what my child watches and listens to in my house, but when he's at a friend's, it's a different story." We have to speak up about this, find out what our kids are up to at someone else's house and talk to the friend's parents. What if there are guns at somebody else's house? Parents must keep tabs on their kids, even if it means being perceived as a busybody.
That gets harder as the child gets older, especially when the peer group is so important. I'm a great believer in connecting your child with a "positive peer culture"?Christian camp, youth group, religious school. You give a kid constructive alternatives, encouraging him to help others.
I've done research on the problems of boys, and one thing a boy needs most, beyond a strong parental unit, is a "community of tribal elders"?coaches, pastors, Scout leaders?to help him negotiate adolescence. Girls need this, too, but the difference is that they internalize their pain; they don't lash out as a boy does. A boy in pain is more dangerous.
How can we explain school violence to our kids?
You have to put it in a larger perspective. Point out how the news sensationalizes and doesn't show the positive side of life.
That said, children have to understand that sometimes innocent kids do get hurt. You have to help kids understand that there are people in this world who will be a harmful influence.
What if a child at school says something like "I'm going to kill you!" How seriously should we take such threats?
You have to take everything seriously these days. It's better to be cautious, because for a long time we've under-reacted to such threats.
What about bullying? Are schools taking it more seriously?
Significantly, the boys who have been accused in the various killings were all victims of bullying. Schools are starting to take it more seriously; in the past adults, including school authorities, didn't want to deal with it. They tended to excuse it as part of childhood. But I think it's a parent's responsibility to hold a school accountable when her child is being bullied. Go to the administration. Speak up.
How can you help a young athlete be competitive without being aggressive?
You can teach him that there's a difference between competing and being ruthless. Encourage him to do his best?but not put down the opposite team.
Too often in America there's a connection between winning and being loved, so kids who don't win feel worthless. A parent needs to teach a kid to lose with a sense of dignity and to win with grace. Part of the Christian message is that those who are down and out are not worthless. Certainly Jesus spent time with people who weren't "winners."
In your book, you identify 21 skills that young people need in order to grow up as nonviolent people. What are the two or three most important skills?
- Having a sense of purpose
- Empathy skills
- Impulse control?learning to vent anger nonviolently.
This is the message we need to instill in our children: "Life is not all about you. It's not all about getting?it's about giving."
Elizabeth Cody Newenhuyse is an author and editor. She lives with her husband and daughter in Wheaton, Illinois.
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