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Friday, December 28, 2012

Power, parenting and 'solving' gun violence

There has been much said and written about solutions to the spate of school shooting tragedies in the USA. "Better gun laws," cries one faction. "More guns in schools," cries another. "Better mental health care," cries a third. And so on.

When a young man goes berserk with a firearm and kills innocent children, I guess it's natural to look for a single reason so we can feel comfortable that we understand what happened. It's natural to seek a simple solution so we can focus blame where we think it's due, tell someone how to fix it, and move on.

Unfortunately, we humans have a tendency to focus our attention on whatever 'answer' fits best with our world view. That much is predictable.

So, for example, the recreational shooters will call for armed guards in schools, while the pacifists call for stricter gun control. The parents of the mentally ill will see terrifying parallels with their own situation, and call for more help from a dysfunctional health system. What I'm saying is that in pushing for a solution, we tend to follow our own agenda.

I get frustrated by that. I think that it's a doomed approach. Nothing will get fixed while people follow conflicting personal agendas, even though many of those agendas are sound and would probably help the situation. It'll all get bogged down in rhetoric, politics, finance and administration. Anyone who's been on any committee knows that, whether it was a school fundraiser or a local club. Once people start pushing personal barrows, that's the end of consensus.

But I'm not saying that it's no use trying to fix it. I'm not saying there's nothing we can do. Quite the opposite!

I'm saying that if we want a real solution, we have to look deeper than weapons and psychiatric issues. Half the trouble with solving big problems is agreeing on what the question is, and we humans are notoriously bad at that. We need to get off our hobby horses, stop blaming and start finding a question we can agree on that helps us solve what happened at Sandy Hook, Columbine, Nickel Mines and the rest.

To solve this problem, I believe we have to look at what drives young men (the perpetrators are almost exclusively young men) to do these things. We have to look at motivations.

Here is what I think the real question looks like.

How can we stop young men from thinking that picking up a gun and killing people is an acceptable answer to their personal problem?

Does anyone disagree that that's the question?

With the exception perhaps of psychopaths, children are not born like that. It was our society that made them seek a violent solution to a problem that was too big for them to deal with. It was the 'normal' that was presented to those individuals. We are 'our society', and it's everyone's responsibility to fix it.

Here are some ways we can contribute to the solution. It's not a quick fix. It's not easy. It's not even the whole answer. But it does, at least, address the root of the problem.

1. We can be very, very careful how we use our own power as adults and as parents.

Children first learn to misuse power by watching their parents; they continue to learn by watching their teachers.

If we respond to personal frustration by inflicting pain on children- by spanking them, by verbally abusing them, by making them feel small and powerless- we are role-modelling violent behaviour towards innocent children. THAT is what happened in Connecticut, as well as in many other school shootings. Young men responded to personal frustration by being violent towards innocent children. Somewhere, these young men learned that violence towards a less powerful person was the answer.

If we can see our own abusive, violent behaviour for what it is instead of labelling it as 'discipline', as if the name somehow purifies it, we are contributing to a solution.

2. We can give our children power in safe and age-appropriate ways.

If children feel powerless, they will sometimes become adults who seek power in inappropriate ways and at a terrible cost.

Children need to have choices. If we make every decision for them, they won't learn to make good decisions. Children need to be able to make small mistakes, to safeguard them against making big ones. And we need to be there to support them as they make their small mistakes- not to ridicule them.

If we constantly frustrate children's desires, their frustration will eventually burst forth. If we are constantly saying 'NO', they will find a way to say 'YES' one day- and they may not be particularly discriminating in what they say 'yes' to.

The teacher who is authoritarian and didactic is just as dangerous as the parent who doesn't recognise their own child's individuality and humanity. The only reason the gun lobby gets away with the dogma of 'Guns don't kill people- people kill people' is because there's a grain of truth in it. If we dominate children to the extent that we create seething resentment against the system and all who dwell in it, we are creating potential 'people who kill people'.

3. We can model empathy and downplay perfection. 

We can express fellow-feeling for even those humans we don't know personally. We can be kind to others, for no other reason than that it's the right thing to do.

None of us is perfect; we all stuff up. We can admit that in front of our children, and we can reframe difficult situations by looking at them from the other person's point of view. There but for the grace of God...

One thing we can assume about all the school shooters: they all felt so much a failure that they now craved notoriety rather than success. And we know that they felt no empathy.

4. We can model healthy methods of coping with stress and frustration.

We can teach that a hot bath, a quiet chat with friends, a hug, a good book, more sleep and empathy for our seeming enemies can be more constructive than ranting, swearing, overeating, fisticuffs or verbal abuse.

We can try to behave better ourselves, and we can apologise and talk through what happened when we fail- in front of our children. We can stop behaving as though every little frustration is a calamity, and we can stop modelling 'giving up'.

We can actively teach that time is a great healer, and that sometimes bad things lead to good things. We can show that obstacles sometimes spur us on to help ourselves become better people, and that a blinkered approach to our goals, where failure is seen as a catastrophe, can lead to us missing out on a lot of good things along the way.

5. We can be careful how we advertise, praise and glorify violence. 

Oh, that sounds weird. But you know, we do all that. It's quite culturally acceptable. And 'culture' is us.

Some of us own guns. We need to be careful not only about how we store them, but about how we use them and how we 'advertise' them to our children.

Killing animals for sport, in my view, is advertising violence and modelling a lack of empathy to children. Target shooting at people-shaped targets is modelling that it's okay to shoot at people. We need to be thoughtful in how we use a gun if we have one.

Regretfully putting a dying animal out of its misery is something completely different. Using a firearm to kill an animal quickly and with minimum pain to use for food is probably much more ethical than buying nicely-sealed trays at the supermarket, if you are a meat eater. These uses of a gun are able to be supported by logic which can be shared with children. You cannot give a logical explanation to a child about why you shot an animal for 'sport' or why you are shooting at a 'human' target.

Then, of course, there's war. This can be a really hard one for some families. Maybe a member of the family is in the military. Maybe you regard the war your country is fighting as good and honourable. But be very careful how much you praise the concept. Your children are listening. Make sure you discuss the war with your children, and explain why you think it's right or wrong. Be careful how you define 'enemy'.

NB: 'Revenge' is not a concept worthy of advertising to your children. Shooters in tragedies often have some warped concept of 'revenge' in their heads. Make sure you didn't help put it there.

And then there's the violent video game. I don't subscribe to the view that video games turn normal children into sociopaths, even some of the edgier ones; my own son went through a phase of enjoying some titles that I really would rather he hadn't got involved with, and I'm happy to say that he's very far from a sociopath. Many 'nerdy' children find these games to be no more than an absorbing diversion.

However there are some children who already have real-life social issues, and I believe those children can lose touch with reality when allowed to shoot virtual enemies. Know your child, and if that child has social coping issues please don't use violent video games as a babysitter. Address your children's relationship issues; teach them some problem-solving strategies. Shooting people is not a problem-solving strategy, yet that's the path which was chosen by those young men in Sandy Hook and Columbine and other sites of tragedy.

Be careful not only in what you say yourself, but in what you allow into your home via the media. Turn the TV off if it's playing endless re-runs of war, the latest school shooting, an assassination. Don't buy the paper if it's full of death and destruction. Keep the computer in a public area and monitor what your child is looking at when tragedies happen. The media talks up the perpetrators of violence until they acquire celebrity status, and that's a problem, but it's a two way street and we have responsibility too. The media put it out there, but they are just responding to us; we gobble it up. Stop gobbling.

Last, but definitely not least,

6. We can advocate for peaceful parenting, peacefully, outside our own comfortable little bubble.

Oh, it's so easy to preach to the converted. It's so easy for me, for example, to write this, knowing my followers tend to agree with my views.

But what if I go over to, say, 'Circle of Mums', where spanking is still seen as an acceptable method of discipline by many members? What if I go back to 'Essential Baby', where I was flamed for advocating peaceful parenting methods? What if I make a point of offering an alternative, peacefully and without judgment, when I see a friend or a stranger treating their child without respect?

Am I prepared to be unpopular, just to make sure people know there's an alternative to hitting and shouting and verbally abusing their children? I know I won't 'convert' the hard-liners, but what if some other people are quietly reading, looking for a different answer, and all that comes up on the thread is violence and power plays? Do I have the time to be part of the solution?

I have to have time, or I'm a hypocrite. I'm just mouthing words without doing what I can to change things.

What about you? Do you have time to do what you can? Do you have time to be part of the solution, instead of part of the problem?