112 Kids Who Kill

In 1998, when Mike Huckabee was Governor of Arkansas, two boys (aged 11 and 13) in Jonesboro took rifles and killed a teacher and four of their schoolmates. That tragedy prompted Huckabee to write Kids Who Kill: Confronting Our Culture of Violence (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1998). Since 1960, violence, sadly enough, has dramatically increased in the United States, but juvenile violence has skyrocketed. The killings at Columbine High School in Colorado, the killings at Santana High School in Santee, California, reflect our children’s increasing penchant for aggressive outbursts.

Underlying all the data, Huckabee says, we find “the demoralization of America.” Samuel Johnson once said: “In political as well as natural disorders, the great error of those who commonly undertake either cure or preservation is that they rest in second causes, without extending their search to the remote and original sources of evil.” One of the “second causes” is the role of guns in school shootings. None of the the pieties of anti-gun advocates can overcome the evidence which nullifies their pleas. One analyst, Daniel Polsby, notes that “‘guns don’t increase national rates of crime and violence–but the continued proliferation of gun control laws almost certainly does'” (p. 143).

The “original sources” responsible for youth violence include a growing “depersonalization” in contemporary culture. We’ve dehumanized targeted peoples and in the process desensitized ourselves to their deaths. Most obviously, a nation which aborts unborn children easily develops calluses to the killing of older children. Worldwide, nearly 50 million unborn babies are aborted each year, “making it the most frequently performed surgical operation. In the United States today, four out of every ten children conceived are aborted, which amounts to approximately 4,000 abortions every day” (p. 45). School children early learn that Planned Parenthood clinics dispose of unwanted babies, and to a degree that fact dims their reverence for life.

This is encouraged by another original source of the problem–“a pattern of disrespect” which has passed, like a conveyer belt of garbage, from adults to our youth culture. No longer fearful of teachers, students openly defy and even curse them. Profanity pervades the air of award-winning films and popular music as well as public school playgrounds. A Scottish diplomat, John Buchan, lauded, 50 years ago, “‘the common courtesy of Americans” which made them “‘invariably considerate, polite, respectful, and mannerly'” (p. 51). They still upheld the standard of Patrick Henry, who insisted: “‘The manners of a gentleman are an outgrowth of his due respect for the life and integrity of others; likewise a breach of courtesy is emblematic not so much of barbarism as of utter and complete self-absorption. A rude man is but a callous egotist'” (p. 54).

Jonathan Lasker, in Profanity in America, links verbal violence with more deadly acts. To verbally assault a person, especially when you are weaker or have less authority, may seem harmless. Words shred no flesh, but they do open the door to more serious violence. Lasker says that profanity is “a hallmark of a frustrated society where ordinary people must give vent to their anger in inarticulate fashion. Historically, mass profanity has always been a harbinger of mass violence'” (p. 55). On America’s roads, angry people scream and make obscene gestures. “Road rage” routinely erupts, and in one year some 17,000 people were “injured in automobile accidents caused by drivers’ temper tantrums” (p. 56).

Encouraging all this is the much-maligned media–which is rightly maligned! Our alleged “entertainment” industry is, in fact, “conditioning kids to kill” (p. 83). Video games, especially alluring for boys, immerse them in violence. One study notes that teenage boys play video games 28 hours a week–“killing, maiming, and destroying–as well as punching, shooting, and stabbing” (p. 71). Bored with video games, they turn to TV, or the movies, or rap music. Incessantly their minds are awash in the most brutal kinds of violence. One study evaluated “the lyrics of the top twenty best-selling alternative rock, hip hop, and rap disks.” The researchers “found that 100 percent of the disks feature songs that celebrated illicit sex or drug abuse. Almost 89 percent openly portray suicide as a viable option. About 77 percent mock authority figures. Almost 61 percent profile violent acts, including murder, rape, and molestation. Nearly 42 percent advocate anarchy. And 28 percent denigrated traditional religion” (p. 81). Though difficult to prove a causaltity, we must know that “in virtually every case of violent teen crime there is evidence of heavy involvement in–and even deliberate imitation of–depraved lyrics in music, violent films, brutal video games, or decadent television programming” (p. 83).

Adding to the problems our children face, their families frequently provide them neither security nor guidance. Patrick Henry, again, said it well: “‘For good or for ill, the estate of the family will most assuredly predetermine the estate of all of the rest of the culture'” (p. 103). In a culture of divorce, children are casualties. Women’s liberation, for all its trumpeted successes, has impoverished women, often leaving them alone and unable to rightly rear children. One third of female-headed families live in poverty. Children sense an absolute vacuum without a father at home. So they too slide into delinquency. “More than 80 percent of all violent juvenile offenders are the products of broken homes. Nearly 70 percent live in single-parent households. As many as 90 percent have suffered some sort of physical, sexual, or emotional abuse” (p. 103).

Given this analysis, Huckabee calls parents and churches to restore what’s been lost in the U.S. “‘We are perpetually being told that what is wanted is a strong man who will do things,’ said G.K. Chesterton. ‘What is really wanted is a strong man who will undo things; and that will be the real test of strength'” (p. 141). Churches must recover a deep concern for personal integrity, character, moral standards. People of faith make strong families.

Isabelle Fox, a practicing psychotherapist who for 10 years served as a senior mental health consultant for Operation Head Start, proposes ways to build strong families in her solidly-researched Being There: The Benefits of a Stay-at-Home Parent (Hauppauge, NY: Baron’s, c. 1996). Her experience, especially during the decade preceding the book’s publication, prompted her to sound an alarm concerning the “caregiver roulette” which proves “emotionally devastating, with life-long negative results, because it affects the ability of children to trust their important primary caregivers. This in turn affects their ability to relate to others, to learn, to develop an optimistic approach to life, and even to abide by the rules of society” (p. ix).

Alarmingly, T. Berry Brazelton, a respected child-care scholar, laments: “‘Never before has one generation been less healthy, less cared for, less prepared for life than their parents were at the same age'” (p. 60). The equally respected researchers Magid and McKelvey declare: “‘With so many mothers working, just who is taking care of the children? Proper bonding attachment cannot occur when the infant’s significant caregiver isn’t around and the baby has no reliable, consistent, or loving substitute caregiver. Without suitable answers, these problems could result in a national attachment crisis, thus putting a future generation at high risk'” (p. 84). Few parents realize, Fox says, how a pre-verbal infant suffers when left with someone other than his parents. Bonding with very specific persons is crucial for a baby’s development. An infant naturally bonds with his “primary caregiver” (preferably his nursing mother) and he feels abandoned when separated from her.

A child’s “ability to trust is established mainly in the preverbal years” (p. 11), and a steady succession of caregivers–inevitable in day care centers where various employees may hold a baby during a single day– engenders fear, distrust and hostility. When a child is separated from his primary caregiver for several weeks, he first turns angry, then “cold, aloof, and unresponsive” (p. 56). In time such “detached children will have problems with trust, thereby preventing close and intimate relationships from developing and being sustained. They feel that they must rely only on themselves, that they must be completely self-sufficient and reject their need for comfort and support. At times that simmering rage will unpredictably erupt, causing an increased alienation of those individuals in their immediate environment” (p. 56). In the judgment of Magid aned McKelvey, “‘Infants who do not receive a warm welcome into the world will seek their revenge'” (p. 75).

Insofar as most of us highly value love, and insofar as children need love, parents who truly treasure their children must pay a price to love them. In the first two or three years of life, a child feels loved simply because a familiar figure is always at hand. By leaving babies in day care centers, we run the risk of crippling their capacity to love! They need loving moms and dads who are there, constantly attentive to their needs. A child’s conscience also develops during this early time. Still more: children need quantity time–not some conscience-easing quality time. Given such loving attention, babies develop cognitive and language skills. Preverbal children benefit from hearing their parents talking to them. Once they learn words, they profit from hearing books read to them. Family meals, something of an abandoned ritual in many homes, are truly essential for children to develop well. Discussions, good manners, respect for others, sharing life, all come with daily meals.

When asked what children truly need, John Bowlby, one of the past century’s most thoughtful psychologists, said: “‘They need a mother figure who will care for them. She doesn’t have to be on duty day in, day out. If she can get some assistance from her own mother, her husband, or one of her own sisters, the more help she gets, the better. But they should be responsible for their own children. They should be the principal caregiver. And if they are not the principal caregiver, then they must try and find someone else who will be. Someone who plays that major role through the child’s childhood'” (p. 183).

Children off to college could glean wisdom from Gilbert Meilaender’s Letters to Ellen (Grand Rapids, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, c. 1996). A compilation of letters written for The Christian Century (imaginatively from “Mom” to her daughter in college) they offer gentle advice as to “what it means to live as a Christian” (p. 1). The Decalog provides a structure, for it has generally guided believers “when thinking about the contours of the moral life” (p. ix). Living rightly means following through on “a task, not an exercise in self- expression” (p. 67).

To get a good start in college and ultimately to live well, one must “Find something you care about and devote yourself to it with a whole heart” (p. 7). This means studying! Responding to Ellen’s reference to “community service” at her school, Meilaender replies: “I admit to a good bit of suspicion about such community service emphases. In the first place, it’s an emphasis many students are all too eager to embrace. Academic work is hard and often grueling” (p. 13). It’s easier, quite simply, to leave the books on the desk and join your friends dishing out food at the rescue mission. Such activities are admirable, to be sure, but they too easily divert one from a student’s true taskt. So Ellen’s urged to remember a stanza from a hymn which says: “Take my intellect and use / Every power as thou shalt choose” (p. 14). God is Light. The Word became flesh. The mind matters! Nothing else, other than study, should consume one’s time and effort in college. This also means that the nostrum frequently bandied about on campus–asserting that questioning answers is better than answering questions–must be rejected. Finding answers, like finding the right route to a mountian top, is the only reason to study hard! “On this point,” Meilaender says, “I am with Chesterton: ‘The purpose of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to close it on something solid'” (p. 76).

And yet there should be leisure, rest, time to pray and reflect as well. Here Meilaeinder writes some vital words all collegians should hear: “If you want to be less rushed and frantic, stop doing any of your work on Sunday. I know that sounds crazy, since you say there’s not enough time as it is to get work done. But perhaps what you need is a reminder that the work isn’t just yours–that we can call nothing simply ‘ours.’ Not even our time. You need to learn again what you surely know intellectually–that life is a trust from God and must be lived in trust” (p. 17). So too one should learn to daily read and pray. “Short readings are best” (p. 19). Bits of the Bible– especially the Psalms–nourish the soul. Prayers–often written prayers by saints of the Church–help the mind stay focused and provide meaty language appropriate for adoration. Lenten disciplines, so deeply embedded in the tradition of the Church, deserve respect and embodiment. Disciplines, whether spiritual or scholarly, loom largely in shaping good character.

Reflecting on some comments concerning unmarried youngsters having babies–and knowing how “tolerance” is virtually mandated by contemporary culture–Meilaender questions the alleged compassion expressed by “affirming” such youngsters. “If we’re so busy ‘affirming’ these young girls and boys with their babies, we lose the capacity to distinguish right from wrong, the ideal from the flawed” (p. 36). Though one pastor stressed “forgiveness” and “affirmation” in such cases, Meilaender remained unpersuaded. Moral pabulum is still pabulum, however sweet to the tongue. Rather, “Genuine forgiveness never paralyzes the capacity for moral judgment, since it forgives what is acknowledged as wrong and repented. That’s a far cry from the affirmation talk that is clogging so many Christian arteries” (p. 36).

Similarly, moral standards must be cultivated and woven into one’s heart. “Train yourself to think of conscience in a different way–not as an inner feeling but as a judgment. When you deliberate about a problem, you finally come to a point where your mind is made up. At that point you might say: ‘If I didn’t do this, I would be going against my conscience.’ That conscience is simply the end product of your deliberation–your last and best judgment about what you should do” (p. 51).

“Nothing I said or did during the four years I served as Vice President of the United States,” says Dan Quayle, in The American Family: Discovering the Values That Make Us Strong (New York: HarperCollins, c. 1996), generated more protest, anger, or ridicule than a few comments I made about a popular TV sitcom in a speech to the Commonwealth Club of California in San Francisco in May 1992″ (p. 1). Despite the outrage from Liberal elites however, Quayle’s point has been soundly validated by various scholars, and his book, written with Diane Medved (herself the author of The Case Against Divorce as well as the wife of film critic Michael Medved), seeks to illustrate family success stories in this nation.

To begin the study, the authors collected a questionnaire which identified eight important aspects of healthy families: “1) Religion, 38 percent; 2) teaching morals, 38 percent; 3) Family unity, 36 percent; 4) Communication, 26 percent; 5) Love and affection, 24 percent; 6) Respect, 24 percent; 7) Time together, 21 percent; 8) Responsibility, 16 percent” (p. 6). Then they selected five families–healthy families–and sought to see how fully they inculcated such values. The De La Rosas of East L.A. exemplify a traditional Hispanic family, tightly knit and deeply committed to their Faith. The Wallaces of Indianapolis, the only family headed by a divorced mom, have stayed together through difficult times because of the mother’s extraordinary perseverance and her kids’ support. They too have found vital support in their church. The Burnses of Honolulu, also quite religious, have prospered financially and, unable to conceive children, adopted two multi-racial daughters. The Cowdens of Virginia live on a farm and have involved their children in its operation. The Cowdens are the only family in the book without evident religious faith, though one of the daughters became deeply involved in a church with her parents’ encouragement. The Burtins of Chicago, an African-American family living in the inner city, have created a fortress of strength and guidance, contravening many of the tendencies of the world which swirls around them. By looking at different kinds of people, living in different areas of the nation, Quayle and Medved show that internal rather than external conditions make for good families.

After interviewing each of the families, often spending several days with them, the authors set forth their success “secrets.” Concluding their study, they sum up (pp. 270-277) their findings under ten headings: 1) Respect; 2) Discipline; 3) Attentiveness; 4) Education; 5) Media Curtailment; 6) Financial Prudence; 7) Self-Sacrifice; 8) Commitment of Faith; 9) A Sense of Place; 10) Optimism and Gratitude. To teach children respect, discipline and attentiveness in a culture which encourages the opposite demands constant parental effort. So education, both in the schools and at home, proves essential. Kids just don’t grow up without guidance! None of the five families watched much TV, choosing to devote their time to family and church activities, getting outside and seeing the world as well as playing together in significant ways. Parents (even the relatively well-to-do Burnses) live frugally and encourage their children to appreciate the basic goods of life without becoming addicted to the gadgets and frills of our consumer society. All of the families treasure their communities–the De La Rosas and Burtins could have afforded to make upscale moves, but they chose to stay immersed in their network of family and church. And in the midst of it all, these families encourage one another, praise to God for life’s many blessings, and radiate a joy which comes from living life as it should be lived!

Quayle and Medved tell their families’ stories with empathy and clarity. The things which make healthy families certainly shine through their stories. The book reminds us of what it takes to rear the kinds of kids who don’t killl!

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