Steubenville

“It is tempting to point fingers while ignoring some of the root causes that are much more difficult to resolve. The extent that youngsters (and some adults) spend endless hours being entertained by violence says more about lack of supervision and control as well as disengagement. It isn’t that the entertainment media are so powerful, but that other institutions — family, school, religion and community — have grown weaker. Banning violent entertainment seems like an easy fix, but would do little to avert the next mass murder.” – James Alan Fox, Professor of Criminology, Law and Public Policy at Northeastern University

It is strange that I would find the most enlightening comment about the Steubenville sexual assault case on the NY Daily News website (not exactly your top journalistic contender), and not in an article about the case but in a related link about violent video games and mass shootings.

Violence is pervasive in our culture, and there is no one root cause or easy fix, as Professor Fox says. It seems that our institutions have grown weaker, and it feels like little we do will stop the next assault and ensuing social media/entertainment news circus.

Fox is also right about disengagement. With everyone having a screen in their face all the time, whether or not that screen is showing us violent images, we are disconnected. And the screen enables us to post a horrific picture online without thinking twice. This is why all those institutions, as well as our human interactions, are weakened.

One of the tenets of human interaction is seeing the consequences of our behavior on the faces of those around us. We learn how to behave with others’ approval or disapproval. When we’re staring at a screen we don’t see the person on the other end. Or the one right in front of us, for that matter.

I’d been thinking about consequences before the Steubenville case blew up. Parents today are frantic to create a world for their children that is painless, and somewhere along the line some expert told us we can have that. We’ve bought into the notion that life can truly be a bowl of cherries, and for our kids that means no consequences.

In our effort to remove everything hard or painful from our kids’ lives, we’ve also eliminated their feelings. Their natural emotions and responses are tamped down and hidden. There is no appropriate place for letting them out. We don’t play in the neighborhood. We don’t ride our bikes unless it’s on paved trails. We barely even have recess anymore.

Kids rarely have interaction without adults telling them how to behave. They need to learn with their peers, outside of the protective bubble. They need to be wild, get in scrapes, and let their friends show them what’s acceptable. They need to kill a frog and feel how downright awful it is in the pit of their stomach. They need to learn this before the teen years, when we assume they’re ready and give them more freedom. And they should be doing it without social media at their fingertips 24/7.

I want to tell my sons to never ever do anything stupid, because it will be on every kid in your school’s cell phone the next morning. You will be damaged. But never making a mistake is impossible. We all do stupid things (thank God there were no pocket videorecorders around when I was young). I’m not sure how they’re going to make it through unscathed.

The atrocities that happened in Steubenville are not just about the sexual assault – they are about the overall treatment of another human being. Not just what was done to the victim’s body, but to her emotions and well-being. With all the disengagement that Professor Fox speaks of, young people are simply not learning how to treat each other.

I teach a brain development class in which I talk about the fact that the teenage brain is often incapable of seeing the consequences of actions, and exhibits deep denial behaviors (“We’re indestructible!”). How the moral centers in the brain have not yet developed even though the emotions and hormones are churning. That teens have an adult body with all the capabilities, but are still using a child’s brain. The U.S. Department of Justice tells the scary statistics: one-third of all crime is committed by children under the age of 18.

Still, one would hope that we’ve taught our kids well enough to know when to draw the line. We hope they’ll make good choices, and the work we’ve put into that will show when it counts. But alcohol plus a bunch of kids standing around cheering always leads to one hell of a dangerous situation.

Kids need consequences from adults and each other. They need to know that everything they do isn’t the greatest thing ever to hit the planet. It’s why I spend so much of my energy railing against the cult of sports. I’ve seen eleven-year-old boys being praised to the sky because they ran down a field with a ball. From that moment on, that boy knows he has every adult in the room wrapped around his finger. And if that’s true, what can he get away with among his peers?

Steubenville can and will happen again – precisely because there are cameras in every person’s pocket. While the images were used in a horrifying way to humiliate one young girl, they’ve also shed light on the type of activity that kids are participating in. The same images also led to the consequences that these kids so desperately deserve, and I applaud the local authorities for taking action and continuing their investigation.

As I write this, there are three boys wrestling rather violently in my play room. I’m not stopping them. They don’t want me to. Part of this play is learning limits to how far you can go with someone else’s body. When they hurt each other, they stop and check if the hurt person is OK. Someone said, “Time out,” and the others immediately let him go sit down.

I said, “I will let you continue this if timeout is sacred,” and they all accepted that rule without me even having to explain any further. They want to push the limits, but they also want to know the rules. If everyone is safe, they know that individually they’re safe too.

I hope and pray that as the boys in my playroom venture out into the teen years, where I can’t be there to supervise, that they will remember the lessons of these wrestling matches. And the lessons they see me working on from day one in my profession: We don’t put our hands on people in a harmful way. We don’t take things from them. We don’t hurt people’s bodies. No one is allowed to do these things to anyone else. It is unacceptable. And there will be consequences.

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