Children and Violence

The news about children and violence has been grim lately. I’m tired of the daily grind of shootings and homicidal bullying. It feels like a sickness. The word tragic has even become rote in this game. We hear tragic every day and it becomes less tragic.

After a teacher was killed protecting his students in Sparks, Nevada last week, the NRA yet again called for more guns in schools, going so far as to say that honor students should carry them. Their standard, cold-hearted, almost inhuman response to gun violence is to add more guns to the picture.

Let’s put it this way: We don’t allow people to vote until they’re 18. Because until then, people don’t have the reasoning and decision-making skills to make a choice that affects others. If they can’t color in a bubble next to someone’s name, they can’t have a gun. Period.

Then the story in Florida of the 12- and 14-year-old who bullied another 12-year-old to death got even more intense. After the 14-year-old was arrested on a felony charge because of her “lack of remorse,” her stepmother was arrested days later for viciously beating her children. After more investigation, the county sheriff declared that even the victim “grew up in a disturbing environment, not unlike the one her accused bully was raised in.”

I don’t feel shock anymore. I feel angry. It’s time for parents to step up. Stop blaming video games and movies and all the things you ALLOW your child to be exposed to for hours and hours for their bad behavior. The things, in fact, that you’ve sought out to babysit your kids while you spend your time doing whatever it is that’s more important than being with them.

The way your children treat others is taught first and foremost by you. Don’t look to the schools or teachers or their friends or coaches to teach them how to be a good person. Do it yourself.

Last week my son showed me an article in his Scholastic News (elementary school flashbacks) about a town in Wisconsin that is fining the parents of bullies. I was tickled that he wanted to show it to me, rather than being sick to death of hearing me talk about the subject. It was a great conversation and I was happy to hear his viewpoints. But most interesting was our conclusion: it’s a step in the right direction, but it’s not enough.

Get help. Just because you had a kid doesn’t make you a parenting expert. It only makes you one of a million other people who had kids and don’t know what the hell they’re doing. Who are now faced with hundreds of decisions every day that seem to have lasting consequences reaching into the future and the good of your child. It’s overwhelming and stressful.

When we’re physically sick, we go to the doctor. It’s time for us to realize that we are mentally sick too, and get some help. I don’t care if it’s a guidance counselor, therapist, teacher, child care provider, anyone you trust. Just get help.

I spend all day every day teaching kids how to communicate with each other and how to understand what the others want. Compassion, empathy, remorse. The basic things we need to function with other people. The other day my little guy – 21 months old – bit someone after a fight over a toy. I used my usual tactics to handle the situation and while I was still tending to the girl he bit, he walked over of his own accord, put his hand on her shoulder, and said, “Sorry Janie.” She turned around and hugged him.

Astounding. And utterly possible. That’s less than two years old, folks. If a toddler gets it, the rest of us should be able to.

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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.

A Computer-Free Weekend

“People are getting overrun by technology. The future is here.” – Younger Son

The other day Older Son had to explain what a meme is to me. That’s the first time that’s happened in twelve years. But it describes what I got in my email last week so I thought I’d be cool and use it. The meme in question was a bunch of pictures of people with their noses in cellphones and an Einstein quote that said, “I fear the day that technology will surpass our human interaction. The world will have a generation of idiots.”

Like many memes, I can’t find proof that Einstein ever said that, so it’s probably just someone’s opinion. Einstein wasn’t the type of guy to refer to people (especially those younger than him) as idiots. Nor do I believe we have a generation of idiots on our hands.

On the contrary some scientists believe that technology is actually speeding up our evolution. Whether that’s good or bad is up for debate but, it is what it is (to quote an overly-used and somewhat annyoing meme).

What I do agree with is that we are living with screens in our faces, and it’s becoming more and more pervasive, like it or not. I’m not anti-computer. In fact I need it to do most of my work and my laptop is probably my favorite thing. Next to my iPod of course.

But I’ve been taking computer-free weekends more and more often now and I’m quite enjoying them, more than I thought I would. This time it was a LONG weekend – Thanksgiving at Grandma’s house – and I left the computer behind. Egad.

There were times over the weekend when I missed my technology. I needed it to look up Christmas wish lists and basketball schedules, and check our now-online family calendar (a move I resisted as long as I could – what do we do during the next week-long power outage? Paper is still good for a lot of things, like calendars. And contact lists that don’t get destroyed when they go through the wash in your pocket).

At these times we had to fight over the one available computer. Luckily when we wanted the movie listings they were still in the newspaper. We found ways to get around the hardship.

And I could always borrow someone’s phone or iPad to get to the internet. It was very meta (is that a meme?) to be watching a TV commercial about how advertisers are losing viewers to handhelds while two people sat on the couch looking at their handhelds.

But Grammy’s house is family time. We played games and made craft projects and baked. Older Son and I built his science project while Grandpa let Younger Son try out the drill press. We read books. Real ones! (I really hope books make it. I HATE reading on a Kindle and I’m not afraid to say it. Oh crap the tech police may be after me at this very moment.)

I finally convinced one of my kids to play double solitaire with me, which was what I did at my Grammy’s house. My sister pointed out that she still has the deck of cards we used.

I found that by far, I’m happiest when my whole family extricates ourselves from technology. More often than not we have to leave the house in order to do this, but that’s just fine. For this weekend it meant a climb on a glacial rock, a long walk to the beach, and watching surfers ride the waves in the warm sun for half an hour.

So much better than what you find online.

I got way behind on Facebook and had to recover from that. And realized, is it that important to keep up? I basically only use it to get messages from people who don’t have my cell number. Or, strangely, can’t look me up in the phone book (another book that I’d really like to see survive. God I feel like a dinosaur).

I even sat down with a pen and a piece of notebook paper to write this weekend. It felt old-fashioned, and odd, but good. I had a small victory over technology. Its hold over me is weakening. My son and Einstein can relax – we’re gonna be OK.

Stop Me, I’m Talking for No Reason Again

I had a problem with NO ONE LISTENING TO ME the other day. I don’t know why that happens. I don’t think there was anything different in my delivery. Is it because one kid decides not to and gets away with it, and the others know it immediately, and they all go “woo-hoo happy fun do what you feel day!”?

That is really annoying.

It started early, which I guess is how it always starts. Just one of those days. My boys were getting ready for school – let me re-phrase that. I was desperately trying to get my boys ready for school, and I hear Older Son’s newest mantra: “Hold ooo-oooon!” His latest obsession is the Fossil Fighters video game and he can’t put it down when “I’m in the middle of a battle!!!”

I actually heard myself saying, “I will throw that game away if you don’t stop playing!!”

I would never throw my kid’s game away. First of all, that’s just plain mean and ridiculous. But second, I paid for it and it cost a lot of money. It would be stupid.

I think Older Son knows this, because he didn’t stop battling.

I give up on him and move to the day care kids, because at least I can get them loaded into the buggy. Miss D and Miss A are fighting over the front door. I tell them to back away while trying to wrestle Miss C’s shoes on (lately she has decided that only SHE will put her shoes on. Unfortunately, she can’t put her shoes on).

Younger Son is pleading for help finding his show & share object that I told him to find six times already, you know, back when we had an hour to get to school.

Miss D and Miss A are still fighting over the front door and it’s getting to where someone is going to get their fingers slammed. My I’ve-Had-It voice comes out: “CLOSE! THE! DOOR!” They both look at me with that teenage attitude face – Whaaat? Then they commiserate: OMG. I mean really, how dare she!

Finally we are all outside except for Older Son. I heave the buggy onto the street, pulling my back in the process. I yell to him that We! Are! Leaving!

There are times when I’m afraid the neighbors are going to call the authorities on me.

By the time he got outside he was whimpering. I’m not sure whether to roll my eyes or let my heart break into the thousand pieces I can feel cracking in it. He said, “I would have been out here already if my laces didn’t break when I was tying my shoes.”

At this moment I feel two very opposing emotions. Furious that he’s still tying his damn shoes when the bell’s going to ring in five minutes. And the shattering heart, because I could hear the frustration, sadness, and stress in his voice.

Oh yeah, and really really annoyed because now I have to re-lace his shoes and the bell is going to ring in three minutes.

By the time I got to school I told Michelle that I was having a Fossil Fighters burning party at high noon, and did she want to come? She said “That sounds like fun!”

But it was good to hear that she’s dealing with this too lately. I heard her telling her son, “I’m only saying it once.” One of my clients told me that her son’s new thing is telling her, “I don’t have to listen to you.”

I guess it’s “that time of year,” especially with the school kids. They can taste the freedom and they’re done with school. So I’m fighting the usual battle of dragging my boys to school, but now intensified, on top of them ignoring me all morning. Love it!

The next time we were running late and I had to resort to putting them in the car they asked, “How soon until the bell rings?” and I said (with a little satisfaction at savoring the moment of their panic), “One minute.” And they panicked and said, “We’re going to be late!!”

And I said, “When I say something I’m usually telling the truth. I don’t do all this talking just for the sake of talking!”

Lego Indiana Jones is Fun

Boy oh boy do I get in a lot of trouble around video games. Older Son’s two best friends are big gamers, and they’re basically the friends who got him into them. So I’m not in trouble with my friends. But when I talk to other parents, that’s another story.

Nobody flat out tells me, “You shouldn’t be letting your kids play that.” But you can see it in their eyes. It’s like the little red flags pop up in their pupils.

I grew up with Pong. Then we had the Commodore 64 and Atari. Nintendo came around and I played Super Mario until 2AM. Then I graduated from college, got a life, and stopped playing.

Though I do remember one boring winter weekend in the decade before we were married, Dave and I went to Best Buy and somehow a Nintendo 64 fell off the sale rack into our cart. So we had to take it home and play a lot of Donkey Kong.

Then I got a real life – again – and stopped playing video games. Then I had kids and all I heard was how bad video games are for children!!! I didn’t have such strong feelings, having grown up on them and thinking I turned out to be a pretty normal person. But still, I held out as long as I could because I had to be a good little ’00s mommy.

And then one friend had a DS, and another had a PlayStation, and my sons had to have it, so birthdays and Christmas brought them wonderful surprises.

At first I was terrified of the PS2 controller. WAY too many buttons levers menus and even vibrating things happening there! So I stayed away. But when 4-year-old Younger Son started kicking butt on Lego Star Wars, I decided it was time to step in. Besides they were both laughing at the hilarious cartoons at the end of the levels so I had to see what all the fun was about.

And it was fun. First it was fun because they got to laugh at how bad I was at everything. I didn’t know who my character was (there is so damn much going on in there!), I didn’t know what direction I was going. Older Son was upstage left while I was wandering downstage right, and I couldn’t figure out why I couldn’t steer (he was pulling me in, for those of you non-gamers). I pushed the wrong button all the time and they had to scold and yell at me until I got it right. It was so fun for them to know it all and for me to be the big dope.

But then I got good. I started my own version of the games and we would challenge each other. I got 46 percent done, you’re only on 43! Sweet Younger Son only wants to work on helping both Older Son and I improve our scores, he never wants to start his own game. Whose game he plays depends who he loves more that week (or who, in his opinion, needs his help the most).

When the Wii came along I wasn’t all that interested, it didn’t look as fun as the PS2 games and I couldn’t get my hands on it anyway (the boys were always fighting over it). But eventually they sucked me into that one too – we can all play at the same time! And they still love it when I lose my mind because I stink.

Dave doesn’t play video games, so this is the one arena where I’m the cool parent. Come on, I might be mom but he’s got ALL sports and wrestling. If I even TRY to play ball I hear nothing but, “You’re just not as good as Daddy!” So when the boys want to play Wii with a grownup, it’s me they come to.

So the moral of my story? Video games are good (if you can’t go that far, just try for “not evil”). My boys are not glazed-over couch potatoes; in fact, for a while Younger Son created a video game workout. While he was playing he would be standing on the edge of the couch, bouncing up and down in time with his character, as if he was actually inside the game. I have priceless video of that somewhere.

We don’t spend hours and hours and hours and wasted hours in front of the screen (unless it’s rainy/snowy or we just got a new game). They spend most of their time doing other things, and this is just one thing for them to choose.

And you know what? We have a lot of fun together when we’re playing them. That’s all that matters to me.