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Opinion & Essays - Jun, 1998 Issue #52

by: Lon Woodbury

Schoolyard shootings were unthinkable only a few short years ago, but now are becoming common headlines. This seems to be the violent fringe area of an ongoing broad culture shift in American attitudes, especially attitudes about and on the part of American youth and their parents. 

The causes and details of this shift, and of increasing youth violence, are being endlessly debated throughout the country. How helpful is much of this debate is questionable, because of the old truism that half the solution to a problem is an accurate definition of the problem. When we latch onto surface explanations that don’t fit all the significant facts, we wind up solving problems that don’t exist. The public discussion following the latest schoolyard shooting in Oregon is a good example of how the standard explanations not only often don’t fit, but seem to just be looking for an easy target to blame! 

On the morning of May 21, 1998, 15 year old Kip Kinkel opened fire in the Thurston High School cafeteria in Springfield Oregon killing two students and wounding 22 others, shocking the whole nation. The shock turned almost to numbness when it was learned the boy apparently had also just previously shot and killed his parents. Part of the shock was this didn’t seem to be just an isolated senseless tragedy, but the latest in a growing number of school shootings from all parts of the country. For commentators, the other part of the shock was that none of the standard explanations fit. As I write this, details are still somewhat sketchy, but public discussion following this latest schoolyard shooting is a good example of how the popular explanations miss the point and can be both extremely unfair and misleading. 

“His parents must have been terrible parents.” Not true according to long time friends and neighbors who saw the pains the parents had taken to provide emotional, spiritual and material support for their two children. They had even organized a semester of home schooling to help get his academics back on track, a tremendous investment of the parents’ personal time and attention. 

“It must have been a really crazy, dysfunctional family.” Again, not true, according to friends, neighbors and long time associates. Besides, his older sister had been academically and socially quite successful while coming from the same family. Instead, all evidence so far shows the boy was the dysfunctional person in the family, as even testified to by other students who had thought he was weird and harmless. 

“Well, both parents were teachers and professionals, so they must have spent so much time on their careers their son was left on his own too much of the time.” Again, not true according to friends who spent hours with the father while he confided his concerns and fears about the decisions his son was making, and discussed his proactive attempts to guide his son away from a destructive obsession with guns, violence and bombs. Others reported how the parents arranged their schedules to ensure at least one parent would always be available to him, and how they arranged medication, counseling, and anger management sessions with professionals for their son to get him the help he needed. 

“There must have been advance signs of trouble. Someone should have listened.” There were, and they did. His parents, the therapist, family friends and school officials were very concerned and did everything they could think of, which was all the standard interventions that are commonly acceptable. The only thing they apparently didn’t do was some kind of residential experience for their son, either treatment or otherwise. But, that is an extremely difficult judgment call for parents. There are considerations of stigma, and likely criticisms from those who think residential placement is some kind of punishment or a violation of the child’s rights. There is an increasing reluctance by insurance companies to support long term placements, observations that many children have not been helped by expensive residential treatment anyway, and oftentimes the fear by parents that that option will be interpreted by the world as proof of poor parenting. 

“The responsibility lies with children’s easy access to guns.” For Kinkel, in the critical 24 hours before the school shooting, access was anything but easy. The first attempt the morning before the school shooting resulted in his being suspended from school for possessing a gun a friend had obtained from a burglary. Even trying the black market illegal handgun route was not that easy. So he kept trying, and the second attempt the afternoon before the school shooting was to get the guns at home that were under lock and key. The only reason guns were even in his home was because his father had decided he could have more control over his son’s obsession with guns if he himself bought them, required gun safety classes, and target practiced with his son. His father personally had no interest in guns, but was convinced that simply banning guns would only have resulted in his son acquiring guns on his own, with no chance of adult influence and control. The father firmly believed lack of supervision would have increased the chances of a tragedy, so took his chances. It seems the boy had to go through his father, literally, to get access to those guns. 

None of the other standard explanations fit. The parents had never divorced, he was not adopted, was not poor, and neither a minority nor an inner city child. He was from a normal, positive, functioning American family, with parents who were widely respected and heavily involved in parenting. 

Most popular explanations insist a tragedy like this simply does NOT happen in healthy, functioning families! They say there MUST be some deep, dark, hidden secret in a family that causes a child to go out-of-control or do something violent. They say children are not born that way! Actually, this boils down to, “Blame the parents!” Well, not necessarily, according to my 14 years experience working with families and their out- of-control teenage children. 

In my experience, out-of-control teens, of which the Kinkel boy is a more violent version, come from all segments of the population. They come from rich and poor families, urban, rural and suburban, all races, intact and broken families, permissive and very strict parents, and with stay-at-home mothers as well as hard working career mothers. True, often these standard explanations are part of the mix of explanations when a child turns out-of-control, but often the root cause turns out to be something entirely unexpected, and frequently coming more from a child’s confused fantasies of how the world works. 

The major reason I question the accuracy and helpfulness of the popular explanations of why children go wrong is I work with a small but significant number of families who seem perfect parents. Their families are intact, and they are successfully raising several children, of which only one started making significantly poor decisions like heavy drug use, skipping school, running from home, etc. Until we have a better understanding and consensus of what the real problem is, based on facts, the popular explanations based on emotional faith in some simplified theory or other are going to unjustly blame these families for their children’s actions. These surface explanations, which, by mindlessly weakening and criticizing strong parents, will only contribute to the problem. Plus, these families are a strong case that popular explanations are missing some important and vital facts. 

So let the debate continue! Let’s try to understand what the cultural shift is, how it is impacting our society, and what we might constructively do about it. But it’s vital to remember, the popular simplistic explanations are not only NOT telling us what we need to know, but are causing us to look in the wrong directions. We need understanding of this culture shift based on facts and wisdom, not a faith in emotional theories and popular psychology. Further, we need to honor the Kinkels and all those other parents who have grappled with out-of-control teens without effective support or understanding from society. Let’s not be so quick to simply blame them and think we are expressing knowledge. 

Copyright © 1998, Woodbury Reports, Inc. (This article may be reproduced without prior approval if the copyright notice and proper publication and author attribution accompanies the copy.)

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