Last weekend a friend of mine (Let’s call her Jane) with 4 year old was lamenting accidentally giving her daughter a black eye. How did this tragedy happen? Little Suzy (not her real name) had gotten into the habit of slamming doors around the house. As fast as her four year old legs could take her she was slamming doors in the kitchen, the bathroom and bedroom, sometimes going so far as to open doors just so she could slam them. Kids and their phases I guess. No matter how many times Jane told her to stop Suzy would look like she was sorry and a few hours later be slamming doors to her heart’s content. Then Suzy got her comeuppance courtesy of Mommy and physics. Seeing Suzy peering behind her home office door Jane told her daughter to NOT SLAM the door. And when Suzy tried anyway, Jane put out her hand, not realizing that the door would bounce back and bonk Suzy in the head. Crying ensued, Mommy kisses were bestowed and 4 year old Suzy got a black eye and a lesson. Or so one would hope.
In the wake of more and more mass killings and shootings in America public discussion has moved back to the tried and true whipping boy which is American parenting. Adam Lanza had a bad mother who didn’t properly deal with her son’s mental illness, the Aurora Shooter’s parents weren’t loving enough, the Columbine murders never would have happened if the parents had been more involved etc. etc. It is painfully easy to see parents as the root of all evil when it comes to these maniac shooters, either in their failure to properly manage their children or failure to train them right to begin with. Unfortunately all these critiques more or less rely on people having children with nominally normal learning styles and experiences while growing up.
The Baby Boomers began to think (in some corners) that spanking was a bad idea for children. Hitting a child did lasting psychological damage and taught anger and resistance more than correction. So the idea in the 70’s and 80’s moved to limiting children’s access to privileges (time outs) an reward systems in order to raise kids properly. More recently the trend has been called “Natural Consequences” parenting, where (within reason) you allow children to experience the consequences of their own behavior and that is a much better lesson than yelling, limiting privileges or punishing. I can tell you a million times not to touch the hot stove but you won’t stop until you burn your hand. I can argue with you all morning about putting on a coat but when you go outside in your summer clothes and get cold you’ll learn your lesson. I can chase you around the house telling you to not slam doors but when a door bounces back and bonks you in the nose you’ll learn. Except when you don’t.
The problem with blaming some parents in the case of these shooting tragedies is that some kids don’t learn. They will keep touching that oven no matter what. Maybe they’re mentally ill, or stubborn or just forgetful, either way if they don’t learn when they’re 7 what makes you think they’ll have it all together at 20 or 25? The rules for parenting may change names every decade but the basics for raising children have not changed all the much over time. The mothers and fathers of all of these killers may have tried every method under the sun to raise their sons and none of them took. Some kids are just hardheaded, and some kids have deeper problems that time outs, burnt hands and even spankings won’t cure. And just because a parent can’t always identify that does not mean they should be held responsible for everything that child does in all cases.
When I asked Jane if she thought her little four year old Suzy had learned her lesson about slamming doors, she sighed. “Well,” she said “Suzy has a bruise, but she’s got an incredibly high pain threshold for a baby, and a pretty short memory too. So I don’t know.” Childhood + High Pain Threshold + Short Term memory is not a good combination for any parent to face for the next 14 years. However Jane will try her best and see how it all turns out. In the end, that’s all any parent can do. And if a child turns out to cure cancer or become the next Sandyhook murderer we can’t put it all on the parents. We can just hope they did the best they could with the child they had.