Men are only clever at shifting blame from their own shoulders to those of others. -- Titus Livius (59 BC - 17 AD)
Who is to blame for what happens when kids do bad things? When something awful happens everyone trots out his or her pet theory. The usual videogames- media- comics- weather- whatever- are- to- blame crowd chimes right in. And on the other side a lot of people throw the whole issue over the wall and blame parents when it comes to violent behavior. Since it's the parents' job to monitor their kids, if something goes wrong it must be the parent's fault. This is particularly popular in the game industry, but it's not exclusive to it. Both the mainstream and gamer species of parental name caller show up whenever there's blood on the floor, or blood in the air of the House of Representatives.
And something awful will happen. Sooner or later, no matter how hard we pray otherwise, someone will snap in a violent way. Some kid will go to school with a loaded weapon and murderous intentions, or beat someone up with a baseball bat. The predictable pundits and media players like our favorite Florida lawyer will get another slice of their 15 minutes of fame replaying their anti-videogame themes even if there aren't any there. The game industry press and forums will create or solemnly resurrect a thread from the past and add more entries casting their own stones of blame. More mainstream outlets like CNET will have polls and comments echoing along.
I don't buy any of it. I submit that people who reflexively blame parents for troubled kid's actions are just as at fault as those who reflexively blame video games. And none of the blaming does any of us a damned bit of good.
Broken Parents, Broken Kids
There are parents who are simply broken. Apalling stories of abuse and neglect like this are an all too common occurrence. And we see the side effects of these situations in the news, such as the case of Devon Moore. He was the young man who shot three cops in Alabama. His defense tried to blame it on his playing the video game Grand Theft Auto. The game is mentioned in every news story, but you have to dig deep to find any story that points out he was also abused, neglected, and shuffled between 21 different homes before he was 6. And no one at all asks where were the people who should have been taking care of him and watching what he was doing and maybe not letting him play several hundred hours of a mature-rated game.
But the parents that really worry me you'll never read about because they're all over the place. The myriad ways people find to mess up the simple but laborious process of taking care of a kid as they grow astound me. It's the benignly indifferent parents, the social engineers who are up on all the latest parenting theories and are busy inflicting them on you and their children, the over-wrought helicopter parents, and the ones who can barely manage to pass enough current through that pint of blue mush between their own ears to take care of themselves much less another human being who are dropping the ball in a hundred little ways every day. In those cases, whether or not their five-year-old is playing GTA is really just the tip of the problem iceberg and no one is looking at this at all.
A lot of people do not seem to believe in any sort of moderation or perspective in behavior of their children, or themselves. Really look at those kids acting like animals at a restaurant. Their parents do nothing, or worse, do something totally ineffective. Now, at what point do you think those parents are going to limit their child's actions? Before or after a school or maybe even the courts get involved? Letting a three year old act like that is one thing. Wait until they try to get control of a 15-year-old that's bigger than them.
And there are kids who are simply broken. There was a news expose on CNN about a young man who brutally murdered a homeless man. Gabe over at Penny Arcade made some very pointed comments about that boy's parents. The next day, he posted an email he received from that boy's stepmother. It detailed their long efforts to get help dealing with this boy and his problems to no avail. Reading the post reminded me so much of the trials I've gone through with my younger son. It took a lot of work but at least the authorities helped us. I hope like heck someone is taking a good look at the policies and procedures for Human Services in that state.
Laymen aren't alone in this blame-game. I know it's hard to take in with today's emphasis on finding first causes and assigning simple solutions to complex problems. But there are things we just do not understand about the way the human mind works.
There are professionals and pundits out there claiming they have all these answers, but no one has really ever conclusively proved a root cause for many problem kids. Any success at all in that area has been on a case-by-case basis; no generally applicable rules have been found. I consider even the case-by-case findings suspect. There are way too many like this case study published in 1997. It's about a 14-year-old who spent two years in an institution who still isn't considered diagnosed. He's been in treatment since he was 3 and showing symptoms since he could walk. This kid was been in a locked-down facility with three different psychiatrists and psychologists trying to figure him out for over two years. They've got three serious disorders to choose from based on his symptoms and they can't decide. But time and time again the aforementioned professionals and pundits who never even met that dead school-shooter want me to believe they truly understand what went on in his brain while he was in his bedroom doing Lord knows what for the last two years.
For many years, the medical community conclusively blamed parenting as the root cause of many mental illnesses. Schizophrenia, autism, depression, and bipolar disorder were all attributed to the actions of the patient's parents. For a blatant example of the thinking of the day, see particularly the fourth and fifth paragraphs of a paper called On the Dynamics of the Manic Depressive Personality, published in 1959 and still cited by various studies today. That's right. The fact that their parents sought upward mobility while they were growing up was causing people to be bipolar. They didn't believe it happened in children at all.
Thanks to new diagnostic tools, we have a very different picture of these illnesses. We still don't have any sort of idea what causes these problems, but at least we're admitting it now instead of claiming we've found a definite cause. But we've still got a long way to go. In a case study entitled "Two adolescents at risk for schizophrenia" published in 1985, excessive use of comic books are considered a leading indicator in a family with two sons who are schizophrenic. I'll buy it as a symptom, but I can't see how they consider it a cause.
Even if they're not broken, they're not perfect.
Even if your family has not been dealt a hand like that, you're not home free. Even the best parents out there are working in a minefield with a blindfold on. No matter how hard you try it isn't going to be good enough. You can be the most jackbooted of fascists or a proponent of the newest and most enlightened parenting techniques, but it's just not possible to be perfect. One of my ironic favorites on this issue is a young man I know out in the great wilds of the Internet who firmly maintains that parents are responsible for everything a kid does without fail. He espouses that position with great fervor, even while he is sneaking behind his parent's backs to be online when he's been grounded from the Internet.
Many of the very vocal proponents of parental responsibility are not parents. There's no sinister reason why. Even if you leave the geeky social stigmas out of it, that younger demographic hasn't started their family yet. And with people waiting later and later to start families even older people may not be on the baby-train yet or have very small children.
They are making a common mistake. They think you have the same real, direct control of teens as you do with your four-year-old. With little ones you decide what they eat, what they wear, when they sleep. Everything. They are with you and supervised 24 hours of every day. They're not quite ready for creating real mayhem yet, either. Their most destructive goal in life is to graduate to a size of Lego small enough they can flush some down the toilet and see what happens because that Barbie head and the orange they tried last month was pretty cool. I have four kids, and they're all teenagers. I wish they would have stuck with flushing things as their favorite pastime. I'm going to tell you a frightening secret: Once a kid hits junior high, parents don't have total control. You're lucky if you know what they ate today. And once they can get around on their own, you're fighting a holding action until they move out.
It takes a lot of hours to just police your own house. They have opportunities left and right to hide things from you and do things you don't approve of. Take a typical day. It's oh-dark-hundred on a weekday morning. Alarm clocks out right next to their heads, but the racket only wakes you. You knock on the doors and call their names to roust the little angels. The girls mumble a bit and emerge from their room already arguing over who gets the big bathroom mirror first. One of the boys slaps the snooze and they both pull the covers over their head. You get dressed, then hit the boy's door again nine minutes later when the alarm starts shrieking again. You open the boys' door this time, though, and after threading your way through the lumps and bumps of their stuff all over the floor you shake shoulders until you get actual responses in a human tongue. They lever themselves out of the bed, and as they blink and weave their way to where they left their jeans over in the opposite corner you are reminded that they're not your "little" angels anymore. They both tower over you by a foot. You tell them both to shave as you head out their door.
The boys stumble into the kitchen fully dressed. One is in a sort of neo-grunge ensemble of black jeans with 42 pockets of varying sizes all over the legs sprouting chains and snaffles at various points, a big thick leather belt with studs and a green t-shirt that reads "NOT GUILTY". The other is dressed in saggy jeans four sizes too large and a fleece pullover that's even bigger. He looks sort of like a penguin wearing a burlap sack. After a couple stern knocks on the bathroom door, the girls roll out in a cloud of scented steam and cargo pants. Whoops! Try again with the shirt, young lady. Why? Because I will be damned by all the Gods in Southern California before you're leaving the house in that. After several rounds about the shirt and a quick check on who has what plans for after school they all shoulder their 40-pound backpacks and hit the bus stop or start walking. On the way out the door the penguin kisses you on the top of the head, and the one in the green shirt reminds you he has Drama practice around a mouthful of bagel. The girls give you a smile and a wave from the corner. You clean up the breakfast mess (discovering that both girls managed to get out of the house without actually eating more than a bite or two) and head off to work.
Do you know what's in all those pockets all over their clothes? They do their own laundry now, so unless you are rifling their drawers or patting them down on a frequent basis I don't see how. How about inside the bottom part of their box spring? When was the last time you saw the top back shelf of their closet? What about the rest of the house? There are hiding spots everywhere. When was the last time you really looked at what was on the household computers? Do you even know their username and password? How about the Guest account? Have you seen their MySpace and Facebook pages? Do you know what their profiles on those sites say about them? Do you regularly search the trunk of your child's car or under the seats? One of my kids even resorted to snail-mail once to try to get around me and my controls on their computer. Are you looking at that?
Even if you do manage perfect coverage at your house, look outside it. Afternoon rolls around, and they call you at work to check in when they walk in the door. You're not home? Well, they're 16. They don't even qualify as latch-key kids anymore. Besides, even if you were there, it's not like you're watching them like a hawk out the kitchen window while they are playing in the back yard. The old swings hang empty now. The whole neighborhood is milling around from house to house to mall to sports to jobs to activities, and your kids are all a part of the big stew. Then the real worrying begins.
They're supposed to check in once an hour, or when they go to a new place. Great. But with the advent of cell phones you can't even be certain what area code they're in when they check in. Heck, whose phone number is that? Is it yet another new one for Tanya the Lost Phone Queen, or is that a new one for that Rachael chick again? They aren't pulling any nonsense when they're driving your car, but when was the last time you really checked theirs for anything more than repairs and general cleanliness? You don't have any say at all in their friend's car. You may have your Internet locked down, but not Joey-down-the-street's. His PC, game systems, and Internet connection are wide open and in his room behind closed doors and he has a very nice DVD writer. You've already talked to his parents once about the risks they're taking, but they gave you a whole spiel about how very mature he is and how they don't want to invade his privacy so I don't think they've done much. And then there's that Rob kid. Everyone talks about him, but you've never met him. He seems to know everyone and Tanner called looking for him again. I wonder why? Is he really that popular, or are the rumors he's dealing true? Tanner's dad is out of treatment again, but judging by the fact that he's drinking a beer in his front yard at 3pm it didn't stick this time either. I think the Tanner and the boys will be spending the night here on Friday rather than over there.
Do you know all their friends, and all their friend's friends? How about the friend-of-a-friend "hook ups" for drugs/alcohol/cigarettes, game systems and older-rated games, magazine collections (guns as well as porn). What about that kid down the street whose parent's liquor cabinet has a bad lock, or whose parents don't mind if he drinks or has sex as long as he's at home? Have you looked around your neighborhood lately? There's that spot down at the end of that one road where they all gather. What are they doing? You'll drive yourself crazy. For a parent, weekday afternoons are a hundred times worse than that evil hour right after curfew on a Friday night.
What's that? Your little angel wouldn't do that? I beg to differ. My little angels didn't find that tree down by the school parking lot where they stashed their oh-so-unfashionable coats themselves; they were initiated into the mysteries of it by a junior high friend when they were in sixth grade. Every neighborhood has "stash" spots where the kids leave stuff you won't allow in the house. They just pick it up when they go back out. Watch the paths the kids take to school, and then walk along them after they've gone home one afternoon looking for out of the way nooks and crannies. You'll be amazed at what you can find and they all know who uses which one every day. This information and other ways they all help each other get around their parents and teachers percolate through the school yard along the same channels that carried the lyrics to that "Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory Of the Burning of the School" song and the first five verses to "Mary Had a Steamboat" back when they were in elementary school.
And even with all your hard work, look closely at the yearbook they bring home at the end of the school year and you might just find a picture of your daughter in that shirt you thought you didn't allow out of the house. Cramming a skimpy little top into a corner of a huge backpack full of books is a no-brainer. Crap. I forgot the backpacks.
I don't think me being even more of a fascist would solve anything or even be healthy for the kids. And I am a fascist. I am wicked, mean, evil, bad, and nasty. I limit content ruthlessly at my house, and they are under strict monitoring when it comes to the computer and the other hardware. I require pretty much constant contact when they're out and about. I require any kid who comes over to my house to conform to the house rules. I expect my kids to follow those rules when they're out and about, too, but I'm realistic about it. Their friends keep coming back in large flocks, so it can't be too awful. And even with all that in place I've coped with every one of the situations I listed here, and a few festive variations I'll save for my tell-all book or my therapist. If you think back into the mists of prehistory you might remember a few things from your own teen years that you decided your parents were better off not knowing you had or did.
So now what?
Awful things happen. Violent behavior by youth is nothing new, and it happens all over the world. And every decade there has been some new scapegoat for it. Radio, comic books, television, movies, and rock-n-roll have all taken their turn standing where video games and rap music stand today in the minds of those who insist on finding something to blame for their problems. Parents always seem to be standing right beside the media target of the day. No one has any real black-and-white answers that actually solve anything.
There are no certainties and parents have no real guidance. All I know is I have to keep my kids from doing what that news report says that other kid did. How? No one knows what causes it. So what do I watch out for? That pundit says it is all the fault of this one thing, this news article says it's another. My pastor says I need to pray more, and my Mom decries the entire state of the world these days. Everyone has their pet theories and parents are dangled above the abyss, swinging between them all.
When these things happen, we need to start by looking at the entire problem. There are many factors that add up to make a bad situation into a violent tragedy and they all need to be assessed. Some parents and kids are broken, some kids really can't handle violent media the same way the rest of us can. Blindly throwing all blame on parents without giving them the tools to know what's going on or the authority to enforce that responsibility doesn't help anyone either. Maybe if we stop just assigning blame and start looking for solutions, we can do something to help these families before that tragedy has to strike.