On February 14, 2018, Nicholas Cruz gunned down 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school in Parkland, Florida. School shootings have become so commonplace that they become old news after a couple of days. First, there's the outrage and heartbreak and demands made on lawmakers, our country's leaders, and armchair psychologists on Facebook ranting about everything from poor parenting to the absolute ban on assault rifles, to better mental health background checks. And then the dust settles and we wait for the next one. The brutal slaughter of twenty (TWENTY!) six year olds and six adult educators at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012 brought a wave of policy-changers to the surface, some of whom are still fighting today, and yet very little has been done to make sweeping changes in the way our country handles and manages firearms, the mentally ill, and the total disregard to human life where large monetary donations are involved.
So, you might be shouting from the rooftops "CHANGE NOW!" but that will only get you so far. You can, SHOULD, keep fighting for changes at the very top levels of our government, but what about starting small? What about starting in your own home, perhaps even in your own being, to make changes so small they may seem insignificant at first, but the ripple effect will astound you? If you knew that you had the power to make very real, significant changes that would add up to fewer acts of violence, would you do it?
First, let's stop putting our kids in front of screens for hours on end. "But, I don't!" you protest. Do you really know how long your child is exposed to screens and media in a given day? Have you ever actually documented it? How about how much time you spend looking at your phone instead of paying true attention to people? I think you would be surprised. Yes, even you. And me. I recently taught a 5th grade class (these are ten-year-old children) and over 50% of the class admitted to watching TV or using other technology for up to six hours a day. If they get off school at 4 p.m. that's a steady diet of screens until 10 p.m. Not only is that shocking, but a reasonable bedtime for a 10-year-old, who likely has to wake up by 7 a.m. is 9 p.m. Not to mention time for homework, dinner, talking to family members, unstructured play, and having a bedtime routine.
Screens and media include TV watching, computer and tablet use, and, according to the children I've taught, prolific video-gaming. Children as young as six have reported that they play Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto, two violent games that have age ratings ranging from Mature (17+) to R (18+). These games display violent, realistic images of killing people. Some even have parental settings to turn of the "blood and gore" and yet, the name of the game is still killing other people. How about we start by adhering to the ratings of video games and not allowing our impressionable six year olds to play violent games that ignore the permanence of death?
We live in a busy, busy society where families are often away from their homes 10+ hours a day. We no longer have the time or energy for family dinners, reading bedtime stories or just hanging out with no time constraints or agenda on a regular basis. But these things are proven to be crucial for building up well-balanced children. Children need time to think, process and be heard, all of which take significantly more time for the younger crowd. Adults have perfected the fast-paced, clipped conversation and the transfer of information via text messaging, email and video chat over face-to-face interaction. But children need time. They need significant pauses in order to process information and face-to-face interaction is crucial. Kids are not able to sort the nuances of emotion through digital means - they need to read faces, body language and visual cues in order to effectively communicate. "Car-talk" is often touted as a great way to communicate with a teenager - parent and child are in close proximity but not looking at each other often which promotes a feeling of security for the teen. But young children need to LOOK at you and be seen. Instead of sending them off to occupy themselves in front of a screen while you "get stuff done", you could involve them in the most mundane of daily chores and they will reap benefits just by interacting with you.
Perhaps without even meaning to, we've put children at the center of the universe and they know it! Most busy parents can count driving to countless lessons, traveling with select sports teams, and squeezing in an elaborate family vacation during school breaks as a large portion of how they spend their time. We give participation trophies and have switched from a punitive to rewards-based style of discipline in our schools. Of course, there are some positive benefits to this (no one wants to get their knuckles rapped by an ancient teacher-nun), but when a child ONLY behaves based on the reward waiting, we have a problem. Often, when I'm teaching, at the end of the day, I ask the students to "pick up ten items off the floor" in order to tidy the classroom. Sometimes we play a game of "secret scrap" where I identify a particular piece of trash and the child that scoops it up and deposits it in the trash can earns a small incentive. But other times when I ask them to do it just for the sole purpose of tidying up their space, I'm met with "But, what will we get?" My answer "The satisfaction of knowing that you contributed to making the classroom a better place" is often met with sighs and inactivity. Who wants to pick up trash if you're not getting a reward? We can combat this by involving our children in service projects from the earliest age. I sometimes volunteer with an organization that gives showers to the homeless on weekends. We serve lunch and package up "to go" snacks for the clients. This organization welcomes ALL ages, and we've brought children as young as five to help serve. One little kindergarten helper was thrilled to offer juice choices to the clients and we had an excellent opportunity to discuss why and how some people are less fortunate than others. Doing for others, without reward, is a crucial life lesson that should be encouraged from the time a child is a toddler.
This one seems so obvious, but when was the last time you were kind, genuinely kind, to another person? Most of us like to think we are kind on a daily basis, but are you really? With all the business in life, it's hard to find time to eat healthy, work out, take care of a family, work, read, engage in social activities, keep up on social media and sleep much less take time to act kindly toward another person. But some of the most heartwarming acts of kindness I've received have been a random Facebook message saying I'm a good mom, or that my family's antics make someone laugh. It doesn't have to be elaborate (but it can be). I set a goal to do 50 random acts of kindness in honor of my 50th birthday this past year and I'm sorry to say I have only done two or three and it's been two months since I turned 50. Clearly I need to step up my game, but some of the ways I've chosen to display kindness are: buying coffee for someone (either spontaneously or as a pay-it-forward in a drive-through; I've done both), sending an encouraging message to someone, surprising someone with a small, unexpected gift (for a holiday or just because), and offering a genuine offer of help to people I know (or don't know except through a Facebook group). We can teach our kids to make this a daily part of their lives. Often, as my kids were growing up, I would receive a love note on my desk or a small, unexpected gift when they returned from an outing. These were the "keepers" in life - the things I can keep and look back on and remember nothing but kindness.
As a teacher, I can tell you that respect for authority is an antiquated concept. In some ways, this is a good thing - we've taught our children to question authority for their own safety and to promote change. But, unchecked, this can create a hostile and difficult situation. In teaching such, we have forgotten to teach mutual respect. It's so important for children to know that respect goes both ways - and relatively simple to demonstrate it. Let's say your teenager has a screaming meltdown over cleaning her room, yet has plans to go to the mall with friends later. If you state that in order for her to earn something from you (the ride to the mall), you need respectful behavior from her (calmly cleaning her room), then you have set up reasonable guidelines. If she refuses to hold up her end of the deal, you refuse to hold up yours. ALL actions have consequences but in order to shield our kids from disappointment and embarrassment we give in and appease. As a result, our kids learn about empty threats and inaction. Parents lie for their kids and direct their anger at teachers for a poor grade, or a discipline issue. If your child sees you screaming at their teacher, how can you expect them to respect her? This spills over into social media as well. We all have differing views and we feel strongly about them. As a result entire lives have been changed and destroyed by something as simple as a social media post. Who would have thought, ten or twenty years ago that we would have so much power with a keyboard or that lives would, quite literally, be lost over a few keystrokes? And it's not just cyberbullying. It's adults berating each other over political posts, or "unfriending" over a difference in parenting. As hard as it is to bite your tongue and just let it go, these small actions are huge when it comes to teaching mutual respect.
So much has been shouted about better mental health checks in regards to purchasing firearms. The real problem here, is that when ELSE do we demand mental health checks? Mental health IS health - just like our brains are in our heads, and our teeth reside there too, we need health coverage that covers the WHOLE PERSON, not just parts of their bodies. Health insurance should cover everything and not need to be supplemented by "mental health coverage" or "dental coverage". My family has had an abundance of mental health situations that have shaped and formed us to be more aware of mental health overall and spot the signs of depression and anxiety in our friends and family. Years ago, we didn't have mental health insurance - we had health insurance but no coverage for seeing a psychologist or receiving therapy. At the time, that was a need in my family and I was beyond frustrated because no coverage meant no action and things only spiraled downward. Many years after that, we recognized the signs of severe anxiety and depression in our daughter and were able to seek out (and have covered) treatment at a children's hospital. In fact, in the year that followed, two more of our children received treatment for depression at hospitals and today, there are no outward signs or scars that might tell a prospective gun seller NOT to sell a firearm to my children. In fact, all of my children function quite well as socially responsible, compassionate, well-rounded adults and any one of them could, if they chose, purchase a firearm today. Should they? I have no reservations about them harming themselves or others AT THE MOMENT. But what if they get caught in the depths of depression again? What if a new wave of despair rolls over them at any given time, catching them off-guard and putting them in harm's way because they were able to easily purchase a firearm? Of course, no one can predict the future, but had my children shown warning signs, posted concerning rants on social media, talked to people about harming themselves or others, I would have acted. Because I DID act, when I saw posts that concerned me, questioning the value of their lives and expressing thoughts about not residing here on Earth. I DID act and I got them the help they needed. And I am NOT ashamed and I am unconcerned about "what other people think" because my only concern is and was the health and safety of my children. I have reached out to other parents when their children were in crisis, have assisted in finding programs and treatment for them, and when their parents didn't listen or were too concerned about the stigma of poor mental health, I tried to be a friend to them. My husband and I even started our own support group, because, although we were not experts (and owned up to it) we knew we could provide a safe place for people to talk about the oft-ignored shaky mental health of our young people. We should, NEED to be checking up on the mental health of our kids, our students, and all of the people we come in contact with regularly. No one should have to be ashamed of talking about their most frightening thoughts. We need to make this the norm and if we see something, we need to report it. To parents, educators, doctors, anyone who will listen. It's so easy to chalk up mood and behavior changes in young people to "typical" but it is NOT typical for your child to spend all waking hours in their room, to sleep all day, to drastically change their behavior, dress or appearance suddenly, to show a renewed interest in dark or violent things, or to become secretive. Don't stand by and wait. Push in (gently) and get the answers you need. NEVER make your child feel like anything they say or do will dissolve your love for them. And don't dismiss young children; many mental illnesses begin at a surprisingly early age.
Teaching tolerance has become closer to mainstream than ever. But we have a long way to go. It's hard to believe that issues such as racial intolerance are still alive and well today, but examples of it are everywhere. And race is only one issue. I teach in public school where we have many families with LGBTQ parents, transgender children, and every type of family definable. I have a married, gay daughter and a gay son. You'd think tolerance was bred in me, but you would be wrong. When I was young, I was taught there were "right" ways and "wrong" ways for people and families to be. Divorced parents were common, but still "weird". Biracial families and children - also common, but "odd". And being gay? That wasn't even an option. I used slurs and made jokes just like my peers. I honestly had no idea, as a sixth-grader, that I was promoting hate. It just wasn't discussed. Fast forward to my own children coming of age, and my house was filled with kids who were gay, lesbian, or questioning. Biracial kids spent the night. Heck, we even opened our home to a biracial young woman who we'd known since she was seven, and she is as much a part of our family as my own children. Good for us, right? Not exactly. As a person who grew up in a generation where tolerance was NOT generally taught (yes, I knew enough not to stare at the person in a wheelchair, but I was not encouraged to talk to them), I had to go through some growing pains. Now, I find it hard to believe that my tolerance was ever different, but I can admit that it wasn't always as high as it is now. And now, well, I believe to the core of my being that every person has the right to live their genuine life, whatever that may be. I don't have to embrace it as my own, but I can definitely be tolerant and respectful. How awful to not be allowed the same treatment as another human being! We are all living, breathing, loving and getting through this life and we struggle and hurt just like the next person. The least we can do is lift each other up and make that struggle a tiny bit easier.
So, you think someone should do something? How about you? You can do all of these things TODAY in your own home. Should you continue to fight and push your efforts towards safer laws and checks? Absolutely. But in the meantime, instead of begrudging the slow progress or shouting about reform with no real plan, try doing what you can to just be a decent human being, every single day; reach out to help others, educate yourself on issues you don't know much about, foster mutual respect and understanding, discuss rather than shout, and don't let the busy-ness of life get in the way of real connections and memories with the people you love. Go outside. Explore. Talk. Eat. Play. Change. The answer is within us. We will never eradicate violence entirely, but we are ultimately responsible for the factors that put it into action. What can YOU do?