The tragedy from last Friday in Newtown is still bouncing around my mind. When I saw images of the children I literally lost my breath. It’s unexplainable and so sobering. We have seen tragedies like this at college and high school campuses but never something like this at an elementary campus with children so young. It provoked emotion in our nation that hasn’t been seen in awhile. My heart and prayers go out to this community because it will be a long recovery.
Events like these always spark a debate nationally over things like gun control and mental health. I am not going to wade into that. What I would like to discuss is the personal level of this event.
On Friday I was spending the day with my wife down in Santa Barbara while my children were in school. No sooner had I arrived downtown that my phone started blowing up with texts, tweets, and emails about this event. It was hard to get an understanding because we weren’t near a TV but we got the kist of what was going on. You could almost feel the mood switch on State Street from jovial rushed holiday spirit to one of sobering reality.
When I got home they were reporting on the shooter and his family. They described his troubled youth, withdrawal from school, and his very quiet but brilliant nature. They were associating him with previous shooters at places like Columbine. As a person who has been in ministry close to twenty years and worked with youth for over half of that I recognized this type of kid immediately. What the news described as mental illness resides in millions of teens today. Sadly many young adults feel the way this young man feel but almost all of them don’t act on it. Many harbor thoughts of doing harm to people who have hurt them but never follow through.
I am of the belief that this could’ve been prevented. I am not talking about counseling or even intervention. The seeds of this behavior are planted early. Let me explain. You often see the beginnings of this type of behavior early on. Left on it’s own it only manifests itself. There are some things that can trigger it later in life, like in this situation the divorce of parents, but often you see the acting out of the child from the early stages.
This results a lot from the behavior of the parents. What I am about to say is probably controversial and even offensive but needs to be said. There is a lot of selfishness in parenting today that produces a lot of acting out by children. Let me give you an example. Tuesday night I was at my son’s basketball game. There are several players on the team that are behavioral challenges. The coach spends as much time chasing after these boys as he does coaching the team. On Tuesday the team was on the floor playing and these three boys were on the bench. They decided they were bored so they left and wandered into the lobby. The coach had to chase after them. The funny thing that all three parents were sitting right by the entrance to the lobby and didn’t stop them. Shocked? It’s really becoming the norm in youth sports.
There was a mother who was totally disinterested and by her body language didn’t want to be there. There was the mother who had her nose in her phone and wasn’t aware of anything going on. Finally there was the mother who had a glaze over her eyes and had checked out. There wasn’t one father present.
I think these three are perfect examples of why children are turning out the way they do. Whether it be disinterest, distraction, or disengagement all point to a parent that is more interested in themselves than anything else. I am not naive, parenting is the hardest work anyone will ever do. It totally wipes you out and never stops requiring more. I think that is what catches many of these parents off guard. For some reason they think they can go on living like they did before they had children. You Can’t.
Parenting takes everything you have and then some. If you don’t rely on the grace and power of God you aren’t going to make it. That said there are some things need to be done by parents that only parents can do. I want to suggest three:
- Discipline: What I mean by discipline is not punishment but consistency. I heard a great definition of discipline the other day; “Discipline is the consistency of actions and values over a long period of time.” Children need that kind of discipline. They need constant reinforcement of action and values to produce consistency. That means that they go to bed at the same time every night and get up at the right time every morning. They complete their school work and show up to commitments on time. Actions like these produce discipline that produces improvement.
- Behavior Modeling: Every child that I see who could fall into the dangerous category has behavioral issues. By this I mean that they tend to be shy and reserved. This is normal in most children but can be improved. They do this by watching their parents talk with adults and when they interact with adults they are made to respond. If an adult greets your child make them respond in a polite and respectful way. Shyness can be an excuse that many deviant behaviors are rationalized.
- Expectations: I am blown away at the lack of standards children have today. Hold your children to expectations. This may mean behavior, academics, sports, relationships. Parents are becoming more and more weary of confrontation with their children and so let them do whatever they want. When my children are playing a sport we have certain expectations of how they should play. It has nothing to do with stats but with effort. We have the same expectations with how they deal with their peers and adults. If you fall before these expectations we are going to tell them. Children are always testing to see what they can get away with. As parents we have to maintain a level of expectations with our children. They may resist but every rebellious soul resists what is right. We have to be that standard bearer in our children’s lives.