In search of solutions for troubled children


It has taken the most recent school rampage in Oregon to awaken the public to the horror of what is happening to our youth. Several times recently I’ve heard people say: “This one really got to me.” Perhaps it was a healthy optimism that led most of us to believe that the rash of shootings over the past several months was indeed an aberration, not evidence of a horror so great we don’t know how to begin to address it.

Even the experts appear to be struggling to come up with answers. While I’ve long been an advocate of restricting gun ownership, I’m willing to concede that availability of guns isn’t the cause of school violence. Still, I can’t agree with those who find no value in limiting most people’s access to weapons. Guns are too easy to get, and the damage they do is sickening. At the very least, parents who purchase guns for their home should be held criminally responsible if their children misuse them.

I was appalled when I heard a news report that Kipland Kinkel’s father purchased guns for his son because the boy showed an unhealthy fascination with them. As a way to encourage responsible gun ownership, Kinkel took his son to the target range and kept the guns at home under lock and key. That this idea was a huge failure is no surprise to anyone with common sense. If a child shows a tendency to be a pyromaniac do we provide him a box of matches (to be used only under our supervision, of course) and instructions on how to build campfires? In Kinkel’s case, the anti-social behaviors leading up to his horrible acts could not be fixed by providing guns, shooting lessons and locks on his arsenal. Indeed, if anything, the Kinkel case illustrates that the National Rifle Association’s argument about responsible gun ownership as the key to preventing violence is seriously flawed — at least when it comes to guns and children. But this is not just about gun control.

This is also about decisions. Parents make decisions about their children every day of their lives. And society has assumed parents know best. We’ve granted parents the benefit of the doubt that they routinely act in the best interest of their children — even when their children don’t turn out well. Even now, people are describing the Kinkels as doting parents, deeply concerned about their son’s troubles. Perhaps that’s why this shooting has us all so perplexed. Were the Kinkels that different from the rest of us? What decisions did they make that led up to such horrifying consequences?

The most obvious mistake — a very bad decision, indeed — was adding guns to this boy’s warped hobbies. But I can list a few more: 1. Apparently allowing him unmonitored access to the Internet. 2. Too little supervision. How else could he get away with allegedly building bombs at his home? If my “well-adjusted” boys build model airplanes, I know about it. If I had a troubled child, he’d not be left alone long enough to build anything I couldn’t see. 3. And, most critically, too little psychiatric help.

Certainly, nothing is gained from judging this sad family. But if we are meant to learn anything from this horrible event, we must acknowledge that decisions parents make every day can have serious consequences for us all, not just their own families. It’s crystal clear that the way some people are raising their children — with too little supervision, too much violent programming, too many freedoms, too little family time — is starting to affect us all in tragic ways.

In light of this, it’s foolish to give parents and their troubled youngsters the benefit of the doubt. It’s time to intervene, through the courts, the schools, skilled psychiatrists and counselors. (If we can send dozens of counselors to help students mourn the shooting victims in the aftermath, why can’t we start hiring them in greater numbers to prevent shootings in the first place?) Throwing rocks from an overpass and buying a weapon at school — both acts Kinkel was caught engaging in — are life-threatening offenses deserving serious punishment.

Intervening early, incarcerating serious offenders and holding their parents responsible for their children’s behavior is our only recourse — that is, until parents can be trusted to do a better job rearing their children. And, sadly, judging from the importance our society places on child-rearing, I don’t expect significant improvements anytime soon.

Mary Hood Hart lives in Calabash, N.C., with her husband, Jim, and their four children, ages 7 to 15.