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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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The Roots of Violence: Getting Past the Point of No Return

Dr. Allen Mendler

Author, speaker, educator

Another day, another school shooting. This time, at Reynolds High School in Portland; a few days before, at Seattle Pacific University, a place where I taught summer courses years ago. Tragically familiar pictures of students exiting the building with hands atop their heads and shocked expressions turning to weeping as they attempt to make sense of the horror just experienced. Statements by school officials that counselors will be available for any students in need.

Brief expressions of outrage from the President on down, amid promises that something must be done to prevent a recurrence . . . followed by paralytic inaction. A public momentarily fearful that they or their loved ones may be the next victim in the senseless random cycle of violence touching their own familiar school, theater, mall, workplace, or church.

Ultimately, demands for action are silenced as some combination of inane, intractable beliefs carry the day, such as: "Guns don't kill people. People kill people." Our daily personal needs and the shallow distractions of pop culture push the horrific, incomprehensible event further into the background. Except for those whose lives will never be the same, by next week the incident will be but a flickering memory among all the others that make us wonder how such terrible things can happen. Until the next senseless moment of destruction strikes.

We are past the point of no return. There are too many guns in the hands of too many unstable people, and there is no turning back. Too often, we don't know who these people are until it's too late. Even when we know, there is little protection available in a culture built on the preservation of individual freedoms -- even for mentally ill people who might be dangerous but haven't yet committed a crime. Although my bias is for much stricter gun control, that alone is not the answer. Even if every arms manufacturer shut down tomorrow, the estimated 300 million firearms currently in use have placed us all at risk of being next. It seems our best bet is to learn, practice, and remind everyone within our circle how not to piss people off.

The Seeds of Resentment

Time and time again, we learn how those who commit these heinous acts were lonely, disconnected people harboring resentment towards others deemed responsible for their misery. Where does that resentment begin?

Just the other day, I asked my eight-year-old grandson to share a highlight of his school day. His news was that he and two friends had formed a kickball team during recess and other kids were "trying out." He proudly shared how they had formed this team after deciding that they were the best players, wanted to have the best team, and would therefore accept only those they deemed to be similarly talented. Only two other kids were considered worthy. As I listened, I began to wonder if any of the kids who didn't make that team would grow up wanting to pay back those who sat in judgment. When I asked my grandson to consider how those kids might feel, he seemed surprised by the question. When I suggested that perhaps a better solution would be to accept less skilled players as well as the better ones so they could get better by learning from him, his reception was chilly. It hadn't occurred to him, without my prompting, that wanting to put the best team together risked making kids they rejected feel hurt and angry.

Maybe I'm overreacting, but I cannot easily dismiss the thought that my grandson's relatively innocent display of "kids will be kids" could have been a notch of resentment that deepened the disconnect of some kid who didn't make his team, lacks resilience, and will one day vent his rage in a deadly way. Is eight years old too young to risk instilling fear of something unlikely (but increasingly possible) happening to him? Is he too young to be taught to consider that there are deadly weapons ubiquitously present, so he'd better be careful about what he says to whom?

Preemptive Self-Defense

I struggle with the answers to these questions, but I can easily identify the only category of weapons that we have for keeping ourselves and our loved ones as safe possible in world where desperation is easily transformed to violence: kindness, thoughtfulness, respect, and inclusion.

These values must be taught and reinforced regularly. From an early age, our children must be taught to realize that those who commit horrible acts do these bad things because they have felt lonely and isolated too often and for too long. It doesn't have to be that way. Every time we recognize the humanity of someone who feels invisible, we are indirectly contributing to our own safety.

Let your kids see you say hello in a friendly way to a passerby in the supermarket. Encourage them to say hello to someone who isn't a friend at school, to invite a classmate eating lunch alone to join them, to show interest in someone's thoughts and feelings, to stick up for someone being bullied. Don't let "little" hurts like my grandson's behavior go unnoticed. As parents, grandparents, teachers, and caring citizens, we must be vigilant in reminding ourselves and teaching our children that a better and safer world is only possible by doing thoughtful little things lots of times.

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Lina Raffaelli's picture
Lina Raffaelli
Former Community Engagement Intern at Edutopia

I couldn't agree more with the idea that we must teach kids empathy and inclusiveness and REGULARLY reinforce these ideals. The story with your grandson is a perfect example of how exclusion happens in schools every day (even unconsciously). His reaction to your Q exemplifies why this is important, because it may not immediately cross a young person's mind that their actions might make others feel rejected. Being mindful of the "little hurts" is equally important!

The Dixie Diarist's picture
The Dixie Diarist
Teacher, Writer, and Artist

AN END-OF-THE-YEAR COMMENT I HAD TO WRITE

Karl's academic talent in literature class--through his creative fiction writing, understanding of vocabulary, as well as his ability to judge and, in writing, communicate literary themes--is remarkable. Truly remarkable for his age. His skill in literature class is undeniable, and I have continually encouraged and praised his work, going all the way back to when I began teaching him two years ago. However, his chronic emotional instability, his typically horrible judgment, his persistent sneakiness, his deceit, his past physical violence toward other students, and his anger, overshadow any and all of his academic or musical accomplishments.

I believe that instead of a successful academic career in his next series of schools, or facilities, that his interaction with law enforcement will continue and become the main focus of his life. When he announces in a school classroom that he'll kill everybody in the building--that includes me, too--and I take this threat and his repulsive behavior seriously: I clearly see it as portent. All the acknowledged psychological signs of future violence and destructiveness are plainly evident in Karl, and have been for a number of years. Unless there are massive character and personality-changing psychiatric changes with this individual, I confidently predict that in the near future, in my opinion, he'll be writing remarkable stories...for his cellmates in federal prison.

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