Why do We Fear Our Children and Blame Everybody Else?

On Friday, April 4, 2008, high school art teacher Jolita Berry was attacked by students in her classroom. Berry teaches (taught) at Reginald F. Lewis High School in Baltimore, MD, a school noted for its history of violent incidents. A grainy video of the assault, captured on a cell phone camera, found its way onto an Internet site for public viewing. You can read more here.

Recently, 6 teenage girls lured a fellow cheerleader into a house and beat her into unconsciousness while 2 boys acted as lookouts. The victim may have permanent damage to her hearing and sight. The girls videotaped the violent assault with the intent of sharing the video on MySpace. You can read more here and here.

Aside from violent teens, these stories share some shocking parallels:

Bystanders either did nothing, or actively encouraged/supported the attackers. In the Baltimore incident, the other teens are shouting encouragement. In the cheerleader incident, the other teens are standing watch. This kind of behavior is nothing new, as we all had to read about the Kitty Genovese incident in high school.

The attackers (or others) blamed the victim. The high school teacher was accused by her principal of provoking the attack. Christina Garcia, the mother of one of the attacking cheerleaders, blamed the videotape victim as well (live on NBC). The attacking cheerleaders justified their actions because, apparently, the girl they bludgeoned for 30 minutes called them sluts. Again, this is nothing new. We’ve been blaming the victim since Cain killed Abel.

The victim is severely traumatized—both physically and emotionally. Lolita Berry is petrified of going to that building again. The teenage victim will, in all likelihood, take decades to recover from the psychological trauma her attackers inflicted; as I mentioned above, she may also have damage to her hearing and sight.

The fourth, and most disturbing, similarity is the fact that both of these incidents were videotaped, for the purposes of the enjoyment of others. These videos almost immediately found their way onto the Internet (MySpace, YouTube, etc).

Video accounts of violence have often shocked our nation. In the Civil Rights era, our eyes were opened by the televising of policemen brutally assaulting civil rights protesters with fire hoses and dogs. In my high school days, we were all traumatized by watching the brutal beating of Rodney King by police—over and over and over again. Those who captured these incidents on tape did so to alert the public, to see that justice was done.

This is different. There is not only a reckless abandon in these attacks; there is also a disturbing, infectious joy. How many people watched these videos? How many of us watched and said, “I’m glad that’s not me/my child?” How many have watched these videos with a savage glee? How many of US, through our own poor stewardship of our nation’s youth, have unwittingly aided and abetted these attackers? We—all of us—may as well have been part of the crowd that cheered on Lolita Berry’s attackers. We may as well have been one of those who beat that young cheerleader.

Which brings me to my point: We have failed our youth. We are afraid of our youth.

We are afraid of our youth because they are the first indicators of trouble in our society. Remember learning about ecosystems in high school? Youth are the most fragile creatures in our society’s “ecosystem;” when it becomes polluted, they get hurt first. Our youth are crying out for support and limits, and we ignore their cries because they remind us that all is not right in our world. We are afraid of our kids—especially the “bad” kids—because of our own complicity in corrupting them.

Let’s face it: the average American teen is exposed to violence, sex, drugs, and alcohol FAR earlier, and on an exponentially greater level (and in a far more organized, media-supported, government-condoned basis) than the teens of fifty (heck, twenty) years ago.

For example … I cannot get in a checkout line in Barnes & Noble, Wal-Mart, or anywhere else, without being confronted with an issue of Cosmopolitan magazine (at a child’s eye-level, no less) with the headline, “Have Dirty, Sexy Sex.” (Because what 3-foot-tall person would not want to have dirty, sexy sex?) I cannot turn on any TV news channel without being bombarded by violence and scandal. It’s a no-brainer for the media; stories are chosen because they are attention-grabbing: salacious, scandalous, shocking, horrifying. (As Homer Simpson calls it, “Infotainment.”)

It’s nothing personal. Just good business. Sex and violence sell. Kids love professional wrestling (which, as Linda Richmond would say, is neither professional, nor wrestling. Talk amongst yourselves). Just yesterday I saw a family in the local supermarket—their 6-year-old child was wearing a T-shirt advertising the wrestling merits of a large, oily, muscular man in a spandex loincloth (whose job is to not only beat, but humiliate other oily, muscular men—and women—in front of crowds of people). And who could forget the WWE Family Values Catchphrase of the early 21st century: “Suck it!” (Thanks, Vince McMahon, for improving our childrens’ vocabulary).

We are ravenous consumers in a society that sells sex, violence, and humiliation. That is our complicity in these attacks. We also fail in another, more important way. Not only do we allow media to teach negative values; but we also fail to teach our children good values.

I hear excuses for why people don’t come to church all the time. My favorite is “because of all the hypocrites in church.” I get it—hypocrisy is a sticking point for so many people—so much so that it keeps us from doing the right thing. Many parents do not teach their kids good values because the parents find themselves unable to live by good values. (I knew parents who taught their girls to become teen bullies; their excuse? It’s better than being a victim). When we are confronted by our own sinfulness and hypocrisy, we are meant to rely on forgiveness and grace to create a better world. Instead, we get defensive and shift the blame to other people.

I believe that we have not even begun to comprehend the damage we have done to our youth (not to mention ourselves) by our casual, cavalier treatment of sex and violence.

To make things worse, we continue to both fail and fear our youth, when we tell them that their actions have no consequences.

The principal of the Reginald F. Lewis High School told Lolita Berry that she provoked her attacker by using a “trigger word.” (I believe Ms. Berry told the child that she would defend herself). That may well be. But you don’t tell that to someone who has just been victimized. And the principal’s words carry no weight because he has shown a history of not supporting his teachers, as well as a history of allowing violent incidents at his school. Violent teens are not disciplined at this high school, according to video interviews with Berry and her union representative.

I have been working with youth in a variety of settings for almost 20 years. I have seen more than my fair share of systems where the adults fear to give the kids any consequences. This is all nothing new. Youth have been shocking their parents with acts of violence since, well, Biblical times. Take David and his son Amnon. Amnon shocked his father when he raped his sister Tamar, then threw her out on the street because she reminded him of his sin. Jacob’s children horrified him when they slaughtered the entire family/clan of the man who raped their sister. You could argue that times are different now, but word of mouth spread those stories around the ancient Middle East only slightly slower than MySpace or YouTube. (Jacob knew as soon as the incident was over that his reputation as a father and a man was ruined--far and wide).

These stories hit home for me on many levels. On three occasions (all in high school), I have been threatened and/or attacked by large groups of people (I won’t delve into the reasons here); one attack left me with a severe concussion. My parents witnessed me throwing a car battery across our garage after the most recent incident, so I went to a psychologist, who told me that the attack was my fault. I’ll never forget that piece of wisdom. (I guess I have to give myself some credit--even then I knew the guy was full of shit).

These experiences drove me to, later in my life, work at a residential care center for emotionally disturbed teens. We worked with street kids, drug dealers, victims of sexual abuse, kids who had been locked in closets for months on end. What shocked me most was not the abuse these children had suffered at the hands of their parents. No, it was the fear shown by the staff at this hospital. The air was rank with adult fear (which smells, apparently, like nicotine and sweat). Most of the work involved breaking up fights, or restraining teens who had decided to “go off.” (“Going off” usually involved lots of noise, scratching, biting, kicking, throwing furniture, etc). None of us got off easy—every member of that staff was hit, punched, bitten, scratched, had bodily fluids thrown at them, etc.

It was in this context that I “lived into” the way we fear our youth. The adults outdid each other trying to play favorites with the kids. Those who had extra money (I didn’t) arrived for their shifts with treats for the kids. If a child disagreed with a consequence, they only needed to complain to another staffer to get the consequence removed. Staffers who attempted to hold kids to consequences were sabotaged. (I remember being left alone with another staffer during a two-hour riot on the teen unit. No other staff person responded to a hospital-wide alarm code. We were being taught a lesson). All of us loved those kids; that’s why we kept coming back to work. All of us feared those kids, which is why we were so good at undermining and backbiting each other. We weren’t afraid of the kids because they might punch us in the face. Rather, we feared those kids because we had failed them, and who wants to be reminded of failure?

I believe that this is the reason we fear our kids: we, as a society, have failed them. Our most troubled teens are our most troubling reminders of our failure. This MySpace video is just one of many glaring examples of how we are failing to meet our childrens’ cries for us to give them support (read: limits and consequences). Of course we fear them. And what have we been doing about this? We act like Amnon, who kicked Tamar to the curb so he wouldn't have to look at her. We kick our nation's youth to the curb when we don't hold them accountable.

I see a couple of options for those of us who care:

We tuck our tails between our legs and teach our children “winner values”—what they really need to know to get by in today’s world. Bully or be bullied. An eye for an eye; a tooth for a tooth. Don’t ever apologize or accept responsibility for anything. These values will help you to get ahead and prosper throughout your life cycle—all the way from kindergarten to the nursing home.

We stand up and teach our kids good values: to respect the dignity of every human being; to accept responsibility for their decisions and actions; to love God, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.

Obviously, I’m advocating #2. And when our children see us fail to live up to the values we teach (and they will), we teach them grace and forgiveness.

Then maybe, just maybe, if my son gets roped into a situation involving peer pressure and a videotaped assault, he’ll do the right thing and make me proud. Heck, even if he does the wrong thing, I hope he’ll accept responsibility for his actions.

Then maybe he’ll learn about grace. Then maybe he’ll get to see just how much his father—and his Father in heaven—loves him.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Fascinating. I'd like to add that one of the problems we have today is that it isn't considered acceptable to correct someone else's child. I do, and frankly I'd be a lot more comfortable if I thought other people would correct mine. I don't mean handing out spankings, just the occasional "Hey, watch your mouth" or "You need to put that in the trash can, not drop it" or "quit fighting, take turns." It's hard to keep tabs on your kids at all times, especially as they get older. I think if kids grew up knowing that any adult would call them out on their bad behavior, they wouldn't be so willing to behave badly.