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These Kids Are Really Failed Adults

Littleton: Parents today are fine at organizing their children's lives, but do little to nurture them.

April 28, 1999|DANA MACK | Dana Mack, an affiliate scholar at the New York-based Institute for American Values, is the author of "The Assault on Parenthood" (Simon & Schuster, 1997) and the forthcoming "Wanting Spirits: The Miseducation of the American Senses."

When the police investigation of the Littleton, Colo. deaths is wrapped up, it looks like the findings will conform to a curious pattern of gruesome high school assaults. The perpetrators have been identified as social outcasts who boasted about possessing firearms and bombs, and who threatened more than once to kill. They've also been described as kids who spent an untoward amount of their spare time playing virtual murder.

Granted there is something a little different about the political pretensions of the Littleton killers--their fascination with World War II and Nazism and their decision to choose Hitler's birthday as the attack date. Granted also that their suicides lend something of a new flavor to school violence. It is the flavor of guerrilla warfare, of scorched earth and smoke.

But the paramilitary affectations of the Littleton Trench Coat Mafia should not distract us from the recognition that the bloody mayhem wreaked at Columbine High School--like the mayhem wreaked in other high schools over the past few years--was neither about political terrorism nor about run-of-the-mill juvenile gang violence. The Littleton deaths were not assassinations; they were arbitrary killings. They had nothing to do with principles. Nor were they the result of battles over turf, money or drugs. Given the capricious mix of jocks, blacks and Christians that numbered among the victims, we cannot even say they were motivated by implacable ethnic or racial hatreds.

That arbitrary mass murders could be committed by middle-class juveniles is something of a new social phenomenon. The classic post-World War II profile of the feral gunman has been a man between 25 and 45, socially isolated, disgruntled and psychotic. Every so often, such a man would ambush a party of celebrities or storm a McDonald's. It was, psychologists claimed, one of the prices we paid for living in a free society with a very scanty safety net for the fragile adult.

But suddenly, instead of the occasional gunman on the rampage we have a rash of gunboys. And it would behoove us to ask ourselves whether perhaps one reason for this is that we have dropped the safety net that once surrounded our more fragile children. One cannot help but think that children who commit adult crimes and suffer what were once adult pathologies are in some way failed adults--kids who have been asked to take charge of their lives in ways they are simply incapable of doing.

Two days after the Littleton murders, a forum was held for Columbine students. What came out was a palpable frustration on the part of Littleton's youth with the failure of the adults in their community to exercise authority over the more contentious of their peer group. Kids complained bitterly of an increasingly antagonistic social environment at school--one aggravated by the indifference and irresolution of parents, teachers and school administrators. Tellingly, a suicide note left by one of the killers put forth exactly the same complaints--namely, that there was too much negative peer interaction in his life, and too little protection from adults.

It's tough to be a child today. And that's because adults seem peculiarly insensitive to both the overheated temperaments and tender vulnerabilities of childhood. In brief, today's adults want kids to manage on their own. They're happy enough to organize them, but they refuse to nurture them.

* Think, for a minute, about the millions of rambunctious little ones whom we cruelly sedate so that they can better concentrate on their work without bothering their parents and teachers.

* Think about the disappearance of recess and playtime in our schools.

* Think of weekends of unstructured family time robbed first by proto-professional sports leagues and later, by teenage job commitments.

* Think about the huge numbers of young people trapped each afternoon in silent, empty homes.

* Think of a culture in which children can stockpile weapons in their bedrooms and parents remain blissfully disinterested; in which educators talk not of channeling young people, teaching them values and giving them hope, but of monitoring them, facilitating choices and helping them cope.

* Think of all those advertisements, rock videos and computer games hawking violence and rebellion to people too young to distinguish fantasy from reality.

Given the disintegration of childhood, it's a wonder that carnage scenes like Littleton's are as rare as they are. This is a world in which kids endure a host of adult pressures and temptations, while enjoying only the most perfunctory custodial care. This is a world in which the only grown-ups consistently willing and ready to take charge of our young may be the SWAT teams.

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