Some Thoughts On Columbine
"The measure of a society lies in the way it treats its children."
- Author unknown
The tragedy at Columbine has been responded to by the media and the public with disbelief and mystery. How could such a thing happen? Who and what are to blame? In contrast, my colleagues and I in the mental health field do not find the event a surprise, and certainly not a mystery.
As part of a profession whose business includes training and experience working with emotionally disturbed and antisocial individuals, we expect the occurrence of events like Columbine. We know first-hand that our population includes people who hate, kill, commit suicide, and are indifferent to the feelings and lives of others (even in the so-called "best" of families). We have studied normal and abnormal child development and know the signs and consequences of mental illness and psychopathy. In addition, almost all mental health practitioners believe that what happens to infants and young children greatly shapes their later character, personality, and behavior. I do not believe the two teenage killers at Columbine were exceptions to this rule. It is also highly unlikely that they were exceptions to the fact that we have not yet found a mass murderer who had a happy, loving childhood.
Unlike those who are untrained in psychology (which includes most of those who work in the media), mental health professionals cannot, if they are to be effective in their work, deny the reality that childhood for many individuals in our society has been an extremely painful and harmful experience. Social scientists know better than ever before what infants and children need in order to develop mental and emotional health. They also know that a vast number of children do not get what they need, and further, that we are a people who do not support giving children what they need.
We are a society whose people and government are reluctant to accept what we now know about child development (and can easily confirm), because the solutions to the problem of social deviance do not fit our economic and political priorities. The solutions also do not match our traditional non-nurturing values regarding human interaction. It is difficult in a culture where the goal of child-rearing is the development of individuation, self-sufficiency, self-survival, independence, separateness and competitiveness to accept the biological nurturing process normal to a mother and her newborn, which is rooted in dependency, a lack of individual separateness, and human unity. Compassionate mothering is the antithesis of being "on your own" and separate in the world, which is one reason why we have in Western civilization worked so hard to eliminate the need for mothers.
Simply providing paid maternity leave (as all other industrialized nations do), prenatal care, universal medical care for babies and children, genuinely supporting and promoting breastfeeding in children's first year of life (preferably two years), and teaching parents about healthy infant and child care would soon put a major dent in the number of asocial and antisocial individuals in our society. However, rather than supporting all children's need for a nurturing mother, we are a society that expends enormous sums of money, time and energy trying to prove that cow's milk and formula in a bottle are as good, or almost as good, as human milk from a mother's breast, that day care is as good (if not better) than care by a nurturing mother, that "quality time" is better than "all the time," and that children who are spanked and punished and left to cry themselves to sleep turn out better than children who are indulged and "spoiled" by their parents. None of these assumptions, of course, are true, and they are all in fact decidedly harmful to both the individual and the society.
Amazingly, those who deny the importance of attachment and nurturing on individual development then propose that social deviance is the result of genetic defect, while at the same time they discourage the most critically important "inheritance" a human can have: a nurturing mother, her loving and caring arms, and the human milk from her breasts.
As a psychologist, I cannot tell you exactly what happened to Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold during their first two or three years of life, although I could make some pretty good guesses. But I can with confidence tell you what did not happen. Neither of them was cared for in the way that is genetically and biologically normal for the human species. They were not breastfed on demand for at least two years. They did not sleep with their mothers, their crying was not responded to immediately, and they were seldom held and carried. Babies and young children who receive compassion and care through warm and unwavering affection, breastfeeding, day-time carrying, and night-time closeness are simply not capable of the crimes committed by these two boys. Human beings who are appropriately nurtured in their infancy and early childhood are not emotionally indifferent to human life. They identify with the human species and with life itself. They have learned by example what it means to take another person's suffering seriously, and to respond to it in loving ways.
I do not mean to imply that the only way that attachment to parents, caretakers and the human species can be achieved is by following the specific practices mentioned above. Biological mothering is, however, the easiest and most proven way. It has served throughout most of our history to keep newborns alive and to establish in them a positive and affirmative emotional connection to other humans. We are not a species where the individual is born to live his or her life in separateness but in friendly and caring unity with others. Our many current substitutes for mammalian mothering are risky and experimental. They are able to keep babies alive. But they often fall far short of providing sufficiently the satisfying closeness and intimacy, the sociability, and the true socialization of biological mothering.
In the preface to my book, Whatever Happened to Mother I wrote: "A society that is not responsible to its children, that does not provide them with what they need, will breed a population of asocial and anti-social individuals." I did not write this to blame parents but to indicate that the values and priorities inherent in our child-rearing practices do not, and have not, met the needs of babies and children for generations, and that is why there have been, and are, so many socially deviant people in our culture today.
Columbine is not a mysterious event. It will happen again, although not in the exact same way or in the numbers of dead and injured. Every day in our society someone murders. It is obvious to those who do not live in denial that the availability of guns and the violence our children are exposed to on TV, in movies, in video games and in contemporary music contributes to individual acts of violence. But this only occurs in children who have experienced violence and indifference to their needs and feelings early in their lives. We also need to realize that those whose creations and productions contain violence are not strangers to it. Individuals who have not experienced real violence in their own lives do not usually choose to include and project violence into their creations. In fact, they would have great difficulty doing so, as they do not have violent imaginations.
We are a culture that includes, and has always included, violent interactions between individuals, between different ethnic groups, and between economic classes. In addition, we are a culture that supports violence and anti-social behavior in our "anti-children" philosophy of parenting. We condone punishing children physically and emotionally, we encourage parents to ignore children's tears, and we advocate that parents should use force with their children. Fortunately, parents differ in the kind and severity of the punishment they use, in the extent of their alienation from their children's need for nurturing, and in their willingness to consciously manipulate their children for parental ends. If they did not differ, if all parents punished their children frequently and severely, and were never nurturing or tender toward them, we would probably all be psychotic psychopaths.
It is only recently on the human time scale that we have been able to keep children alive without the mothering that is biologically and genetically natural to a mammalian species. The exploitation of this possibility in the present and in the history of western civilization coincides with the advent of the alienated individual, and, in my opinion, the creation of the asocial and anti-social person. We are not the first culture to eliminate the need for human mothering or whose prescribed and accepted ways of caring for their babies and children includes cruel and non-nurturing practices, nor are we the first society whose population has a large number of psychopathic, psychotic, and emotionally disturbed individuals.
Lloyd deMause, in his well-documented book on the history of child care in Western civilization has stated: "The history of childhood is a nightmare from which we have only recently begun to awaken. The further back in history one goes, the lower the level of child care, and the more likely children are to be killed, abandoned, beaten, terrorized, and sexually abused."
Sadly, we are still not awake. The nightmare continues. The mistreatment of infants and children is now less open, more subtle, more rationalized, more denied, and easier to hide in our greater privacy. Like previous generations, we are still unwilling to fully commit ourselves to our children and to accept responsibility for them. We pretend to our children, to ourselves, and to others that we have such a commitment, but the behavior of a culture's children always exposes who its people are, as individuals, as parents, and as a society. Columbine, and its horror, are us.
deMause, Lloyd. The History of Childhood. New York: The Psychohistory Press, 1974). page 1.
Kimmel, James. Whatever Happened to Mother? Tucson, Arizona: Sweet & Simple Publishing, 1993. page 11.More Articles by James Kimmel