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What Can We Learn from Sandy Hook?

The U.S. has had 61 mass murders since 1982 - more than 19 times higher than other first-world countries,1 and the pace is accelerating. While there have been 31 such tragedies since the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, 16 of them occurred in 2012. But the most heart-wrenching of all of these was the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut, where we lost 20 of our precious children, aged just 6 and 7.

While we will probably never know all the factors that led up to this tragedy, one thing we do know is that the capacity to willingly inflict harm on others originates in the first three years of life. We now know that an abusive childhood can create lifelong genetic changes.2 This type of damage directly affects the individual's stress response, increasing the risk of suicide and homicide. Conversely, the capacities for trust, empathy, and affection are created through compassionate nurturing in the earliest years.

What have we learned from Sandy Hook? Several things: We couldn't have designed a better reminder to love our children and to tell them so, every single day, when it could be our last chance. We couldn't have designed a better argument against guns (Australia hasn't had one mass shooting since 1996, when strict gun control laws were passed). And we couldn't have designed a better argument for increasing funding for mental illness prevention and treatment, and for including compassionate parenting skills in every school curriculum. Why is parenting, the most consequential job in the world, with the potential to create lifelong emotional damage (and the one job that most children will eventually have), completely overlooked in the school curriculum? There is something wrong with our society's values that this crucial topic is almost never addressed in the thousands of hours a child attends school. What a lost opportunity. And we see the results in every newspaper headline.

What better argument for making meaningful and bold changes could there be than to lose twenty of our precious, innocent children on one morning, so close to Christmas? But who would design such an argument? Why was it necessary to have such a brutal reminder? What can we learn?

Can we learn to treat every child with the same respect we ask them to give us? Can we remember how vulnerable they are? Can we learn the critical importance of the early years for preparing them to become healthy, responsible adults, free from emotional disorders? Can we help all parents to recognize their responsibility to society, and give them tools for raising a compassionate child? Can we learn that schools can help children to treat their peers with love and respect, by giving an example in the way they treat their students? Can we create a school program that values children's emotional needs above the need to learn the three Rs? Can we finally recognize that compassionate parenting should be the most important subject in any curriculum? Can we help children learn to respect others, not through threats and punishment, but by being treated respectfully by adults?

The answers to these questions are important, because every murderer, whether by guns or any other means, was once a child who missed something critical in their early years. We need to focus deeply on those years. We need to establish more parenting classes so new parents can learn more supportive and respectful approaches they themselves rarely or never experienced. We need to help parents recognize as early as possible when they need help, and to make it easy for them to receive help for a disturbed child, without social stigma. We need to help teachers recognize as early as possible that a child is being mistreated by parents or peers. We need to train teachers to handle such situations with compassion and expertise.

We need our schools to be safe - not just from guns, but from anything that can lead to a life that lacks compassion. The capacity to love, respect, and trust others starts in the earliest years. If we can put our focus on those years, we can give children the best preparation for a life filled with such compassion and emotional health that it would be impossible for them to choose to harm another human being. But compassion is taught by example. What examples do our children have in so many homes and schools? Are they treated with dignity, respect and connection, or are they treated with criticism, threats, and punishment - none of which accomplish the intended goals? Making such an enormous change in the way we treat our children will surely take more than one generation, so we must start now. All of these changes will take time, and we've run out of time. To have any meaning at all, Sandy Hook has to be the tipping point that finally brings a new way of thinking about early childhood needs.

Parents - and all those fortunate enough to have a child in their life - need to recognize the critical importance of the earliest years, and the importance of maintaining a loving and respectful atmosphere through compassion, not fear. This is the only way we can make progress in the long term, so let's start now. In the meantime, we need to write responsible and effective gun control. Let's not wait for a larger massacre by someone even more disturbed.

Some say we shouldn't use this terrible event for political goals. Why not? What better use can we give to this tragedy than to begin creating a safer and more loving world for our children? Should it have no meaning at all?

"One generation of deeply loving parents would change the brain of the next generation, and with that, the world."

- Charles Raison, M.D.,
Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences,
Emory University School of Medicine

1 "Newtown, Connecticut Shooting: Timeline of Mass Killings Since Columbine." Newsmax Media, December 2012.

2 "Allele-specific FKBP5 DNA demethylation: a molecular mediator of gene-childhood trauma interactions." Nature Neuroscience, December 2012.