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Are Parents Responsible for Their Kids' Violence?

From the LA Times, 4/4/99:

Caring for Our Children
Debate Rises on Parents' Influence Over Children

Much-criticized thesis that their effect is nil gained ground after Littleton, Colo., massacre. New studies focus on peer pressure.

By MELISSA HEALY, Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON—Does parenting really matter?

When Judith Rich Harris published a book late last year arguing that it did not, she mostly drew cries of outrage and disbelief.

Then came the Columbine High School shootings in Littleton, Colo. The massacre carried out by two adolescents from families with no apparent signs of dysfunction startled child-development experts. Harris' contention that peers, not parents, shape children's personalities suddenly got a new look, in the process reigniting the age-old argument over nature versus nurture.

Cliques, Adolescent Rejection Studied

New studies are pouring out.

The U.S. surgeon general, in a report on school violence that President Clinton ordered after Littleton, is expected to focus on the roles of classroom cliques, adolescent rejection and school size.

The National Research Council—a consortium of scientists that advises the federal government on academic research—recently hosted two professional groups that rarely meet together—criminologists and experts on early childhood development—to talk about peer group influence. The Carnegie Corp. is midway through a six-year study mapping the causes and consequences of conflict among teens.

Although the reasons the two Littleton teens went on a rampage are far from clear, many parents are reassessing the balance of power between them and their children's friends and tormentors.

Harris' thesis in "The Nurture Assumption" is that after an all-too-brief period of babyhood, the tribal—and sometimes secret—world of a child's friends and schoolmates exerts a potent and even decisive influence.

Mary Moore of Torrance, a teacher and a mother of 10- and 14-year-old boys, said in a telephone interview that the Littleton massacre "brought this idea a little closer to home"—that children's friends often overwhelm the best efforts of their parents.

"I don't think it would ever happen to mine," she added with trepidation. "But it's real tough to call."

For mothers like Moore and academics as well, there is cold comfort in the theory that a child's "real" world exists separately and hews to different rules than that of his parents. But how else to explain the murderous rampage of two teenagers who appeared to have experienced what one psychologist called "parenting within the normal range"?

As the picture of children and their worlds comes into sharper focus, scholars hope that they can begin to construct a science with some predictive powers. Although predicting a school shooting will almost certainly be beyond them, they hope at least to identify the conditions that make such violent outbursts more likely.

Within the psychology establishment, "what's been underappreciated, underdiscussed, is the role of context, peers being a subcategory," said Cornell University's James Garbarino, author of "Lost Boys: Why Our Sons Turn Violent and What We Can Do About Them." Columbine presents an example of "a kind of evil chemistry," he said, combining elements of troubled youth, toxic environment and peer dynamics.

Harris' own experience as a parent was instrumental in leading her to the thesis that a parent's power "ends at the front door." The mother of two daughters—one hers by biology, the second by adoption—she struggled to understand why her second child turned out so differently from her first, since both had the same kind of parenting. Harris began to focus on the two factors—genes and peer groups—that distinguished them from one another. As she did so, she grew to question the research that standard psychology texts, including ones she had written, cite as evidence of parents' influence over children.

"I believed the evidence too. But then I looked at it more closely and to my considerable surprise it fell apart in my hands," Harris wrote.

In her book, Harris reviewed several decades of research in the fields of behavioral genetics and socialization, finding no direct evidence that a parent's behavior toward his or her child has "any important long-term effect."

By contrast, she wrote, a vast body of research from studies of the effects of spanking to comparisons of identical twins reared apart demonstrates the decisive influence of genes and peers.

"Parenting matters zilch," she said recently. Asked what lesson parents should take from the Columbine shootings, the New Jersey author, now a grandmother, added: "I think parents are already doing the best they can. They should continue to do it and worry a little bit less about it."

Although resistance to Harris' thesis has softened, she still has plenty of critics. "What she says is just silly," said Jerome Kagan, Harvard University's venerable child psychologist. "Any parent knows that intuitively."

Kagan and others acknowledge that a child's friends and social circumstances will have a powerful effect on what he does—whether it is running for senior class president or shooting up his school. But behavior, they believe, is more broadly influenced by personality and temperament—forged in a child's early years, when parents dominate the social universe.

"Parents get the first crack and the first crack counts more than the second crack," said L. Rowell Huesman of the University of Michigan, who studies the way children model their behavior on the social "scripts" they see played out around them.

Harris' critics reserve their greatest disdain for the potential effect that her thinking could have on parents. If parents are told that children are immune to their efforts to nurture, stimulate, guide, model and teach, the critics warn, why should they bother trying?

"This book is not just silly, but dangerous," said Wade Horn, a clinical child psychologist and director of the Fatherhood Institute.

Still, peer groups "are more important now than ever because of the withdrawal of adults from the lives of kids," said James Fox, dean of Northeastern University's School of Criminology. With the explosion of single parenthood and parents having to spend more time at work, among other factors, peer groups are flourishing with more autonomy than ever from adults' influence, he added.

"Kids with the wrong situations and the wrong sets of friends can do bad things. Often it's not the individual's character in cases like this but the character of his friendships," Fox said.

Deadly Influence of Friends

However forcefully they resist this idea, parents of adolescents have long suspected as much. In the wake of Littleton, many say that they are confronting evidence all around them that friends can have a deadly influence.

"Sure, I've asked myself, could it happen to my family," Seana Campos, a Rancho Palos Verdes mother of a 10-year-old son and a 15-year-old daughter, said in a telephone interview.

Like other parents, Campos said she scanned the news from Littleton with a sense of urgency, looking for evidence that the violence could be laid at the doorstep of the shooters' parents. She found none.

"Everybody said it—these were good families," Campos said. "But good parents have children who go astray. People who aren't good parents have children who grow up to be wonderful. There's no telling."

Copyright 1999 Los Angeles Times. All Rights Reserved

No time for kids?
The latest study on how much time parents spend with children bolsters the idea that parenting isn't the main problem. From the LA Times, 5/16/01:

Kids Get More Time With Their Parents Now

By JACQUELINE L. SALMON, Washington Post

WASHINGTON—Children in two-parent households spend more time with their moms and dads than kids did 20 years ago, contrary to the popular belief that the rise in dual-income families has created a culture of parenting by cell phone and day care, according to a new study.

The research by the University of Michigan showed that children spent four to six more hours a week with their parents in 1997 than they did in 1981. The increase was noted whether both parents worked or the mother stayed at home—a finding likely to raise the spirits of guilt-ridden working parents battered with each new unfavorable report from the day-care front.

The gains recorded were significant: In 1997, children ages 3 to 12 spent about 31 hours a week with their mothers, a gain of six hours over 1981, and 23 hours a week with their fathers, a gain of four hours.

In dual-career families, parents—especially fathers—still managed to increase the amount of time spent with their children, the Michigan researchers found: Fathers spent six more hours a week with their kids in 1997, for a total of 23 hours; and mothers' time rose by four hours, to 27 a week.

For single mothers—the study did not look at single fathers—time spent with their children did not change.

"A lot of the popular culture has been saying that we're spending less time with our kids and that it's bad for our children, and it turns out we're spending more time with them," said study co-author John F. Sandberg, a sociologist with Michigan's Institute for Social Research.

The Michigan results, released last week, compared two nationally representative samples of children who recorded their minute-by-minute activities over two days, are supported by other studies of how Americans use their time.

"There has been a perception that parents are spending less time with their children than previous generations [did]," but that's not so, said Geoffrey C. Godbey, a professor of leisure studies at Penn State University who has studied the schedules of 10,000 Americans over three decades.

* * *

The increase in parental time results partly from a change in expectations over the past two decades, said Godbey, Sandberg and others.

Today's mothers and fathers are expected to devote more time to their children than their own parents did, enrolling them in a slate of organized activities, chauffeuring them there and back and participating in some of the activities themselves.

Just getting to and from these events has resulted in increased time together for some families, as they sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic.

Parents of younger children don't get off any easier, because they're expected to spend hours crouched on the floor playing peekaboo and other one-on-one games.

Joan Williams, a law professor at American University in Washington, said today's parents are trying too hard, sacrificing much of themselves in order to squeeze out a little more time each week with their children.

The Michigan study, led by Sandberg and researcher Sandra L. Hofferth, is part of a larger study on how children use their time. It is based on time diaries completed by the children, with parental help if needed. In 1981, 243 children participated; the 1997 sample was of 2,125 children.

Copyright © 2001 Los Angeles Times

This increase in parental time occurs as parents face more pressure than ever before to work. An article on the recent child-care study in the news is instructive. From the LA Times, 4/29/01:

It is pathetic, in the year 2001, to have to remind people that two incomes are necessary for basic survival in most families. Or that working fathers are never required to justify why they have to work. Or that even for the few women whose husbands do earn enough to support a family, economic independence protects a woman from divorce, death, downsizing and depression. Or that earning her own income gives a woman more power and equality within her marriage.

As the article implies, much of the parent-bashing is really mother-bashing. Women are asserting their equality and independence...so naturally the male-dominated society blames them for societal breakdowns. It's another example of America's culture wars.

Not enough attention...or too much?
Some excerpts from the LA Times, 8/12/01:

A Generation Unscathed


...[Q]uestions of safety color the days and nights of anyone raising children now, and I can't help but wonder if there are risks to the brain, the psyche, the muscles, when all risks are averted. What are we teaching children who can't ride bikes and climb trees and play baseball in a vacant lot, who can't slide and fall on the sand in school, or play dodge ball, who can't learn to settle their own fights and negotiate the social territory of childhood and adolescence? What will they have as they enter adulthood? Has parenting really gone from benign neglect, as some parents my age recall what we experienced, to micro-management?

I am not foolish enough to think that I, or any other parent—or city, state or national government—can legislate safety or require perfection or inculcate happiness. But our generation of parents, the boomer kids grown to wary perfectionist adulthood, doesn't want its children to fall, get hurt, become traumatized, blame us or someone else. No scars. A safe universe. Happiness mandatory. In our quest to bubble-wrap their childhoods, to protect their wrists and knees and souls, maybe we keep too many things from touching them, and them from touching much of anything.

Beverly Johnson, a marriage and family therapist in Riverside, told me, "This overprotection, this parental supervision, is particular to your generation—post-'60s. The kids are under constant scrutiny. They're never free from being the center of the universe, and do you know how hard that is for them? You have this irrational belief that if you do it right, they'll be happy. And safe. You can't leave them alone, because something might happen. You can't let them cook, because something might happen. You can't let them goof off—they can't be bored, because that's not good parenting."

"I heard on the news—" parents often say, underscoring how the omnipresent media report with frightening tone and speed. I rarely watch television news, partly because I can't count how many times a breathless newscaster mentions a robbery, kidnapping, child-abuse case or murder and makes the event seem local, when in reality it occurred in another state. The threat seems to build. Did you see on the news about the salmonella poisoning in cookie dough? Did you hear about that baby in the carjacking? Did you see they were shooting at that park?

But in many ways, kids today are statistically safer than the kids I grew up with. In the early 1960s, most cars weren't even equipped with seat belts. The first mandatory seat belt law was in New York in 1984, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration. It estimates that from 1975 to 1991, child restraints (seat belts, child car seats and infant seats) saved 2,076 lives. The Annie E. Casey Foundation's recent data on American children notes that in seven of 10 categories, the well-being of children improved between 1990 and 1997. These categories included the infant mortality rate, which dropped by 22%, the child death rate, which dropped by 19%, and the rate of teen deaths by accident, homicide and suicide, which dropped by 18%.

Because we are afraid for them, we never leave them alone, to wander down the street, to race over to the park, to explore the arroyo or hills. Then we are afraid that they're bored, so we schedule play dates and soccer and piano and art lessons. We are relentless, partly because so many of us work full time. When we are at home with them, we want quality time, which means constant togetherness. But even parents who stay at home feel pressured to have constant activity—crafts, reading aloud, Mommy-and-me exercise classes.

Pamela Kisor, director of the child care center at Cal State Los Angeles, considers her words when she speaks of her young charges. "The confidence you get from meeting physical challenges, on the monkey bar or slide or climbing a tree, becomes part of your identity. I think that we, as a society, are trying to make sure no child is ever injured again."

Tom Podgorski, who has been teaching economics and history for 15 years at Rubidoux High School near Riverside, thinks today's kids "lack interpersonal skills and conflict resolution, because their activities are so solitary—video games, television, the Internet. We were outside playing on the street, and lots of seemingly insignificant interactions, like a basketball game or just hanging out, had opportunities for teamwork or sportsmanship. Now you have kids who move around all the time, and you have insto-neighborhoods, with new tracts, and people who don't know each other, and kids never play outside like that. They don't know how to deal with each other."

Hmm. Kids who lack interpersonal and conflict resolution skills because parents coddle them too much. Sounds like a recipe for brewing troublemakers to me. Has any lone gunman ever been a well-adjusted child with well-developed social skills?

Is it possible today's parents are giving kids too much attention? Could that be why they're turning to peers and the media for guidance? I don't know, but it's a hypothesis worth considering.

Parents taking responsibility...or whatever
A case study shows what happens when parents do take responsibility—or what passes for it in our culture.

March 24, 1998:  In Jonesboro, Arkansas, Andrew Golden, 11, and Mitchell Johnson, 13, open fire during a false fire alarm they activated to lure people outside at Westside Middle School. They shot four students and a teacher to death and wounded 10 others.

What have the parents of Jonesboro learned about their parental responsibility? Not much, it seems. They sound like classic examples of muddled—er, middle—American thinking.

Some excerpts from the LA Times, 3/19/01:

"You bring up a child the best you think you can," a construction worker in town explains. "But once that child is out of your reach, you can't control him."

That sentiment echoes throughout Jonesboro. Yet probe deeper, and an uneasy ambivalence about parental responsibility emerges.

On the one hand, person after person agrees: Parents can do everything right and still, some kids just go haywire.

On the other hand, person after person declares: Not my kids. They won't go bad.

Many parents and grandparents, for instance, say they see no need to lock up their guns. Or even to keep all their weapons unloaded. Raise children well and discipline them hard, they assert, and such precautions are unnecessary.

"It all starts at the home. I'm not worried about my kids," says farmer Paul Hicks, a father of three who keeps his guns in a glass display case that he admits a child could easily break into. Hicks trusts the power of parenting. That's clear. And he trusts he's doing it right. Yet a note of ambivalence emerges when talk turns to the lawsuit. Should a parent pay for his child's crimes? "I'll stay neutral," he says. "You never know. I might be in that same situation some day. You just don't know."

Bruce West agrees: You just don't know. He didn't.

He was driving back to Jonesboro from a turkey hunt when the radio popped out news of the mayhem at Westside. His first thought: One of his two teenage sons might be involved. Not a victim, but the shooter. "I thought, 'Oh my God. I hope it's not my son.' "

It was not. But the scare, the flare of fear, got West thinking about his own responsibility as a parent. He went out and bought a $1,500 gun safe. A steel safe, a big one, bolted to the wall and secured with a combination lock. He stores all his weapons in there—all except a loaded handgun, which he keeps handy (though well hidden, he insists) for protection.

"My boy, he knows right from wrong. He catches that leather strap on his behind. But he's still a boy," says West, a rice and soybean farmer. "You don't have full control."

His buddies, sipping beer in the smoke-choked Moose Lodge, might agree in theory. Yet they haven't joined West in buying gun safes. "Hell, no," retired farmer Jack Hill barks, to general approval. Why bother? "If parents spank their kids' butts and teach them right, the guns will be used, not abused."

That confidence alarms some of the students who lived through the Westside shooting.

For the horror of that spring morning shadows them even now.

They flinch when they hear balloons pop. They check under their beds, fearing an ambush, before they lie down to sleep. Reflexively, they look for the exit every time they walk into a room. On Paige Herring's birthday earlier this month—she would have been 15—they bought her wind chimes as a present. They hung them at her grave.

"You can't just get over it," says Holly Jo Parks, a 10th-grader. "We deal with it every day."

To help them deal, a dozen or so students have formed a group they call Save Our Schools. They write skits about violence and give talks to other students. They try, always, to push a message of civic responsibility: You may not have been able to stop the last tragedy, but perhaps you can prevent the next. Stop bullying. Stop teasing. Start listening to other students. Pay attention. Report threats.

To their frustration, however, the students say they've seen few lasting changes at school. The seniors still pick on the freshmen. And many parents, teachers and students choose not to talk about the killings, counseling instead that it's time to move on.

That silence sounds a lot—too much—like complacency to this Save Our Schools group. "It wouldn't surprise me," 16-year-old Jamie Clevenger says, "if it happened again."

"Responsibility" isn't enough
Most people say parents must be more responsible. For instance, according to columnist Ronald Brownstein, a Mothers' Statement to Advertisers "forthrightly says that parents must 'reassert' their own commitment to teaching values to their kids...." It's a safe sound-bite of a solution, like advocating "Just Say No" as an answer to drug abuse.

Fortunately, most people—except those in denial—say "taking responsibility" isn't nearly enough. From the LA Times, 3/7/01, in the wake of the Santee shootings:

Parental responsibility "is just one piece of the puzzle that exists here," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). "You can't solve the problem without addressing . . . the peer culture and the culture of violence. And you have to also address the easy access to firearms."

While endorsing Bush's focus on parents, former Education Secretary William J. Bennett, a leading conservative social theorist, also said the president needs to provide a broader response.

"The task isn't to make him a busybody or a liberal interventionist," Bennett said. "But when these acts occur, they are dramas on the national stage and the president, in addition to teaching what the ultimate source of our strength is [in families], has to lead the conversation, not just in generalities but perhaps in particulars [of what government can do]. I don't criticize what he's said; I just say there is another dimension."

Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a leading crusader against media violence, makes the case simply enough. From his letter to the LA Times, 6/30/01:

If you talk to the parents I have, you'll find that they have a hard job raising their kids today. The entertainment industry is making that job significantly harder by targeting hyper-violent, sexually explicit material directly to kids. Neither the government nor the entertainment industry raises kids; parents do. But we can each make it easier for parents to do their job.

Who could argue with that?

Though Bill Bennett minces words, even he recognizes that media violence isn't just about bad parenting. If he and I agree on anything, no matter how slight, you know it must be true. So it isn't enough to blame parents.

If friends can influence our children, so can violent friends. But the more important (and obvious) point is, parents can't control children 24/7. If you read the many stories about kids who went on shooting rampages...or who committed any crime...or who killed themselves...you'd know this for a fact.

Does every parent know every time their child has sex...drinks alcohol...uses drugs...or gets in trouble at school? Anyone who thinks this has never been a parent or a child. When a kid is beyond a parent's reach, as inevitably happens, we must look at other influences. Those influences include our violent culture and our violent media.

Related links
The evidence against media violence
Highlights of the FTC report on media violence
Violence in America
America's cultural mindset

Readers respond
"[T]he violence in our society today is, in fact, brought on by the examples set, or NOT set, in the homes."

More on blaming parents—from the PUNISHER debates
"Even Howard Stern would have totally approved."
The "responsibility lies with the parents of this nation."
Are Grossman's conclusions based on his own testimony?
"You're not addressing the real problem: parental apathy."
Are PUNISHER buyers "fools" who wasted their money?

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Original text and pictures © copyright 2007 by Robert Schmidt.

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