Mass killings: Can we talk about parenting?

Perhaps the only silver lining to the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary is an emerging conversation about gun control and mental health, hopefully not to be dropped. Both are in dire need of a relook and a revision, even though neither is likely to eradicate mass shootings.

But what about parenting? It comes under the heading of mental health, yet the conversation stops at disorders, dysfunctions, and diagnoses. How we raise our children is the most important mental health issue we face but no one wants to talk about it.

We believe we have the right to treat our children anyway we want. That may be true. But what are the snowball affects on society if what we want surfaces from our own dysfunctions? Do we think we can say and do things that ignore, demoralize, and hurt our children and assume that will teach them to behave better? Are we so ignorant to think that they will not be wounded and later take those emotional scars out on someone somewhere, mostly themselves. Especially the sensitive children who are most at risk. The ones with a diagnosis may be the most frustrating to live with but also the most in need of calm, nurturing, firm, and consistent care.

Children are not born with emotional problems. Those are rooted in feeling isolated, unimportant, misunderstood, victimized, holier than thou, etc. Children with emotional problems are victims of the influence of parents, teachers, peers — anyone important in the daily life of a child. Most of these problems can be either avoided or healed through educated parenting.

Parents, wounded themselves in their pasts, unknowingly pass on their unexamined, unhealed wounds to their children — wounds that come from the perceptions of a child’s mind (“I’m not good enough,” “I can’t ever be who my parents expect,” “Nobody likes me,” I’m a trouble-maker,” etc.). These perceptions grow into beliefs that influence behavior if not understood and addressed.

Is the culprit the misinformed parent or teacher? No. They, too, are victims — victims of the “tough love” parenting culture that has been informing our child rearing practices from time immemorial — punishments, blame, threats, isolation, bullying, hitting, name-calling, arbitrary “consequences” — all in the name of raising responsible children. These coercive techniques have left us with a society of the walking wounded. Yet we keep on doing the same old thing expecting different results.

We like to blame parents, or the mental illness, or a diagnosis of something “on the spectrum.” The truth is, other than psychosis, any mental illness or cognitive difference can be strongly affected by educated, consistently positive parenting.

These red flags are not to blame although it makes the argument much easier. The culprit is our culture of punishment which leaves our parents at a loss — frustrated, angry, hating their parenting (because it doesn’t work) but not knowing what else to do.

We must raise our heads from the sand and see that our culture of punishment needs to change to a culture of compassion — for ourselves and for our children. Parenting is a hard job, the hardest anyone of us will ever have. It often feels impossible. Because the help isn’t there. Because our culture is stigmatized. Parents are supposed to know what to do. They are too ashamed to ask for help they should not need.

As much as we need to raise the level of care for our mentally ill, we need to do the same for all children by eliminating the stigma that parent education is for “bad” parents. When are we going to stop doing the same old, same old that has gotten us to this point of tragedy after tragedy?

And I’m not talking only about the school shootings. I’m talking about the tragedies that fill most American homes every day when frustrated, tired parents react punitively because it’s all they know — when their children dawdle, don’t do their chores or their homework, when they resist being told what to do, when they don’t want to go to bed.

When are we going to see that our blame and criticism not only do nothing to teach appropriate behavior and responsibility but also create bullies who play out their feelings of powerlessness in school, who learn how to get what they want by witnessing our anger and attacks on them by yelling, grabbing, threatening, and name calling.

I am in no way suggesting that the parents of killers could have stopped the killings. I am suggesting that universally available parent education taken advantage of could change our society dramatically. Parents are floundering and children are still losing. Is there anything more important?

Parent Wise Columnist Bonnie Harris, M.S.Ed,. is the director of Connective Parenting. She founded The Parent Guidance Center, now The River Center, in Peterborough, where she continues to teach. Email questions or topic requests to bh@bonnie

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