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The Cruelty of Children.

The horrific violence that took place this past spring at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, has unsettled the United States as a nation. I don't know anyone who has not bewilderedly pondered the whys and hows of the whole ordeal. Especially on the minds of many--from television network reporters to the check-out person at my grocery store--is the question of the role of the gunmen's parents. Why didn't they know what was happening with their children? Why didn't they see signs of trouble? I wonder the same things.

The parents of the gunmen bear part of the responsibility for what happened at Columbine High. I believe the parents and significant adults in the lives of many of the other students played a role as well. As much as we would all like to distance ourselves from the shooting--attribute it to two "screwed-up" teenagers and their sadly "inadequate" parents--we cannot. We cannot detach because the African proverb has a point: it does "take a village" to raise a child. The frequent deficiency in the structure of children's "villages" is something that tweaks at my own heart through memories of my awkward childhood and teenage years.

I remember changing schools when I was in fifth grade. I entered my new school as a smart but not very athletic outsider who liked to wear dresses when everyone else wore jeans, who had short hair when everyone else was wearing theirs long, and who wouldn't--because of what I'd been taught at home--be mean to other kids who didn't belong to the "in" group. These simple things made me a perfect target for endless teasing. I never really fit in.

Tormented by the rejection of my classmates, I remember wanting to flee from the school and never come back. I felt worthless, constantly intimidated, as if I were a freakish stranger in my own world. In fifth grade in a small school in a predominantly middle-class community, I was already feeling the deep hurt that can be inflicted on one by other children. It colors my life to this day. It makes me acutely aware of what the cruelty of children can do.

Sadly, it is the cruelty of children--usually brushed off by adults as a phase of youth--that can be a major contributor to the damaged psyches of teenagers. Feelings of hurt and humiliation can evolve into deep anger at the world and long-standing feelings of isolation and ostracism. The question is: who bears the responsibility for that?

I believe we are all responsible--all of us who have any influence over the lives of children. I have seen my own stepchildren taunt others because they wear the "wrong" clothes or are not exactly Michael Jordan on the basketball court. I have failed to correct this behavior at times because "they're just at that age." But there is never an age at which children should be allowed to be cruel. There is never a time we should allow our teens to become so smug as to classify themselves as better than someone who doesn't conform to their fickle ideals. We can't laugh it off. We can't tell those children who feel intimidated or great inner hurt to "just get over it." If people fail to learn in their youth not to be hurtful toward others, they will never learn it.

It's tough to be a kid. If one is the victim of continuous harassment by other children, it hurts. If the harassment is persistent, it can leave permanent scars. Each parent bears the responsibility of teaching their children not to hurt others, as well as how to handle hurtful behavior directed at them. A parent should never legitimize the taunting of a schoolmate by taking a smug "my kid is better" attitude, which I believe happens a lot in middle- and upper-class families. A parent should never carelessly ignore mean, hurtful behavior perpetrated by their children on others. Most of all, every parent needs to be aware of what their children are doing and how they behave toward others with whom they attend school or spend time.

Teachers, coaches, school faculty, and other adults who have frequent, meaningful contact with children aren't free of responsibility either. Probably the most frequent adult response toward hurtful behavior between children is one of inaction. My experience has seen many teachers who have just shrugged off malicious behavior and done nothing. I even had a junior high teacher who used to join in when the popular kids taunted a class outcast. We have a right to expect the role models of our children to exemplify kindness and not tolerate contemptible behavior toward others.

On a recent Oprah Winfrey Show, Brooks Brown, a classmate of the suspected gunmen, described the pre-shooting atmosphere at Columbine High as "hell" for students not part of the "in" group. In the time since the shooting, Brooks has been further ostracized by schoolmates who holler, "Killer!" or "Murderer!" at him when he is in public, even though he wasn't involved in the incident. He stated that he will have to finish his education at another school since the atmosphere in Littleton is so hostile. Designating someone as an untouchable or outcast benefits no one and can end up devastating an entire community.

Tell me why this attitude of smugness and detachment persists. If parents, teachers, and other adults associated with children were really teaching the values of appropriate respect toward others and the acceptance or even celebration of differences between individuals, Brown would not be enduring the torment he is now. The feelings of ostracism suffered by the two boys suspected of doing the shooting might never have existed. And they were, after all, two boys--not aliens who invaded Littleton, not born killers, and not violent machines devoid of feelings. They were boys whose needs were not met by their parents and whose distress was further ignored and perpetuated by their school community.

I understand and respect the pain, loss, and anger being experienced by the Littleton community in the wake of the horrible events at Columbine High. However, I believe a community cannot really heal until its members rehumanize youths who commit criminal behavior and look with open minds and hearts at the tragedies of their lives. It is only then that the full story can be viewed and all significant pieces of the puzzle placed. When all factors are considered, the one critical piece that will glare intently back at us is the damaging consequence of the unbridled cruelty of children.

Tamra Elke has a B.A. in nursing and has worked as a nurse, a teleresearch editor, and an academic tutor. She speaks to groups about clinical depression and is completing her first book on the subject.
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Title Annotation:everybody should teach children proper behavior
Author:Elke, Tamra
Publication:The Humanist
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 1999
Previous Article:LETTERS.
Next Article:School Shootings--A Symptom.

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