Sunday, April 22, 2007

Sticks and Stones - Mullings on Virginia Tech

I have read a number of blog posts and comments about the Virginia Tech tragedy of last week. I want to throw in my two cents, but my thoughts are from a different perspective.

I have read and watched a number of news stories about the gunman (though I, like many others, have tried to avoid the photos and videos - do we really need to see that?), and it seems that he was a target of teasing by other young people in high school and even at Virginia Tech. Granted, he seems to have been quite odd and from what I have read, pretty unwilling to form relationships with his peers. And at least some of his fellow college students had tried to reach out to him and had been rebuffed. And who knows what demons tormented this young man that would make him so filled with hatred and rage. Even his family is baffled and confused by his actions.

The thing I want to remark on here is that a common thread in so many of these sorts of tragedies, of serial killers, mass killers, hostage situations, etc., is that the perpetrator, almost always a male, has a history of being taunted, teased, mocked, and being made to feel somehow inferior during his school days. I am certainly not saying that this treatment was the only reason for a person going over the edge and committing murder, but I have to stop and wonder if we really underestimate the effect of emotional cruelty by peers can have on a young person's psyche.

What is it that makes our children feel the need to hurt others so with their words and behavior? I know it's not a new problem, but it seems to me that it the level and the means of inflicting hurt and pain on other kids has really burgeoned in the last 5 or 6 years. MySpace and other similar "personal diary" tools give opportunity for kids to say things to one another that they might never say in person (though many of them do). There seems to be a mentality that in order to feel good about yourself, you have to find someone that you can humiliate so that they seem dumber, uglier, nerdier, sluttier, poorer, and so on.

The "mean girls" culture, which doesn't just extend to girls by the way, is frightening to me, and it is beginning earlier and earlier - as early as preschool in some instances. I have a number of friends with preschool age children, and I see a lot of young kids interacting at my church, and I can see inklings of that sort of thinking even in kids as young as 4 and 5 years old. I don't think at that age they even understand the effects of the things they say and do, but it's there. Are we teaching it to our kids without realizing it? Are they learning it from their peers or from TV? Or is it a hardwired part of who we are as humans - of our instinct to preserve ourselves at any cost?

I look at my own children, two grown and one a teen, and I see very little of this sort of behavior and thinking, and I wonder, what did I do right? With my teen, who is a boy, we have a lot of dialogue about this very issue, when we see something happen among his friends, or watch something on TV. We talk about why it is wrong and how hard it is to understand why others want to hurt each other. He has a very compassionate heart and I sincerely believe that he tries to be kind to everyone, no matter who they are. He's not perfect, but I believe that's his heart. My middle child, a girl, was the brunt of much teasing and cruelty in adolescence because she was "chubby," and so she has a particularly sensitive heart about unkindness to others. Not to say she never has her moments, but generally speaking, she tries to think the best of others and always have something nice to say, because she learned the hard way how hurtful words can be. She tends to want to champion the underdog and speak up for anyone whom others speak ill about, sometimes with a righteous spirit that can be a little off-putting. But her heart is in the right place. My oldest, a boy (well a man now), is quiet, and truthfully I don't know his mindset as much now as he lives away and I don't see him as often. But as a teen, he had only a few friends but seemed to be nice to most everyone. He never had conflicts with school friends, and I never heard him make rude comments about others. What is the difference in their attitudes and what I observe in kids on TV, at my son's school, and even sometimes at my church? I know it sounds like I'm bragging that my kids are great and never do anything wrong, and that's certainly NOT the case. But I think anyone who knows them well would agree with me about their character.

I wish I could say that I am as kindhearted as my children, but the truth is I am not. I try not to be unkind about others, but I judge and criticize and I know that I categorize people in my heart, if not out loud. It's hard to confess that, but it's the truth. But I like to think that I would never deliberately try to make someone look bad to make me feel better about myself.

I think we must take a hard look at the culture our young people are living in, a culture where it is acceptable to completely tear apart a person, to humiliate and destroy who they are, simply based on the fact that they are different from themselves. The fact that it is such a common thread in people who end up on the news for completely snapping and committing such horrific acts should be enough to give us pause to think. Sticks and stones indeed.

1 comment:

Julie Layne said...

As always, Jodi Picoult seems to have hit the topic right on the nose with her current release. I just bought 19 Minutes last week, and it's a story about a school shooting where the shooter was bullied.