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January 03, 2007

Open Letter to Parents

"Blood on the lockers".  That's the quote from Foss High School students today that will be used to turn this tragedy into nothing more than a headline and book title.  And that's what we'll focus on while parents ask why the school didn't do more and all Washington state begins the inevitable debate: more gun control?  better security?  stricter guidelines in the school?

Gun control is not the issue here - people are still upset that Dylan Klebold could buy his weapons at a gunshow and want that loophole closed, but this assumes that Dylan Klebold was incapable of coming up with another idea.  Close the loophole by all means, but let's face reality:  smart kids will think of ways to get what they want.  In our society, it really isn't difficult to get a gun without anyone knowing you've done so.  So gun control, in this context, misses the mark.  Better security?  We should spend millions upgrading schools and hassling kids, creating more fear and tension, on the off-chance that your kid's school might have one of the 15 or 20 (out of millions of students) kids that bring in a gun every year?  Does anyone believe there aren't multiple ways to get around this?  Even in schools with metal detectors, the only way guns are detected is by another student finding out about it and telling someone. And as for stricter guidelines, well...that really brings us to my point.

You see, this whole debate really misses the larger problem with our schools today, and it isn't the students - it's you, it's us - it's the parents.  Parents have failed their children in our society.

I should explain, before going further, that I am of course speaking generally, but I do mean to offend most parents specifically, because frankly, someone needs to say something.  We spend too much time and energy deferring to parents, granting them elevated status as paragons of virtue, wisdom and strong stewards of values for their children, doubting parents only when given strong reason to do so.

We have to stop this.  I am not suggesting that you should be assumed to be a bad parent; far from it.  What I am suggesting is that as a society, we need to relearn that the only things borne in the womb are babies - not wisdom, not virtue, and not values.  When your child is born, your work is only beginning.

This guest post was written by Switzer, who writes at Switzerblog (and previously at Washblog.)   Switzer was involved in the Dean campaign in 2003 and was then instrumental in getting both Democracy for Washington and the Seattle Kossack group going here.  We thank him for writing and encourage him to do so more often.  This post is also up at Switzerblog.  Go with us over the fold for the rest. . . .

The culture of babies

The culture of babies and value-laden parents has created a situation where the concept of babies has become more worthwhile than the babies themselves.  Having babies, not a family, becomes a goal for too many young girls, and in fact becomes the end, rather than a means.  Every time I hear someone, after seeing a baby, exclaim "they're so cute - I want one!", I shudder.  Our children have become puppies, or dolls to dress up, and not what they really are:  young people learning to become members of our society.  I'm not suggesting we should stop enjoying our children, far from it - but we can't stop with enjoying our children.  We have to take responsibility for their safety as well as their physical, mental and emotional growth.  This simply isn't happening.

Why are we having children in the first place?  I tend to mock the parents who will tell you they've received a "little blessing" or refer to their child as "our little miracle".  I mock this because children aren't miracles or blessings - they're independent people that we've created, and by elevating them to this artificial status as a miracle or blessing, we remove ourselves from the responsibility that we have to them.  They're not abstract; they're real, they're our responsibility, and furthermore, it's our responsibility to society to ensure that they are functional adults when they leave our care.  It is not society's responsibility to make them functional children, nor train them for adulthood - it is ours.

While the right-leaning among us apply their "values" to all parents (save liberals), they disregard the responsibilities parents have for creating and instilling those values not just in their children, but in themselves.  Too often, talk of "values" brings the conservative viewpoint, which has become dominant in the world of parenting and child-rearing, to issues of homosexuality, sexual behavior, and media (radio/movies/television shows).  The conservative viewpoint is that homosexuality must be stamped out so "our" children won't be "corrupted" and become gay themselves.  Sexual behavior must be stigmatized in all its ways and manners - save that between a married man and a woman, which should never be discussed prior to the wedding night.  And the media must stamp out all messages of, well, things "I" disapprove of.  (fair warning - a contradiction is coming on this point)

This viewpoint is weak-minded, corrupt, and in my opinion, is the most significant cause of the failure of modern parenting.

Society, my fellow parents, is not your babysitter.  There certainly is a responsibility, at the societal level, to determine what is reasonable to have in the public square.  But the eradication of images and speech deemed "wrong" by parents and others bent on judgment does nothing to ensure children are raised well.

When I hear people ask "what about the children?", when I hear "what do I tell my children about marriage when two men can marry?", I always think "why is that my problem?".  You are responsible for your children.  You teach them right from wrong.  You teach them values and morals.  You show them how to behave - through discipline and object lessons.  Live how you want your children to live, and teach them right from wrong.  You cannot expect government, nor society, to do it for you.

My child is special

This is endemic today.  Your child, while undoubtedly in possession of some variety of talents and surely interesting and unique in their own right, is not special.  Your child is one among millions who is learning how to interact with others, learning boundaries and learning limits, and the concept of being "special" is damaging to this important development.

Surely, as a society, we are advanced enough to love and embrace our children, teach them confidence and self-esteem, without falsely inflating their sense of importance in the world.  We are not special - we are important parts of a community.  Whether that community is the family, classroom, coworkers, or society as a whole, we should understand our place within it, and if we aren't appropriately grounded as children, when will we learn it?  How many future George Bushes are we raising if we aren't teaching our children not to place themselves above other people?

I strongly believe that the idea of all children being special, again referring back to the idea of babies as miracles or blessings, has created an abstraction and accomplished two things, both bad and complementary:  It has allowed us as parents to forgo our responsibilities to our children to teach them, and it has created a space for children in which others are not seen as equals or fellow members of a community, but as other abstract beings with little relevance or importance.  This is incredibly dangerous, and I believe we're beginning to reap what we've sown.

This is where the aforementioned contradiction is coming in.  While parents as a whole seek to force the media to prevent any images or ideas from reaching their children via FCC complaints and moralistic legislation, we simultaneously (and bizarrely) embrace the products of that media and allow our children in massive numbers to take in and absorb those images and big-screen lessons, unquestioned by us.  How many parents seriously have conversations with their children about the mind-boggling problems with the Fast and the Furious?  Apparently, not many, judging by the number of children racing around in Acuras with giant ridiculous spoilers.  In my mind, this type of film is much more dangerous than trainspotting, which showed the realistic problems of drug addiction.  The moralists would love to allow the former movie to be shown, and the latter to be banned, despite seeing the evidence that our kids aren't suddenly doing blow because they have the good sense to see that's no good, but they don't yet have the good sense to recognize that dangerous driving habits are, well...dangerous.  This isn't a difficult concept to grasp: offer your 14 year old a choice between a heroin needle and your car keys sometime and see which one they'll go for.  Kids aren't that hard to figure out.

The contradiction of wanting to ban one but not the other honestly baffles me.  But before you jump down to leave your scathing comment, understand I'm not saying either should be banned, or even limited.  I'm saying it is the parent's responsibility to decide what their children watch, and to make an effort to impact the lessons they take away from it.  When you decide to have children, you're agreeing to have difficult conversations and sometimes make difficult rules.

TV  - same thing applies.  Is it really that hard, if a homophobe's son or daughter watches Will & Grace and has a question about it, to sit down and have a conversation about why you believe what you believe?  If it is, perhaps you need to examine your beliefs, rather than trying to force society to protect your child for you.

Parents, children and school

And this brings me to the more specific point today.  Our focus on banning media (or sex ed, or take your pick) rather than teaching our children how to think about the information they take in, our focus on our children as hyper-important beings, our wrong-minded acceptance that parents are right because they're parents has put our kids in a no-win situation.

Too often, we hear of kids expelled for behavior that warrants, well, expulsion, and parents suing the school district.  Too often, kids disciplined in classroom find shelter and protection from parents who extend the oddball "You can't tell me how to raise my kids" mindset into the classroom and morph it into "you can't tell my kid how to act".  Too many kids have been raised by parents assuring them they're special and no one can tell them what to do.  We've created a climate where children are running the schools - respect for teachers is unnecessary when they know mom and dad will back them up.

Right and wrong - we talk about it, but who's responsible?  More and more, I hear conservatives complain that we spend too much on schools, and they should only be concentrating on the three "R's", yet when children act out, when they have sex, when they break laws or commit acts of violence, the same parents want to know why the school isn't teaching these kids right from wrong.  Well...the better question is, why aren't you?

At the same time, the constant bombardment of violent images in song and video, which goes largely unchallenged and unquestioned by parents (except when they ask government to do something about it FOR them), has bred a Jerry Springer mindset - conflict resolution necessarily involves physical altercations.  You have to stand up for yourself, and physical domination is the only way to do so.  Mind you, I don't blame the imagery for this problem - I blame the parents who have not directly challenged that imagery with their children.

The schools, hamstrung by a system that punishes teachers who stand up for their classroom (sorry, school districts can't afford the legal fees associated with litigious parents), have become places where teachers have little to no ability to mandate behavior.  When they're forced to discipline students, schools rarely get the backing of the people they need most - the parents.

And we're back to you, the parents.  We have the responsibility to send well-adjusted children to school to be students - schools are not responsible for taking your neglected clay and molding it from 8:15 to 2:45 into model citizens.  Schools have enough on their hands with hormone-addled children, with soccer practice looming and WASL over their shoulder, just keeping kids focused on the task at hand without also being responsible for personal morals.  You have to set that standard, so when kids don't meet those standards at school, you're prepared to deal with it.

The Christian movement has embraced homeschooling over the last few years - notwithstanding the failures in basic science and history that this movement has fostered, I think it's wonderful in two ways:  One, these kids are wonderfully shielded from these rare, tragic outbreaks of violence, and two, they are getting parental attention, guidance and support that is woefully lacking in too many homes of public-school kids.

We, as parents, need to embrace the ideals of attention, guidance and support of our children that teaches them right from wrong, that holds them accountable for their actions, that teaches them their responsibilities to society and their community.  We have failed at this, and it's past time to get ourselves right again.

The goal

What is the solution, here?  I think, first, we must decide to take responsibility for ourselves.  It is long past time for us, as a society, to stop worshipping the cult of parents, and rather begin demanding certain things of parents - responsibility, guidance, accountability.  How your child behaves in the store isn't just "kids being kids", it's your responsibility to teach your child how to behave in the store.  How your child interacts with other children isn't a matter of them growing as people, it's your responsibility to teach them how to interact with other children (and adults, for that matter!).

It's time for us to realize that others most certainly can, and should, tell us how to raise our children - not because one person is good and another bad, or one right and another wrong, but because we are a community, we are all in this together, and our ability to coexist depends on our ability to work together to raise children.

And finally, it's time for you to take responsibility.  Your child's behavior really is a reflection of you.  I don't want to create a culture where our children's actions cause us shame when they do the wrong thing, but where we respond by teaching them, rather than finding an outside influence to blame for not stopping them.

Tragedies will always happen - there really are bad people, and there will always be someone who snaps, but it doesn't have to be a common part of our landscape.  The decline in the quality of life in our schools can be stopped, but it will take effort on our part to do it.  Until society, and parents, take responsibility again, the blood on those lockers belongs to us.

Posted by Lynn Allen on January 3, 2007 at 02:58 PM in Washington Culture | Permalink


The problems started when parents, and teachers, could no longer discipline the children. Remember Dr. Spock (sp) who created such a fuss about spanking little butts. Now parents can go to jail for child abuse when they spank some little butt. IMHO spanking some child when the deserve it is not child abuse. Yes, it could turn into abuse, but the majority of the time it isn't.

Let's put the blame where it belongs; on the people who we elect to office. Discipline is need when a child is young and in their informative years. I was raised where spare the rod and spoil the child was the common theme. While it hurt when the rod was used, it also insured a long lasting awareness that some things are not permitted in society.

I was also raised around fire arms, and I believe in the "right to have them", and I was also required to do chores, whether it was pulling weeds from the garden, raking leaves in the fall, doing dishes, etc. At the time I thought it sucked, but in later life, I'm glad my parents used this approach with me, and in turn, laws against it, I also raised my children that way.

A good open hand swat on the butt does leave a lasting impression, as my granddaughter found out one day when she was acting up in the grocery store. She has never made that mistake again, and do you wonder why?

Posted by: Allen | Jan 4, 2007 5:34:34 AM

Yet another issue:
There is an active ongoing campaign to raise awareness of the Asphyxia Activity known as the Choking Game. Parents, educators, and concerned
parents have joined together to campaign the DARE program and Elementary/Middle School Health Programs to include asphyxia activity into the
current programs. Children and parents need to be educated to the dangers of this activity.

Asphyxia activity is known all over this country, Canada and the world. There's a great chance that your child or grandchild, niece or nephew has already heard of it and has tried it or may be enticed to play it. Children as young as 6 years old have explained it to shocked parents. They don't know the deadliness or the dangers of permanent disabling brain damage, they think it's fun, safe and silly. Please help by signing the petition below. The life you save in the future may be a child who means the world to you.

A Petition for D.A.R.E / Elementary and Middle School Health programs to incorporate Asphyxia Activity into the cirricula has begun to
circulate - Your signature shows we insist on keeping our children safe.

Please feel free to post this link on your own blog or website and forward it to your
address book! The more signatures, the bigger the impact! "Sign or print a paper version of the Petition at www.TheDBFoundation.com"

Posted by: concerned parents | Jan 4, 2007 7:13:18 AM

Allen - the very fact that you can equate pulling weeds and raking leaves with hitting children says a lot. And what it says ain't good.

Posted by: shoephone | Jan 4, 2007 1:25:09 PM

I figured most people could read between the lines. To put it clearly, a lot of kids today do not have chores to do, nor do their parents really teach responsibility. As to hitting children, I have never hit a child. Spanking them, yes I have. Hitting them is child abuse! Your statement about me hitting children says a lot about you. Maybe we both could/should be making clear statements, instead of letting people read between the lines.

Posted by: Allen | Jan 5, 2007 10:19:16 AM

You can parse it all you like, Allen. You're the one who affirmed "spare the rod, spoil the child" in your first comment. It seemed awfully clear, without any need to read between the lines.

I can't speak for Switzer, but it seems to me that the point of his post was that parents taking more responsibility for their childrens' behavior leads to ending the cycle of violence. (The post was spurred on by the shooting at the high school, no?) So we have two competing theories at work: Switzer is writing about ways to end the cycle of violence, and you, Allen are writing about ways to continue the cycle of violence. And you've not only used that method with your children, but have proudly proclaimed here that you use it with your grandchildren as well. Congratualtions. No need to read between the lines.

Maybe you'll want to read Switzer's post again.

Posted by: shoephone | Jan 5, 2007 11:30:18 AM

Allen writes "A good open hand swat on the butt does leave a lasting impression, as my granddaughter found out one day when she was acting up in the grocery store. She has never made that mistake again, and do you wonder why?"

Um, she fears you?

Posted by: Sean | Jan 5, 2007 12:17:12 PM

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