POINT OF VIEW: Prevention is better than ‘cleaning up the mess’

Imagine standing on the bank of a lovely river, just watching the water flow by, when suddenly you hear someone screaming. You look out into the river and see a boat burning, the person on board screaming for help. You jump into the water, swim out to the boat and bring the person to shore. Just as you get them comfortable, you hear another scream, and another burning boat is coming down the river. And then another scream, and another. You are trying your best to help these poor people, but have you stopped to ask: Why are these boats burning?

Violence doesn’t come out of nowhere. Every time there is a school shooting, we seem to be taken completely by surprise. How could this have happened? How could this have happened again? Those are very good questions. However, to answer them well, we must go back upstream and see what is setting those boats on fire. In the aftermath of the recent shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, some people said: It’s the availability of assault rifles. Some said: It’s bullying. Others said: Our schools don’t have enough armed guards. Still others said: We need to identify troubled and troubling kids and turn them over to the authorities. The problem with these solutions is that they come too late.

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We know that children as young as 5 or 6 years old are showing up at the schoolroom door for preschool or first grade with clear and identifiable aggressive behaviors. Children’s basic sense of self, their understanding of whether they are loved, lovable and deserving of love — or not — is formed during the first two years of life based on how their parents treated them. Those children who believe that they are not loved, lovable or deserving of love are likely to be aggressive. And we know where these feelings come from: the trauma of abuse or neglect; a lack of consistent, sensitive warm, and nurturing parenting; or permissive parenting in which children are allowed to act out aggressively without consistent and appropriate consequences. When these things occur during infancy and early childhood, children are set up to have problems when they enter the school system just a few years later.

Obviously, not all children who had less than optimal parenting go on to become school shooters. However, these infant and early childhood experiences influence children’s ability to manage their emotions and influence their expectations for all future relationships. If they are lucky, they may find adults who recognize their pain and rage and intervene with them and their family early. If they are not lucky, they face repeated rejection by their parents, teachers and peers, humiliation and bullying, academic difficulties, suspensions and expulsions. When this happens, they may explode, and at that point, yes, we need gun control, we need armed guards on campus, we need to get them into treatment and to stop further bullying. But prevention is better than cleaning up the mess. We need to get to the roots of aggression and stop it before it can even start. It’s time to look upstream and see what’s setting these boats on fire.


Editor’s note: Gail Chewning is a professor in the Phyllis and Harvey School of Social Work at Florida Atlantic University.

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