The Children Strike Back

By From the July 1999 issue

Dan Quayle jumped back before the spotlight with his post-Columbine critique that a "legal aristocracy" has inserted barriers between children and authority figures. Parents may no longer raise their own kids, Quayle claimed, since that job has been taken over by the social engineers at the ACLU.

Dr. Helen Smith, a forensic psychologist who works with homicidal children and adults in Knoxville, Tennessee, and who calls herself a "social liberal," is in some agreement with Quayle, but she believes those barriers between kids and parents reflect generalized Boomer attitudes about authority, egalitarianism, and self-expression.

"There are a lot of killer kids out there," she warns. "The ones in urban schools usually have one target, and the fight is often over something very specific, often a girlfriend. Nobody cares about them—and that is wrong. The killers in the middle-class suburbs are often suicidal narcissists, and they want to take a lot of people out with them, because that gets a lot of attention.... These kids are narcissists, and their narcissism is made much worse by a lack of coherent and consistent guide- lines and discipline."

The federal government has played a role in creating this environment, claims Smith. The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, she says, allows for no more than a day suspension should a "special-ed" student punch a teacher. Many teachers, she adds, are afraid to respond to unruly kids because they fear getting sued. "Here in Knoxville we had a kid who beat up a 65-year-old principal, then turned around and threatened to sue the principal for sexual harassment because he had laid a hand on him. This is the attitude a lot of kids have: 'In the end, nobody can really do anything to me.’” Similarly, parents who still believe in the benevolent results of taking junior to the woodshed refrain from fear of a knock on the door from the social services department. "Kids know they can't really be disciplined," says Smith. "That puts them in charge, and that is disastrous."

Smith's words bring back a personal parenting memory from Littleton. The place was Clement Park, now famous as site of that huge memorial to the shooting victims. Our second-grade son was being hustled to the car on a minor infraction when he turned and warned that if an untoward hand was laid on him, he would dial 911. Where did he get such an idea, he was asked. His teacher told him, came the response.

Teachers weren't the only ones conveying this message. Colorado parents knew the real possibility of being hauled into court should they cuff an upstart child. In one well-publicized local case, a father was called to school after his charge showed persistent unruliness. The father took the boy into a school bathroom and whipped him, after which the child's behavior showed a marked improvement. The father, however, was convicted of child abuse, and his fate stood as a warning to all other parents.

Yet Coloradans are in no hurry to change this arrangement. Many modern parents, as Smith says, believe a belting constitutes child abuse, and Coloradans are no different, having defeated a "parents' rights" ballot measure that would have given parents the right "to direct and control the upbringing, education, values and discipline of their children." Though initially enjoying strong backing, critics convinced voters that, in the words of the local ACLU chieftain, "It really denies the rights of the child. It makes them the property of parents and gives parents a license to abuse them in any way those parents might wish." Since 1994, the New York Times has reported, nearly 30 states have considered similar legislation, but none have approved an amendment.

Smith believes the rules currently governing the young are basically popular. "We really hate to make distinctions which say that one kid is really worse than any other. You see this reflected in school rules. In many schools, if a student brings a butter knife he gets the same punishment as if he had brought in a gun. Or, if a girl gives a friend a Midol, or an Alka-Seltzer, it's as if she had given away a controlled substance. If a special-ed kid beats up the principal, his punishment is about the same." Kids hardly can be expected to look up to the adults responsible for such stupidity, she says. The only people benefiting are the unhinged. This is a good time to be a "wacko" she says, because wackos are treated like everyone else, and vice versa.

Another critic of the Boomer Way is Carl Raschke, professor of religious studies at the University of Denver and author of a book on youth subcultures. The difference between the Professor and Thor is that the latter couldn't hurl thunderbolts quite so fast. But it seems that fellows like Raschke are enjoying a wider audience in the days since Columbine, which he calls "a watershed event whose true epochal nature is not being properly understood."

"We've gravitated to mindless questions about after-school recreation and locks on guns," says Raschke. "We still don't get it. This is a crisis for the baby boom generation —my generation—which has to repent of its past moral transgressions and come to terms with its own failures."

Proceed, doctor.

"We live in a culture which values diversity so much it cannot draw distinctions. We still cling to the 60's idea that behavior once considered antisocial is instead revolutionary and liberating. And so, if one takes a stand against evil, one is either paranoid, moralistic, uptight, or irrational. We don't recognize evil as evil, can't say dark is dark. We still think we're living in a New Age utopia. But that utopia is an illusion. Littleton should be a loud wake-up call to every social engineer in the country: You have failed."

That message will no doubt be well received. On a more practical plane, what should be done?

"American politicians need to stop saying 'I didn't inhale,"' he advises. "Adults need to stop saying 'I was responsible when I was young.' We weren't. We hope to create an illusion kids aren't buying. If we said yes, we did take drugs, but it was wrong — that's one thing. But kids know we did these things and are lying about it, and so they'll do the same.... My generation has to admit that there is such a thing as sin, and need to repent. We have to take responsibility for the moral mess we've created."

Raschke is none too optimistic. "As long as there are pied pipers to shift the blame to some bogey—CNN, makers of handguns—many of us will avoid looking at ourselves and realize we've met the enemy and it's us." He holds up as Exhibit A Time magazine's "Monsters next door" cover story. "If we want to say that adolescent boys are the monster next door, we should also admit that we've been making those monsters in our own basements."

Finding someone optimistic that positive changes are afoot is not easy these days, yet there is hope among those who hold the popular culture largely to blame for the ill-tempered nature of modern youth and the extreme violence some of them practice. None is more hopeful than Miami Attorney Jack Thompson. "Columbine was the culture war's Pearl Harbor," he declares. "America's parents have finally figured out that Hollywood and these game manufacturers have been targeting their children. America's parents are ready to shoot back."


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About the Author

Dave Shiflett is a writer in Midlothian, Virginia.