The following excerpt comes from James E. Shaw's new book, Jack and Jill: Why They Kill.
Buy your copy of Jack & Jill: Why They Kill.
Adolescentcide: All Kids Are At Risk
"Since I really got involved in the counseling and chapel ministry program here in prison, I couldn't wait to see my mom and dad because I really wanted to reach out to them and apologize and ask for their forgiveness. Well, for starters, they didn't visit me for over two years. When they finally came, my mother stayed in the car. My dad came to see me, but he wouldn't let me hug him, touch him, nothing like that. And he would cough and change the subject whenever I brought up Monica's death. You see, I've faced the fact that I killed my sister, and that I did it on purpose. My parents may never forgive me. I'm just another terrible family secret they'll lock up in the attic of their minds. At the end of my dad's visit, I felt so terrible. Even with all the counseling, I felt like I couldn't go on. I didn't eat for a week." — Charity
I sat at the rectangular table in the Day Room and waited for the parole agent to bring in Charity. My two tape recorders were all set up and ready. An unopened giant box of "AA" batteries was between them, ready to be thrown into service at the first sound of tape-warble. A new spiral notebook lay open beneath two sharpened pencils. Our interview was for 9:00 a.m., just as it always was. I looked at my watch; it was 9:15. Charity was not here, and nobody else had come to tell me whether our interview was on or off. As I waited, I begin to reflect on the prison's highly-efficient communications system.
I recalled first being required to make a "why-am-I-here-and-what-do-I-want-to-do" presentation to the parole agents and counseling staff at a special meeting called specifically for them to meet and question me. Despite my having received the state's blessings to enter the juvenile prison system and interview children serving time for homicide, my "approval letter" had advised me that each prison would have to make its own determination about whether to allow me in. I knew that my task lay in convincing professional prison staff that teachers, parents and others were desperately concerned about finding answers to why kids were killing kids. I described my years as a teacher and ended my presentation by saying that I was prepared to invest years in the study of children incarcerated for homicide in order to help others around the nation, "including youth prison officials," solve this socially-urgent problem.
My presentation to the prison staff merely qualified me to make another presentation, at a different time, to children (wards) en masse, who were rounded up and marshaled into the gigantic Day Room. Even after my telling them that it would be a "multi-year project," most of the wards agreed to participate. I was almost beside myself with delight. However, one ward told me bluntly: "If you come back here wearing a jacket and tie, I ain't gonna talk to you."
Whenever I arrived at the prison, my immediate responsibilities included picking up, from the security checkpoint, my "package" — the two memos listing my day's interviewees and my "Visitor" badge. If the memos were not there, usually a parole agent handed them to me when he or she ushered the first interviewee into the day room. My final task, prior to interviewing a ward for the first time, was to go over with the ward the "informed consent" form I designed. It explained the purpose of the interviews — to provide information to teachers, parents and others who work with children — and informed wards that they had the right to terminate interviews at any time, for any reason or for no reason. Their desire not to participate would not be held against them and was purely voluntary. However, they would receive no "points" or "credits." In other words, these interviews could not be used as "good behavior evidence" to show the parole board. Lastly, I stated my desire to interview them several times, over a number of years, to check, re-check, and verify information they gave me, and to get as accurate and complete a picture of their life as possible.
"Mr. Shaw?" The voice behind me sounded tentative. I turned around from the window through which I had been watching the rain hammering down. I had not heard any footsteps behind me, so engrossed was I in my thoughts and watching the downpour. "Good morning, Charity," I said. She smiled shyly. We shook hands. I gestured toward the table and we walked over to it. The parole agent gave me my "package" showing five more interviews that day; then she left.
"I'm awful sorry I'm late," Charity began. "Uh, something happened, and they needed to question me. I mean, I'm not like in trouble or anything. They just needed to question me about some things." I told Charity that was okay, that I understood, that "things come up sometimes, just like the rain comes down." She glanced toward the window and we both laughed. She said, "I know we only have about a half hour." I told her we could still begin the interview, if she wanted to do so. She nodded her head enthusiastically. So, we began. The story I got from her persuaded me of the value in returning, time and again, to these children and repeatedly interviewing the same ones for better and more information. Charity, in our previous four interviews, was usually taciturn and given to only a few words. Sometimes I had the impression she was there to put in the hour and be gone. Today, though, she gave me the story of her life.
"You overslept and missed breakfast and your medicine," Charity said with exasperation as she worked at the dishes. "Mom and Dad left for work hours ago."
"Watch your tone, please," Monica said. "You know I'm sick. Depression is sickness. Most people know that." The insult burrowed into Charity's patience. "Some sister you turned out to be."
"Listen, Monica —"
Just then, the doorbell rang. Charity dried her hands on her apron and went for the door.
"I'll get it!" announced Monica, who lunged at Charity and knocked her to one side.
"Are you sick or are you sick?!" Charity shouted.
Monica turned around, mid-stride, "Don't you ever, ever say that to me again. I've got enough people thinking I'm a head case. I don't need my sister joining the team. Do you hear me, slut?"
The doorbell rang again. Monica turned briskly toward the door.
The name Monica had called her echoed in her mind. Slut? You're the slut, Monica. All these boys coming over all the time, and I never . . . If you were just dead.
"Monica?" Charity called.
"What?!" Monica answered dismissively, continuing toward the door.
"Monica?" Charity called again, her voice softer, more calculated.
Monica, now just inches from the front door, turned toward Charity with impatience.
"Don't call me a slut . . . ever." Charity could feel the heat in her cheeks as she just barely controlled her rage.
"Well, sometimes you're not really into charity, either, despite your name," Monica said with annoyance.
What a sick b**** you are, Monica. What kind of crap did you get into at that private school? Stuff that keeps you on medication. Stuff Mom and Dad won't talk about? I wonder if they'd miss you much.
Charity returned to her sink full of dishes, her eyes drifting to the knives atop the counter. Looking at the knives brought dark thoughts to her mind.
Moments later, Monica returned to the kitchen accompanied by one of her boyfriends, Brad. "Hi, Charity," Brad said. Charity did not return his greeting.
"I think Brad spoke to you." Monica said.
Don't push it, Monica.
"Just say 'hello,' Charity." Monica's voice rose, taking on her demanding tone. Drop it. Don't push me right now. Then something occurred to Charity. She turned around, her face beaming. "Hi Brad," she said with a lush, wanton voice.
"I said say hello, not flirt," Monica warned.
Charity watched as Brad appraised her from top to bottom. "Hey, I've got an idea," Brad said. "Let's go to the beach. The three of us, I mean." His spoke with expectation.. "I could get my dad's car. We'd be back before your folks got home from work."
"I don't know. I've got lots of work to do. And I've got to keep my parents happy."
"Talk to me, Brad. It's her day to cook and clean. But it's my day off."
"I figured if we could all go . . . but whatever . . . we'll go alone." Brad smiled wide. "Two can have fun just as well as three." They drew close to each other and looked ready to kiss.
Suddenly angry, Charity felt all the old pain crash in upon her. Monica always got what she wanted. From mom and dad, from whatever hormone-driven boy that showed up at the door. If she just weren't around anymore, Charity thought. "Brad, you have to go. Monica is sick and our folks don't like friends in the house when they're not here."
Brad turned to Monica. "You don't look sick to me. Matter of fact, you look very . . . healthy." His wit and charm reminded Charity of wax. But Monica glowed under his flattery.
Get the hell out of here, Brad. Just be a good stud and get off on some other girl whose folks aren't so concerned about appearances. "Brad, you have to go."
Suddenly, Monica was defensive. "He's my friend, and I say he stays!"
The command was strident in Monica's voice. It was always the same whenever she forgot to take her medicine. Charity felt her reserve slipping away. She had forgotten how long she had been looking after a crazy sister. Now, you stupid flirt, why didn't you wake up, get a good breakfast and take your damn medicine so we could avoid scenes like this? I hate you. Charity went to the china cabinet and took out a dessert plate. Then she took the bakery knife from its holder atop the counter. She cut a two-inch thick slice of lemon cake and placed it on the plate. Then taking a cloth napkin from a wicker basket, she walked slowly to where Monica and Brad sat at the kitchen table.
"Monica, may I speak to you in the living room, please?" Charity's tone was polite, soft, resigned. She turned to Brad and gave him the slice of cake and the napkin.
"I'm not leaving this room!" Monica shouted. Her face became manic and accusatory. "Whatever you have to say to me can be said in front of my friends." She clasped Brad's arm just as he picked up the cake with it. Brad, seeming to feel trapped, looked searchingly from Monica to Charity.
Charity had seen this look in her sister's eyes many times. Her parents never said what it was, but it was there. I'll bet you had some kind of problem with boys at that school. And because of all your mistakes you've messed things up for me. Mom and Dad won't talk about that school and won't let me go there. Everything for me is ruined because of you. Suddenly, Charity's anger began to surface again.
"Okay. You know the rules. Mom and Dad . . ."
"Rules, fools!" Monica spat out. Then in a sing-song voice she repeated, "Rules are for fools, rules are for fools. That's why they rhyme all the time." Monica erupted in gales of laughter and collapsed against Brad. The piece of cake in his hand dropped onto the table, breaking in two. Charity knew each moment without her medication only pushed Monica deeper into this strange behavior.
"Monica, I will give you three choices: I call the police; I call Mom and Dad; or you tell Brad goodbye and he leaves."
"I don't like being threatened," Monica moaned, her voice assuming an eerie tone. "D-d-don't threaten m-me" Her words fell from stuttering lips and sounded like a two-year-old pleading for desert. "I good girl, you know that. I'm not a slut like you."
Charity froze, the insult searing her nerves. You are definitely sick, talking baby talk and thinking I will just stand here and take your sh**. Maybe if mom and dad won't get you some help, I ought to help you. 'Cause the dope you're on just ain't cuttin' it. And I won't put up with this anymore!!
Charity looked down at the knife in her hand.
Thinking of her parents she screamed in her mind, You're both cowards! You're miserable parents who keep your crazy daughter doped up like a dirty family secret and are too afraid to talk to your sane daughter and tell her what's going on, what life's all about. Why am I being punished for Monica's sorry life?! Yeah, you're rich, but that money won't bring Monica back.
Charity raised the knife.
"Oh, my God! Charity, please!" Brad sprinted for the front door. Charity was only dimly aware of his exit. She heard his voice on the outside of the house, but it sounded so very far away. Why was he yelling, "Help, help!"
"P-please p-put the knife d-down. I be g-good for you."
Charity was a foot away from her sister. She held the bakery knife high in the air. She looked at her sister and barely recognized her. Monica looked years younger, and totally helpless. Her eyes pleaded. For the first time, Charity saw the deep and intense pain in them. Pain she never noticed before. But it was too late. Swiftly, in its deadly arc, the knife plunged.
Harsh statistics warn us that these are extraordinarily hard times for your child, my child and everybody else's child. There has never been another time in the country's history when children have been more at risk than they are today. While it comforts us that typhus and tuberculosis no longer pose fatal dangers to our children, as they did to a generation of children not so long ago, we can take no comfort in the fact that adolescentcide — kids killing kids — is the major cause of death for our children today.
The statistics on kids killing kids far surpass the mortality rates from even the nation's most feared pre-vaccine era virus. For example, polio killed 3,152 adults and children in 1952. But a total of 5,326 children under the age of 19 were killed by guns, just 40 years later, in 1992. While advances in medical science spare our children from many of the diseases that once deformed, debilitated and denied them life, the disease of violence poisons them and punishes them with death. Every forty-eight hours, the number of juvenile deaths from homicide (26) is equivalent to the population of the average classroom. Kids killing kids is the nation's number one public health problem.
The FBI's Violent Crimes Index indicates that between 1987 and 1991 the number of arrests of juveniles increased by 50 percent — twice the increase for youth eighteen years of age or older. As alarming as this statistic is, even more alarming is the fact that juvenile arrests for homicide during the same period increased by 85 percent. In 1982, 390 teenagers, thirteen to fifteen years of age, were arrested for homicide. By 1992, ten years later, that figure had climbed to 740. U.S. News & World Report states that more than three million crimes a year are committed in or near the 85, 000 public schools in the nation.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 1 in 20 students will bring a gun to school at least once a month. The National Education Goals Report cites some 16 percent of the nation's twelfth-graders as admitting they had received violent threats and that half of those youths sustained injuries in school. Nationwide studies reveal that 1 in 12 high-schoolers is threatened or hurt with a weapon every year. Homicide is the nation's second leading cause of death for youth ages 10 to 19. USA Today reports that of the 65,000 students it polled in its Weekend survey, 55 percent of them, in grades ten through twelve, know (present tense) that weapons are regularly brought to school.
An estimated 1.2 million elementary aged, latchkey children have access to guns in their homes. During the 1997 — 98 school year, nearly one million school kids (grades six through 12) carried guns to school. And every two hours, an American child is killed by guns. To put this in perspective: If you were to finish reading this book today, say, in the next four to six hours, two or three children will have been killed by guns. But ponder this: If you wait until the following day — some 24 hours from now — to finish this book, by then, 13 children will have been killed by guns. The point is, we are at the crossroads in American history where death by violence is the rhythm beating out our children's lives. Time spent reading a book only peals the hours lost, tolls the lives forever gone.
Nationwide, children find modern life to be a constant grind, with mounting pressures. They are not alone. Their parents, too, find life to be tough with its stresses, and constant in its challenges. The anxieties and pressures under which parents live are unlike any they've previously known. Most parents survived the distressing years of the battered 1990's economy with livable, if marginal, incomes; they cheered when the news media, in the spring of 1999, announced a $1 trillion economic surplus. Gradually, old fears about working all one's life only to die in the poor-house, gave way to renewed faith in the future and one's enhanced capabilities and opportunities to thrive in it. But as parents work harder to earn more in a robust economy, staring them in the face is the fact that the children whose futures they are laboring to establish, are presently dying in ever-growing numbers at the hands of their peers.
Some of the underlying causes attributable to their deaths lie in the "stories" in the statistics released by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. About one in every 10 children — as many as 6 million youngsters — may suffer from a serious emotional disturbance, such as severe depression, conduct disorder, anxiety disorder, or manic-depressive illness. For some reason, many of these kids traffic in weapons. In 1997-98, 6,000 kids were expelled from the nation's schools for gun possession. Unable to cope any longer with their anxiety and depression, they had simply dragged themselves off to school under the weight of their emotional turbulence — and the family gun. In light of the nation's $1 trillion economic surplus, it might be said about this age, as Dickens remarked about his, that these are the best of times and the worst of times.
But more tragically than even the hapless children in Dickens' books, most of the 103 incarcerated children I interviewed — although they were tried in court and sentenced to prison for committing homicide — were the victims of unseen and undocumented violence, to their spirits as well as to their bodies. Ironically, this violence was largely inflicted by those entrusted with their care: their parents and other caregivers. Adults like you and me.
It is these children whose mostly-affirmative answers on the "Homicidally-at-Risk Adolescent Profile" (HARAP) assessment instrument I designed, regularly filled the boxes labeled "Abusive Parents," "Abused Mother," "Sexual Abuse," "Stress," "Drug and Alcohol Use," "Felt Victimized," and some thirty other descriptors. These children had run the torturous and terrorizing paths from life at home to life in prison. Despite their experiencing and describing a range of feelings in their lives — from anger to anxiety — there was one emotion whose absence was made the more evident by their failure to mention it: Love.
Sometimes openly, sometimes indirectly, these children admitted to being deprived of consistent, continuous, and unconditional parental love. Without parental love to guide them, these children got deeply lost, as proven by their ultimate acts, and could not find their way back to humanity. Those 103 children I talked to had been lost a long time. (Recall Charity's torrid thoughts, just before she knifed her sister, of constantly being the victim of her sister's behavior.) On nearly every occasion, most of the children spoke to me with a stark, unadulterated certainty and possessed an all-too-adult-like grasp of every seamy detail in their lives. No child should ever learn the awful things these children knew! By the time they committed their acts of homicide, they were the shell-shocked, walking-wounded casualties of all they had daily seen or experienced. Most of these adolescents knew and admitted, as they talked about their shameful acts and shattered lives, that they had committed unnatural, abnormal, and unlawful deeds. They knew this because they had eventually learned, through the mandated counseling and therapy regimen — without which their parole would be impossible — to admit and take responsibility for their crimes.
Children who kill come from rich and poor families. As you probably know, there is no statute of limitations — immunity from prosecution after a period of time elapses — for the act of murder. Persons who commit homicide can be apprehended and prosecuted at any time after the crime. Likewise, there are no ethnic or economic boundaries over which murder cannot or does not cross. Homicide can involve anybody and occur anywhere. For over three years, I talked to children whose backgrounds crossed ethnic and economic lines. Whether they are blessed by fortune or cursed by fate, and whether their external appearance brands them as being part of a racial majority or racial minority, children who kill are united by two elements: (1) they suffer from an inner impoverishment of the spirit — depression, insecurity, and low self-esteem — directly resulting from their being alienated and isolated from adults, i.e., parents who should have influence over them; and (2) their feelings of being unloved, unlovable, rejected, and worthless which incites their anger and depression, and forges their distorted yet real view of the world as hostile and personally threatening.
These, then, were the children with whom I spent hundreds of hours talking, face to face, inside their prison cells. As a parole agent told me one day, "You've got a little bit of everybody — from Wall Street to Watts in here."
It would be easy to say, of the 103 hapless children in my research pool, that because of the kinds of terrible home lives they endured, it was a foregone conclusion — a "slam dunk" — that they would end up in prison or dead. This presumption is perhaps understandable. They bore the physical and emotional scars of years of abuse. It might be expected that they would of course "share" their pain with others — and do so with a vengeance. Less understandable, however, are the children from Littleton, Colorado; Jonesboro, Arkansas; Springfield, Oregon and other affluent areas whose scars and hurts were not so readily visible, enabling them to maintain a façade of being "good kids," "straight arrows," "regular," "average," and "normal."
Indeed, if there are such beings as children who are born to kill, we might all then assume they exhibit telltale behaviors and warning signs. The assumption is only partly true, but the myth it spawns is potent and enduring: Bad kids kill and you can identify them by what they look like, what color they are, what economic class they're in, what they wear, and where they live. We have only recently turned our attention to, and looked on in horror at, the deaths and devastation wreaked by "good kids" from "good homes" who have suddenly and unexplainably detonated and "gone off." Of all the kids you could find in the country, they were born to take the reins of power, to lead, to win. Or so went the assumption.
They came from homes that had affluence and influence. Yet, alienated and angry, these "good" children whose killings grabbed national headlines and gripped the nation by its collective throat, didn't seem to have an obvious "history" shadowing them, or terrifying and convoluted life-stories, as many of my adolescent interviewees had. Are we, then, to conclude that there were no signs or symptoms foretelling their future heinous acts? Surprisingly, there were; in fact, there were numerous witnesses to their early telltale signs. But merely being a witness does not make one a warner, instantly equipped with both desire and courage to report what danger or suspsects he has seen.
A warner might have deterred Kip Kinkel, the Springfield, Oregon teenager who early one morning shot and killed both his school-teacher parents, and then went to school and laid waste the lives of so many others. Kip, according to news accounts, had read aloud in his literature class excerpts from his journal describing plans to "kill everybody." He also gave a talk in science class on how to build a bomb. While rap artists are heavily criticized by A.S. senators for their violent lyrics — rapper "Ice T" became notorious overnight with his barbaric song "Cop Killer" — Kip Kinkel, an affluent 9th-grader, was disregarded and ignored when he boldly wrote and spoke of his desire to take human life. How much more "believable" ought he to have been? A better question is, how much more fearful and cautious and concerned should his teachers and now-dead parents have been? By all accounts, he simply did not "look" the part of a killer. Bespectacled and shy, he was a pimple-faced "nerd" whose appearance invited no suspicion as he orchestrated his plans to make everybody pay for his pain. But he escaped notice and was disregarded because he was an otherwise run-of-the-mill student.
Shortly after the tragic catastrophe that Kip Kinkel wrought at his high school, I spoke with his principal, Larry Bentz. Mr. Bentz told me that contrary to news accounts of Kip being a troubled, aimless youth, "he was a good kid" and a diligent student. Mr. Bentz particularly resented the "media trucks that invaded our town and took over, parking all around the back fence of our school property and really making a circus of it all. Their presence wasn't good for us; we all felt the heavy pressure. And all they wanted was to confirm their image of Kip as a disturbed, distraught young boy who finally snapped. But he wasn't that way at all. Both his parents were teachers — one taught Spanish and the other taught History. He was from a good home and good parents."
Do good kids from good homes write threatening essays rhapsodizing about dealing deadly violence? Of course not. Then why was everybody who knew Kip Kinkel locked into a common mindset about him, even when he became blatant in his expressed desire to kill? Perhaps we will never know the answer to that. Kip Kinkel was seen as a good kid with all the right trappings: A home in an affluent suburb, parents in the "right" professions, just the right dose of academic diligence at school. His brimming, overflowing anger was merely seen as live theater, nothing more. Was everybody, their guards down, fooled by Kip, or were they simply doing their duty, as a caring and nurturing community, to embrace him? Could it be that his essays warning of his murderous intentions were ignored because that community believed its unconditional love would change him? How were they to know that their benign disregard that greeted his ravings might insult him and fuel his final angry moments?
The ranting, rabid press coverage that followed the Springfield, Oregon disaster would have us believe that Kip Kinkel was no more a good kid than Charles Manson was a social worker. Journalists wondered why the head-in-the-sand response from adults who knew him, when he expressed his dark desires, was so universal. The day before he opened fire in his high school's cafeteria, he purportedly had been suspended from school for bringing a gun on campus.
Again, good kids do not kill. But is it really about being a "good" kid or a "bad" kid? Isn't it more appropriate to see students demonstrating or verbalizing anti-social behaviors and sentiments as "at-risk," "angry," "assaultive," "combative," "violence-fantasy," "violence-tendency," and the like to accurately portray the picture such students are showing of themselves? "Good" and Bad" are terms that confuse more than they clarify. They are cliches that simply fail to accurately describe a person or situation.
Kids kill only when they feel alienated, abused, hurt, isolated, unloved, unlovable, helpless and of little worth. Teachers and administrators on campus should use some of these words and any others that accurately and succinctly describe chronic behaviors on campus that show a student is speaking or behaving dangerously. Harboring these negative feelings does not make kids bad. In Kip's case, he was mentally unhealthy. The response he chose — to solve his problems with a loaded gun — was bad. Kids can be viewed as "good" to the extent that they are enabled to use, and actually do use, conflict-reduction strategies, anger management strategies, and nonviolent communication strategies in solving their array of problems, and in making moral determinations about right and wrong.
Good kids, like good drivers, occasionally get onto the wrong path, head in the wrong direction and need to be turned around and re-directed, especially when they are crying out for help, as was Kip Kinkel. His simple acts of reading aloud his plans for "killing everybody" and building a bomb were more than self-aggrandizing attention-getters: They were proofs of his inner torment and rage. He was calling attention to what his teachers, friends, and even parents could not see but which he painfully felt. So numbed with pain and inner suffering was he, apparently, that he just could not feel anything for the folks at home in his inner circle — his parents who dearly loved him — or the people at school in his outer circle. Totally ignored despite his radical tactics to gain attention, he was finally paid "attention" to after it was much too late.
Even though Kip seemed to want nothing more than to find audiences for his madcap verbal rhapsodizing about death and destruction, his teachers, and whoever else heard him, should have been apprehensive about him. Their heartbeats should have told them that good kids have a clear perspective and can control their interactions with and reactions to various social circumstances. Kip, though, was a kid who was deconstructing — cracking up — and announcing it. Everybody who listened to him undoubtedly thought he was crying "wolf"; nobody wanted to rat on or confront a kid about whom the common view, according to press accounts, was that he was too dumb and dorky to be dangerous. Nobody wanted to be ridiculed by peers for being too serious about Kip, everybody's favorite dork who, after all, was probably joking. None of Kip's teachers said or did anything about his verbal behavior. It should be noted that had he made his comments just once at any airport in his state, everybody within earshot would have been on instant alert and summoned the police.
Kids who kill always tip their hand; their telltale behaviors have been visible and observed by somebody long before they picked up a gun and used it to kill people. Kids who kill are not of one ethnicity, one economic or social class, or from one part of town. If you think they are, you'll miss it every time. The emotional pain and suffering, and the rejection and alienation that these kids feel spans all color, class and geographic boundaries. Kids who are capable of killing live in every state in the country. Failing to take seriously the signs of their imminent destruction that these kids put out there, will only enable them to carry out their insane desires.
As a parent, you already know that children crave attention; they want to be in the limelight, on center stage, and want you to see them there. Think of all the times your own child has constantly summoned you with "Look, look . . ." or "Watch me do. . . ." A child's attention-getting verbalisms may range from an insistent plea of "See, see . . . " to constant bragging and lying about feats never accomplished and roles that may have belonged to someone else. All kids are sometimes inclined to brag and inflate their prominence. Bragging is good, old-fashioned fun and necessary to a child's development. It's a child's tool for telling his "story." Indeed, "telling stories" is the generations-old euphemism adults use for labeling a child's boast about things that either never occurred, happened only through his imagination, or actually took place but with considerably less of the "spin" he is putting on them. Their involvement in the recounted events may range from only knowledge about them, to limited involvement of no importance, to full but undistinguished involvement. Hence, their need to give you their biased report.
Although your child's boasts may cause you to cringe and mildly or sternly admonish her to "tell the truth" or "don't brag so much," boasting, and the bravado that accompanies it, is usually a temporary phase of development. You need to realize, however, that no matter how short or long its duration, boasting — generally speaking — is normal and necessary for a child's healthy self-esteem. Usually, it succeeds in drawing to the boasting child the attention she desires. When she no longer needs to boast, she simply discontinues the practice. Admonishing her not to brag, may not make her stop sooner. Instead, try to discover the source of her bragging. Are you paying too little attention to her, whether you know it or not? Is the family structured, by accident or design, so that your children compete with each other and thus must flaunt their performance? Do all your children feel hugged-and-loved equally?
These are just some of the family dynamics that may inform you of the changes you may need to make if one or more of your children has a bad case of "the brags." Talk to your child about her school and other activities; really listen to how she describes them to you and what she says. Whenever possible, and as much as you can, watch your child as she plays with other children. Her being overshadowed by other kids or overpowered by their feats, on the playground or at the park, might be your clue to why your child feels the need to brag. Incessant and prolonged bragging is a sign that a child feels inferior. If your child makes a habit of bragging (one parent told me, "she brags like she breathes"), try to determine the source. What's happening in the home that makes her brag? What's happening at school that makes her brag? Where is it that she needs more kind, concerned, loving attention — home or school or both? What's not working for her at home or school?
Bragging is a temporary and healthy "yarn-spinning" phase most children go through to establish identity, become recognized, and bolster self-esteem. But it also serves to inform the child that language is powerful, meaningful, and when used in certain ways — inventing stories — gets the attention of grownups, at the least; at most, it frequently raises stature among peers.
Charity told me: "Monica and I were very articulate, something we got from our parents. Through bragging, we put each other down; in addition to the achievements we boasted about, we competed with each other in the language we used to describe them."
But let's look at a uniquely different language mechanism used by a fraction of the nation's total child population. Wanting attention but craving love, respect, and acceptance, their language is laden with not-so-subtle threats and desires to commit violent deeds; sometimes they are heard gloating about tragic events or expressing their desire to wreak acts of destruction. When they are among peers, instead of bragging about achievements, real or imagined, they engage in morbid revenge-speech: they talk violence, engage in hate-speech, and concoct death fantasies where vengeance is exacted — other people pay with their lives. During a talk I gave to a parent group, I was asked if this kind of talk wasn't "as innocent as bragging and merely taking it to a different level." Absolutely not. As a parent, it is critical that you know the difference.
Children who engage in morbid revenge-speech are braying and bellowing. That means (in this narrow context) they are gloating, fantasizing, or rhapsodizing about violent and destructive events, their role in them — or their regret about not being involved — or their wish to bring such or additional gruesome and devastating events to pass. Some go so far as memorializing their plans in writing. Children who brag desire to build up. They imagine a future (attention, respect, popularity) created by their verbal efforts in the present. On the other hand, children who bray and bellow yearn to destroy. They (1) either desire no future at all, or (2) want a future in which they take the lives of all the people they blame for making the present threatening, unbearable, and undesirable for them.
As a parent, you need to recognize that braying and bellowing are verbal telltale signs of feelings of worthlessness, hurt, rejection, frustration, bitterness, isolation, resentment and more. Charity told me that in addition to Monica calling her a "slut," "slave" and other derogatory words, Monica would rage with hatred. Charity said, "she threatened to kill me lots of times."
It is little wonder that Charity found quite pleasurable her detainment (before prison) in the juvenile hall. There, she could relinquish her role as the family slave and be pampered. The juvenile hall was located in a very affluent area, and she said she "loved the place." One reason was: "You had your own personal cook. They took your food orders a day ahead and fixed whatever you wanted." (The times are indeed a-changing when jail is preferable to home!)
The following is a sampling of some of the braying and bellowing events that occurred in and around the nation, beginning in October 1998. Carefully observe what the brayer/bellower says :
· A 14-year-old from Edinboro, Pennsylvania accused of murdering a science teacher during a school dance had earlier shown other students a handgun in his father's dresser and told them he planned to kill nine people he hated.
· The 13-year-old from Jonesboro, Arkansas accused of gunning down four girls and a teacher told other students before hand that he "had some killing to do."
· Two Pittsburgh seventh-graders were suspended for distributing a "hit list" of 10 teachers the students wanted killed.
· In Miami, nine high school students were jailed for distributing an underground newspaper in which one writer speculated: "I have often wondered what would happen if I shot Dawson [the school principal] in the head and other teachers who have p---ed me off."
· A Wheaton, Illinois 15-year-old was jailed after trying to recruit a friend to help him gun down fellow students.
· In Macon County, Tennessee, two 13-year-olds were suspended after a teacher found a note titled "Death List" naming 15 students. A police investigation turned up a second list with 77 names.
· In three separate instances occurring the same week, officials in Fairfax County, Virginia suspended students for posting a "personal death list" of 17 names on a website, writing a note naming seven students the writer wanted to die, and threatening to put a bomb in a teacher's cabinet.
· A 15-year-old in Incline Village, Nevada was jailed for writing a note threatening to kill several classmates.
· In St. Charles, Missouri, police arrested three sixth-grade boys for plotting to shoot classmates on the last day of school.
· Police in Cheshire, Connecticut launched an investigation into a student underground newspaper for printing a column suggesting that a science teacher "needs a serious attitude adjustment, possibly a hollow-point .45 to the head."
· In Texas, gunpowder, crude bombs and computer disks with bomb-making information were found in the homes of three 14-year-old boys accused of plotting an assault at their junior high school. Before their arrests, they were targeting fellow students and teachers.
· Police in Littleton, Colorado discovered a year-long, hand-written diary in which Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold wrote their "massacre plan," set specific dates and times for their assault, worked with a campus map, and even designed intricate hand signals to help ensure a high body count when they stormed the building. Their diary was laden with Nazi epithets and racial slurs.
Braying and bellowing need not define a child's life. But there is one universal fact that will forever continue to define the relationship between parents and their children. This fact can be neither overstated nor overlooked: Parents are their children's first teachers. Parents have control over their children long before they begin to socialize outside the family as school-age minors. Parents are the "captains" of the family "ship" and set the compass that determines where the family is going. Whether and how moral and spiritual training are instilled, what particular values and beliefs are necessary to hold the family together, and the kind and quality of education required for making a child a significant contributor to society, are all critical decisions that must be made by parents. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the weight and fate of the world rests upon the shoulders of parents.
Being a parent is a full-time job. Parental responsibilities cannot be fulfilled by people who have only a part-time commitment and, of course, are never fulfilled by those who abandon their responsibilities altogether.