Could we change our attitude, we should not only see life differently, but life itself would come to be different. ~ Katherine Mansfield

Monday, July 23, 2012

Save our sons

As another tragedy rips through Colorado, I feel heavy with the weight of loss. My heart breaks for the families who lost a loved one. I hurt for a community who will understandably second-guess a trip to the movies, or the grocery store, or the mall. I am overcome with anger and sadness and fear.

My anger quickly focuses on our nation's loose gun laws. How any informed citizen can possibly believe that the Second Amendment, drafted in the 1790s, blindly authorizes the modern-day purchase of firearms as powerful, precise, and dedicated to destruction as the 3 guns carried by James Holmes on Friday morning is beyond my comprehension. I am shocked by the opinions being expressed by certain Republican congressmen and average American citizens - some of them my friends - who feel that the number of lives lost in the Aurora theater could have been reduced if at least one of the theater patrons had been armed and able to take down the shooter. The confusion, smoke, darkness, and panic in that theater created a combat zone, and I am of the opinion that most gun-carrying citizens are not trained to keep a level head, let alone a steady aim, in such a situation. 

My sadness falls on the victims, their families, and the survivors who will be imprinted with this tragedy for the rest of their lives. The stories of loss and heroism coming out of that theater gut me. My grief extends further though. I feel an excruciating pain for the mother of James Holmes, and this is where my sadness gives way to fear. 

Before he became the mastermind behind Friday's massacre, "Holmes" was simply James. Maybe his family called him Jim. Or Jimmy. He was an honor student, an attractive young man, a boy who regularly attended church and was a counselor at a camp for underprivileged children. Even further back, twenty years ago, he was a darling little boy showing no indication of what was to come. It is too easy to look at James' picture on the news and speak of his cold eyes, his diabolical intelligence, his malicious intentions. That makes him "other." It insulates us as average citizens, normal everyday parents, from the idea that he could have been son to any one of us. My intention here is not to excuse the actions of James Holmes - far from it - but to open a dialogue on how we can protect our own sons from this tragic fate. 

Because it is always the sons, isn't it? The boys who grow into men that funnel their brokenness into mass destruction. James Holmes is the latest iteration of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. Of Jared Loughner. Of Seung-Hui Cho and Nathan Dunlap (no, we haven't forgotten). There are more, of course, but this short list represent 67 deaths and that number contains enough loss to prove the point. 

And my point is this, how do we save our sons? How do we teach our boys to find outlets other than violence for their pain; to seek help before it is too late? Because this is my greatest fear. Not of being the victim of a random act of terrible violence, but of raising a son who is capable of carrying out such an act. I am a realist, and I can only assume that the mothers of the young men listed above used to look at their sons with the same love and adoration that I feel when I look on my own. Before they were monsters, they were little boys just like mine and yours. So what are we, as the mothers and fathers of sons, to do?

I don't pretend to have answersI expect the antidote to this nationwide infection of violence will be multi-layered, involving a combined effort of stricter gun regulations, increased awareness of and access to men's mental health care, and collectively analyzing our country's common use of death as entertainment. 

On a grassroots level, I believe that parents are the first line of defense in preventing future tragedy. I don't say this to lay blame on the parents of the shooters I've mentioned above, but rather to place an active burden on myself and the other parents of young boys across the country. We can make a difference. We can honor all of the victims of violence in America by doing our part to raise emotionally intelligent men. Here is my plan:

  1. No guns in our home, real or toy, period. Does my 3-year-old turn his wooden hammer into a "shooting machine"? Yes, and I let him. I adhere to the idea that "boys will be boys" and do my best not to overreact and make guns enticing by way of making them taboo, but I can't in good conscience aid and abet his introduction to realistic toy weaponry. And on days when he plays superheroes and "makes all the bad guys nice" instead of shooting them I feel like we are making a positive impression. 
  2. I will closely monitor the amount of violence that I allow into our home. My husband and I don't watch adult TV shows while our children are awake - even the baby - because we want to limit their exposure to adult situations as much as possible. And we are constantly adjusting our guidelines based on how our toddler reacts. Recent, seemingly innocuous, cartoons that have been taken out of rotation include Kung Fu Panda, Tom and Jerry, and SpongeBob SquarePants. 
  3. I am going to teach my sons that it is okay to cry. Tears are the easiest, most basic release that our bodies offer for strong emotion. My dad is a great man who can get choked up at the mere mention of his children or his grandsons. I love this about him. My husband can cry tears of both joy and pain, and this was one of the primary reasons that I knew he would make a good father. In our house, we will never tell our boys to buck up and stop crying. 
  4. My husband and I will strive to see our sons as they are and (hopefully) not as we want them to be. We will not hide our own fears, failures, or imperfections from our children in the hopes that they won't feel the need to hide their perceived shortcomings from us. 
  5. We will watch over the emotional health of our sons with the same care that we apply to their physical wellbeing. Just as we monitor a cold to make sure it doesn't become an ear infection, we will keep close eye on a temper tantrum to ensure that this lack of control doesn't become a way of life. 
  6. We are stocking our parental tool kit by reading. Not online chat room reading, but actual books written by authors with credentials to help us in our endeavor. Currently on the nightstand you can find "Becoming The Parent You Want To Be" by Laura Davis and Janis Keyser, and "Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child" by John Gottman, PhD. 
  7. We are increasing the emotional tool kit of our toddler with books as well. The classic "Hands Are Not For Hitting" by Martine Agassi, PhD and "When I Feel Angry" by Cornelia Maude Spelman are great in that they teach valuable lessons on acceptable responses to strong feelings. These books open up a dialogue with children while you read so that talking about anger couldn't be easier. Most importantly, both texts emphasize that feeling like you want to hit or hurt someone and actually doing it are very different, which is a key lesson at any age. 
  8. We are redoubling our effort to actively listen when our oldest son is upset and to help him voice his feelings. We've recently been introduced to the idea that it is much more beneficial for a child to validate a fear of the dark, for example, and help work through it than to simply tell him there's nothing to be afraid of and go to sleep. This is an oversimplification, but the idea is to listen to a child's words and not dismiss or belittle their feelings based on our grownup understanding of the world. 
  9. Finally, I will always allow my sons access to mental health professionals if they have problems that are beyond my ability to help. Together my husband and I will teach them that asking for help is a sign of strength and not weakness. If they cannot ask for help, we will ask for them. 
Yes it's a long list, and I expect that as I continue to learn it will continue to grow. But it's worth the effort. It represents a promise not only to America but also to my boys and the men they can become. 


Claudia said...

The first half puts a beautiful voice to what I've been feeling. The second half is a commitment I hope to be able to contribute to. You've done a wonderful job so far.

Thank you.

Kris Bryan! said...

I love this. We all know how much I believe in #9 as it's helped with yours truly cope the good ol' War PSTD, so I appreciate you recognizing that mental health professionals provide such an awesome service to people hurting.

EAB said...

This is so beautiful, friend. I take the same vow for my sons.

teona said...

I will always pray for you my precious daughter in law and for my amazing son to continue wisely on your brave trek of being parents. You both are doing an amazing work, and my too adorable grandsons are blessed to have you both. I love you!

Amber said...

!!! Well done Dani! May I add to #5 that we must also look for deeper meaning in a tantrum.I am often quick to discipline instead of asking myself,"is there some deeper under lining issue that is causing this behavior, i.e. Ethan always acts out before he has any outwards signs of getting sick. We spend a few days overly correcting his actions, until we realize,he doesn't feel well.
On a different note, Billy Bully is a great book you might want to look for it a the library.

Amy Combs said...

Beautifully put Dani, thank you.

Unknown said...

Thank you for writing this. I don't have sons. I have two daughters. But working together as a national community to help our young people is what will save our sons, brothers, nephews, classmates, colleagues and fellow citizens. As I read through your blog, I thought to myself, this is what I have been wanting to write down since last week, this is what I have been thinking, this is what I have been talking about to anyone that will listen. I really appreciate you putting this out there.

Cait said...

I have just met you through your amazing brother, Kris, and am so impressed with what you have written. As the founder and director of a nonprofit whose sole purpose is to allow struggling young people an outlet through poetry and spoken word (and hopefully, as we expand, other forms of creative expression), I have seen the amazing results of catharsis and transformation through young people being heard, understood and encouraged to recognize their power. Your compassion and realism is admirable. Thank you.

The Bohemian Voice said...

I'm catching up on some of your blogs :) This is really well thought out and helpful. We feel the same way. Thanks for taking the time to write this. I'm going to make sure Kels reads it too.

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