Education Commentary

Reflections on Columbine: A Metaphor For Parents

By Kirsten Olson Lanier — May 12, 1999 5 min read
Last month’s events in Jefferson County, Colo., are more than just a terrifying reminder of the lack of social supports and community safety nets in the lives of many adolescents.

For those of us actually engaged in, or about to be engaged in, the business of raising teenagers, last month’s events in Jefferson County, Colo., are more than just a terrifying reminder of the lack of social supports, community safety nets, and thoughtful adult interventions in the lives of many adolescents today. The events are a message about how isolated, psychologically imperiled, and alone many teenagers--those even from stable, involved families--can feel in a culture that presents few alternative models for success and shockingly harsh consequences for lack of conventional achievement.

As many have commented, in a culture that prizes athletic prowess, access to bucks, and narrowly defined good looks above all else, large high schools, now even more vividly than in the past, replicate and intensely magnify a grueling, cruel social-caste system that makes George Orwell’s Animal Farm look like a barnyard picnic. If the interviews with the teenage survivors of the Columbine High School melee are any indication, we apparently accept that large high schools today are a punishing social Mount Olympus in which “preps” and “jocks” reign supreme. We seem to quietly condone that the lightning bolts from these gods--taunts in the hallways, food in the face, larger social ostracism--be allowed to singe and cripple mortals who are not members of these groups. We forget, however, that we are all mortals, and we are all wounded. As adults, we have paid too little attention until our kids are shot up.

Frightened, full of wonder, and with considerable humility at the awesome task of trying to raise intact, strong-thinking children, in the past weeks I have spent time talking with many other parents--thoughtful, balanced people who have tried to grapple with the horror of news footage which shows bloody teenagers falling out of windows or lying on makeshift stretchers outside their suburban high school. One mother had to break off a phone conversation in tears, saying: “This could be my kids. It’s all of our kids.” It’s an extreme case, of course, but for parents Littleton might be regarded as a metaphor, a shattering picture of the wounds to the head, limbs, and hearts of our children if we let them pass through adolescence without more sensitive, proactive attention from the adults around them.

To grapple with this unexpectedly brutal metaphor, many of us have been prompted to do a careful emotional spring housecleaning, asking ourselves some tough questions. As parents, are we creating home environments in which children have adequate chances to express negative as well as positive emotions? Are we giving kids skills to empathize with the feelings of others, and to negotiate contentious issues so that each person gives a little and outcomes do not appear zero-sum? Are we demonstrating in our own words and behavior that we accept differences in our families, and in our communities, and actually see difference as a sign of health, community vigor, and well-being?

Are we respectful as we talk to our children about our spouses, co-workers, and teachers, even if we actively disagree with them? Am I exercising my authority as a parent in putting comprehensible, discussible limits on my children’s media diet? Have I offered my children ways of thinking about and understanding the misogynistic, racist, and murderous images to which they, because they are members of our culture, will inevitably be exposed? As in the classic 1947 tale of the redemptive power of a generous community--are we all learning how to make Stone Soup?

As parents, are we creating home environments in which children have adequate chances to express negative as well as positive emotions?

Lately in my practice as a parent I’ve tried to do something deliberately new: to spend an hour a day sitting around a family room of my house not specifically doing anything. Not working, paying bills, not cooking, not reading a newspaper, not folding laundry, not cleaning, not organizing for tomorrow. Although our two- and three-shift adult lives make this extremely difficult, I’ve been amazed at how much more relaxing my day has become, and how much more connected I feel to my children. An eminent child psychologist once observed that in his conversations with adolescents, the thing that kids said most indicated to them that their parents loved them was when they were quiet and listened to them.

Parents have spoken to me about other ways they feel they must amend their lives post-Littleton. They describe renewed commitments to meaningful events of inclusion, those which actively bring teenagers not one’s own into one’s life: attending the middle school talent show, getting to a 13-year-old friend’s musical recital, taking the child of a best friend to the movies, all so that kids know there are other adults in their lives who are not their parents who care about them. Others speak of the need for thousands of informally organized, ongoing discussion groups for parents of adolescents. When our children were infants, many of us found time to get together with other parents to discuss developmental issues, not just as a safeguard for our sanity but because we learned so much from one another. We learned to laugh at our idiocy as parents. Parents of adolescents, however, face questions at least as challenging as those of toddlerhood, yet we are often isolated, out of touch, back at work, and furiously busy. We need to connect with each other even more than ever.

As I discussed the events of Columbine High with my four children around the dinner table, my 6-year-old listened closely, thought quietly, and concluded, “I’m afraid about high school.” Later that night one mother in my book group demanded, “Why doesn’t every mother in this country march on Washington and ask that real gun control finally be enacted so that we can protect our kids?”

I’ve marched on Washington many times and believe, symbolically, that these statements of political muscle are critical. Equally important in this case, however, is how I live my life every day. Am I caring enough, listening well enough, and offering support to the children in my community who need something that only adults can give them: a sense that they, as individuals, are important and that teenagehood needn’t be terminal?

Mothers around the nation have wept over the past few weeks for their children who are, or will soon become, teenagers. Our children’s pain is frightening, overwhelming, real. Are we listening?

A version of this article appeared in the May 12, 1999 edition of Education Week as Reflections on Columbine: A Metaphor For Parents