Any time I hear on the news that there has been another school shooting, I find myself with a heavy heart and an aching need find a solution. And while gun control and mental health issues seem somewhat controversial in this country, one undeniable fact is that all of these massive school shootings have something in common: they are all committed by men. And as I sit here watching Liam at his train table pushing his trains and singing his favorite songs with so much excitement and joy behind his eyes, I can’t help but wonder what goes wrong that would make a sweet innocent baby boy grow up to become a school shooter?
You could say obviously these shooters have mental health issues, nod your head in agreement, and then move on with your life. But maybe there’s more to it than just that. Maybe the way our society reacts to mental health is our first issue. And maybe another issue is right here in front of us. Maybe something is wrong with the way we raise young boys. We teach them how to count and teach them to say “please” and “thank you,” but are we taking the time to teach them how to deal with the emotional complexities of life? Are we raising little boys so that when they do grow up and have issues with sadness, depression, loneliness, isolation, jealousy, or anxiety… are they well equipped to deal with these? I’m starting to wonder if maybe they aren’t.
The way adults talk differently to little boys versus little girls starts at a very early age. Even at two years of age, I hear adults tell my son “its ok, don’t cry,” “shake it off” or “look how tough you are.” Family members have commented that I am “baby-ing him” but I wonder if I would get those same comments if Liam was a girl. As boys get older they are taught that they don’t cry when they are upset. That they “deal with it like a man” (what does that even mean?) Boys are taught at a young age to be tough, be strong, and don’t complain. When a two year old falls and scraps his knee, we expect that he may cry. But what about when a 12 year old falls and hurts his knee? Or is bullied? Or has a broken heart? Life can be hard. And high school can be the absolute worst. When I was in my teens and twenties and dealing with the typical heartbreaks that come from failed relationships, I remember having a girlfriend or two who I was able to talk about how I was feeling. And no one ever made fun of me for shedding a tear or wearing my emotions on my sleeve. But what would society think if teenage boys reacted this way?
I know that I absolutely do not have the answers. But I do think that somewhere along the line, these boys who grow up to become school shooters are not dealing with their emotions. Maybe they were the outsiders or unpopular kids in school. Maybe even bullied or abused. No doubt they probably dealt with feelings of anger, anxiety, and even depression. And maybe they were taught to be tough and just deal with it. Maybe they didn’t have anyone in their lives to give them a shoulder to cry on. So they dealt with their feelings in the most horrific “manly” way that they knew how. I am by no means condemning what they did nor am I denying the fact that their access to guns played a role in all of this. But I do think that something as simple as changing the way we talk to boys could potentially make a huge difference in shaping the course of some of these boys’ lives.
If you are a mother, father, grandparent, aunt, uncle, or teacher, I hope you will read this and maybe at the least start a dialogue with your family. Sit down and discuss the ways you talk to your boys. Talk to your husbands and tell them that its 2018 for goodness sakes and yes we can teach boys to be strong young men but at the same time we can also raise boys to have the ability to talk about their feelings and to ask for help when they need it. Stop telling them to be tough, and tell them every day how special and wonderful they are. When you can tell they are feeling down or something might be wrong, ask them to tell you about it and don’t give up! I wish there was something I could do to bring back all the sons and daughters who did not come back home from school on these horrific days. I wish could travel back in time and change what happened. But for now I will start with what I know how to do and that is show love and empathy and understanding to my baby boy as he grows and learns. And I hope and pray that you will all do the same.