January 1, 2013

Maine Voices: Early exposure to world's horrors ensures some will try to repeat them

Parents, policymakers and communities must think of Newtown and help our kids retain their childhood.

By Joshua Gear, M.D.

YORK - Among the television interviews that aired on the day of the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy was one with a thoughtful mother from a nearby community who told the interviewer she was reluctant to go home to her 9- and 12-year-old children.

"Why?" She was asked.

"Because I will begin to talk to them about this and their lives will be forever changed. Their childhood will be gone."

She went on to say that she wanted them to have at least a few more hours of innocence.

Neil Postman, 30 years ago in his 1982 book "The Disappearance of Childhood," warned of the consequences of our changing culture, especially mainstream media, on the lives of children and ultimately on our society. His concern was based in large part on the effects of the media of his day, newsprint and television, well before the pervasive Internet access we now have.

But Postman was also concerned about the change in family dynamics and the lack of parental involvement in the home, as well as the trend for adults to attempt to satisfy their own needs through over-involvement in children's activities, such as youth sports.

He identified all of these as contributing factors to an alarming trend in which children are exposed too early and too often to influences that rob them of their innocence and expose them to experiences their young minds are not yet equipped to make sense of.

There has been and will continue to be considerable discussion in our country about the causes of the Newtown massacre, and there have been and will be many measures put into place in an attempt to prevent future tragedies.

More reasonable laws regarding guns and gun ownership will be debated and, it is hoped, enacted. A greater awareness of mental health issues will be raised, and greater access to effective care may occur.

But as a society, it is essential that we look more closely at Postman's thesis, to try to understand the implications of this "disappearance of childhood."

It will be important for us to consider how our culture has contributed to the actions of Adam Lanza, James Holmes (Aurora, Colo.), Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris (Columbine High School), Seung-Hui Cho (Virginia Tech), Jared Loughner (Tucson, Ariz.) and hundreds more who have engaged in not only high-profile massacres but also run-of-the-mill shootings, most of which might make the local news.

There is a great potential for more tragedies to occur as many in a generation of young people come of age who have been exposed far too early and far too often to violence and many other horrors of our world. Too many children have had this exposure in the absence of thoughtful parental support or supervision.

And this exposure is occurring not in the ghettos or the poorer parts of town, but in affluent homes and neighborhoods with parents who are well-intentioned, but perhaps overwhelmed or self-involved, the same parents who put a premium on their young children winning at the expense of developing a healthy sense of themselves and of what it means to be a good sport and a good teammate.

It should be expected that many of the children raised in this environment will become desensitized, disenfranchised and/or angry. The vast majority of these boys and young men will not commit homicide or suicide, but too many will.

Many will not, only because they lack access to firearms. Some will attempt to end their own or others' lives in a way that is meant to send a message or worse, to achieve notoriety.

This is the real tragedy. Loss of childhood begets loss of childhood.

As a society, and for the sake of our society, we need to consider all of the causes of these tragedies, not simply the obvious ones or those that are relatively easy to fix.

We need to convince our leaders to make policy based on the values we hold dear, not on the wishes of special interest groups. Our communities need to foster programs that are all-inclusive and nurturing and that de-emphasize elitism. And most importantly, families need to recognize and cherish the experience of childhood.

And we all need to hold our children close.

Joshua Gear, M.D., is a resident of York and a child and adolescent psychiatrist.

 

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