Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Littleton: A Wakeup Call For America's Parents

July 5, 1999

What happened in Littleton should be the moral equivalent of Pearl Harbor. How can children grow up so bereft of connection and compassion that the lives of their peers could mean so little? It is a wake up call to parents and to the custodians of our culture that amoral children are coming out of supposedly good homes.

Parents, teachers, clergy and youth leaders have the responsibility to prepare children to become moral, loving, compassionate, responsible members of society. It is a labor of love. It takes patience, dedication, sacrifice, vigilance and most of all, time. Children do not raise themselves.

The shootings in Littleton weren't random. The neighbor boy with whom Eric Harris had a relationship, however fractious it may have been, was warned to leave the school before the shootings happened. I've read accounts of the young killers also sparing others with whom they had a connection in favor of shooting victims they did not know.

I believe, along with Al Gore, that parents are working too hard and spending too much time away from their children in a world that is increasingly hostile to families. In his announcement of his candidacy for president, he compared the progress on the budget deficit to deficits of even greater danger.

"These are our deficits now: the time deficit in family life, the decency deficit in our common culture, the care deficit for our little ones and our elderly parents." He pointed a finger at an entertainment industry that "glorifies aggression and indecency." It is the right agenda. Whether Gore is the right candidate remains to be seen.

Children don't do well when they live in a culture divorced from meaningful contact from caring adults. With our media rich culture, there are competing values proclaimed that clash with the wisdom of age. Youth with unstructured time, or without an internalized moral code, and with aimless, hostile and alienated peers for friends; can embrace the violent images, anti-social attitudes and themes of revenge portrayed in the media.

Parenting is the problem. The real problem doesn't lie with our youth or a poisonous media culture, but with the parents. We owe it to children to know what is going on in their heads and in their lives. We owe it to every child to feel loved, cared for and connected with encouraging adults, parents or counselors. Children need adults who believe in them, admire them and offer guidance for their lives.

First and foremost, parents bear this responsibility. Parenting is the most important and the longest lasting influence of anything else we do in life. Parents need to know their children and be connected to them through relationships of trust and love. Relationships are about meeting needs. That takes selflessness and commitment - a sacrifice of time, attention and energy.

Parents need help. If guidance doesn't come from parents, it must come from somewhere else. Parents need help from adults and communities who devote themselves to making a difference in children's lives.

With a bond of love and concern, young people thrive. They will work to please those who care for them. Relationships take time. Relationships take genuine interest. Relationships include the sharing of values and ideas. Without a sense of connection, youths will seek acceptance from peers like themselves, or even worse, brood in isolated loneliness and hurt.

Here is some advice for guiding your children so that they will build strong, moral lives.

  • Know your values and pass on those values while they are young. Parents who are wishy-washy about their standards and expectations will find their children adrift in a troubled culture.
  • Bond your children to your religion through family and church worship. The spiritual practices, morality and traditions within the family make church teachings credible. Your children’s involvement with other church youth and leaders will be a great support to you. Youth who actively attend their church have greater self-esteem and are more immune from negative peer influences. Amen.
  • Minimize conflict and criticism with children. Accept and tolerate individual differences while holding firm to important values and principles. Be generous in your praise, encouragement and support. Cut down on negative emotions and communication. Take time to really listen.
  • Teach your children to respect your authority in the home. Discipline should never be done in anger. Have set rules and consequences that are applied consistently in a matter-of-fact manner. Teach negotiations skills and be prepared to negotiate.
  • Share ideas and experiences from own life. Pass on the lessons of life. Children need to know where our values and emotions come from. When they know the reasons for our rules and expectations, they are more inclined to accept or understand why we do what we do.

We are at war. We are at war with our own culture that drives a wedge between parents and children. We remember Pearl Harbor. Let's remember Littleton.