Reflections of a country doctor on the problem of school violence
R. Lee, M.D.
Houses built on sand do not fare well in the face of storms. Hurricanes and
tornadoes that demolish poorly-built homes leave the well-built homes relatively
unscathed. So it is with health. One's health is not merely a matter of an
assault by bacteria or viruses, or the trauma of an accidental fall, or the
rigors of a perilous journey. Health is also a matter of one's immune system,
nutrition, and resistance to stresses of all sorts. Health, then, is the
ratio or balance of the sum total of all those factors favorable to health
and the sum total of all those factors deleterious to health, as the simple
equation below expresses.
Examples are all around us. Hip fractures occur not merely because one trips
and falls; they occur because the bones have become fragile. Strep throat
infections are not due merely to an exposure to Strep bacteria but also to
a weak immune system. Measles pneumonia (50% fatality) occurs primarily in
children deficient in vitamin A.
Hypertension occurs more often in people deficient in magnesium and potassium.
Weight gain, water retention, and fibrocystic breasts occur in women deficient
in progesterone. The belief that infections can be controlled simply by the
use of antibiotics is an illusion: the time is short before pathogens learn
resistance to all antibiotics, and survival from infections will depend solely
on our inherent resistance to them.
The same equation can be used for the health of society. The rising incidence of youngsters assaulting other youngsters with guns is a case in point. Most analysts are looking for external causes (guns, mental illness, drugs, etc.) and failing to look at underlying causes. Guns have been available for several generations and school shootings were rare. Mental illness treatment focuses on drugs such as tranquilizers and antidepressants to control symptoms but not in treating underlying causes. Neither gun control nor mood-altering drugs will solve the problem. The gun assault epidemic is a symptom of an underlying societal problem. Find the problem and we can stop the epidemic.
From the descriptions of the shooters, it is clear that poverty or job discrimination
or a broken home is not the problem. One shooter, for instance, drives his
BMW to high school. They all came from what seems like "normal" homes and
family life. Lack of intelligence is not the problem: these kids were all
One way to start finding the problem is to ask the children themselves.
They report that they did the shooting because they were jilted by a girlfriend,
or taunted by schoolmates, or given a poor grade in school, or failed to
become a cheerleader. The reasons are so mundane that we adults disregard
them. We say that we all experienced similar problems and we did not resort
to gun assaults or bombings.
But let us accept these reasons and re-state the question as: Why are these
same disappointments apparently sufficient to cause children to act out in
this manner now and not before? Why are so many children not resistant to
such common rebuffs? Consider some of the following factors.
1. Instant gratification of impulse-driven desires
In an affluent society such as we now enjoy, parents indulge their children far
more than ever before. Their children must have the latest Beanie Baby, the
latest (and most expensive) sports shoes, and their own TV. Modern family homes
are littered with discarded toys bought on impulse and used for a nanosecond.
The narcissism common to three-year olds is allowed to extend into teenage,
untempered by guidance that would have taught them that the world does not
orbit around them nor exist merely for their own gratification. Having recently
attended a Bar Mitzvah, I was pleased to observe that its primary focus was
the confirmation that the 13-year old boy had achieved adult understanding
of his place in society, that the days of a child's impulse-driven actions
had changed to a recognition of adult responsibilities. The lack of this understanding,
perpetuated by the constant gratification of impulse-driven desires long past
childhood, is a factor deleterious to a healthy society.
2. Failure to set limits on behavior
This is the other side of the same coin. A child's world is different than
an adult's world. The child's world is one of fantasy not yet balanced by
reality. When our children are very young we indulge them their belief in
Santa Claus, but we expect them to grow out of it. Their fantasy is that
life is full of goodies and never troubled by disappointment. It is the parents'
obligation to set limits on behavior. In less well-off societies, food may
be scarce or requires hard work to obtain. In those societies, children observe
that sharing is a desirable behavior since, without sharing, they may be
the ones who go hungry. Children in a well-off society rarely experience
that dose of reality.
Living in a world of no limits on behavior is troubling and fearful for most
children. They are constantly testing the limits in an attempt to make sense
of an otherwise chaotic world. Their outlandish behavior and bizarre hair-does
are often a tip-off that they are testing the limits. In healthy families,
mothers and fathers provide unconditional love and both must cooperate in setting
consistent, reasonable limits. It is difficult for a mother (or a father) to
fill both roles alone. And 50% of our US families lack the presence of a father.
Being a good father does not mean merely attending a son's Little League game;
it means setting standards of behavior that reflect respect of others throughout
all venues of life.
Even with both parents, setting limits on behavior is not easily accomplished
when parents are away at work during the day. We worry about poor "latch-key" kids
who must fend for themselves when coming home from school. Their nutrition suffers
and so does their emotional development. An affluent family with two working
parents is no different than a poor family when no one is home for the kids.
3. Lack of opportunity to develop the sense of responsibility
Responsibility is not the same as obedience. Obedience refers simply to obeying
commands regardless of how arbitrary they are. For example, being told to make
your bed is an arbitrary command. You make your bed only to unmake it when
you go to bed. Obeying the order is merely obedience, not an exercise of responsibility.
Responsibility refers to consequences of one's actions. If you fail to close
the pasture gate and the horse gets out, you are responsible getting the horse
back in the pasture. Failing to do that, you lose your horse. Failing to weed
the garden means you have less to eat. Fouling the well means you have no water.
Two or three generations ago, the majority of US children grew up on farms.
Farms are family projects. Children growing up on farms had many responsibilities.
Children learn that they are important to the running of the farm. That is
how one learns responsibility.
Urban life is a different matter. Less than 5% of US children now grow up
on farms. Urban children have no necessary role in urban life. Water, food,
housing, all the necessities of life are devoid of children's input. The "good" child
learns obedience, his folks think he is fine, but he has little opportunity
to develop any sense of responsibility. His folks are busy with their jobs
and other commitments. The urban child constantly feels useless; he needs something
to do, something that nurtures his/her sense of responsibility. Gardens are
good. The child observes that soil preparation, weeding and tending the garden,
and waiting until the fruit or vegetables ripen are all important to enjoy
the "fruit of their labors." He/she learns the value of work and the benefits
to be gained from delayed, rather than instant gratification. Meaningful chores,
of all kinds, are beneficial to the development of one's character. Raising
pets can be meaningful. If the child fails to feed them, they die. The child
does not have to be taught that actions have consequences, they follow directly
from the action or inaction.
4. The fear of damaging a child's "self-esteem"
Many of our children are insecure
and are thought to lack self-esteem. Self-esteem is not damaged by hardship
and is not maintained by indulgence in dysfunctional behavior. Both the home
and school environment are important here. Abusive unreasonable behavior at
home leads to the same behavior outside the home. Schools afraid of damaging
a child's "self-esteem" reward substandard effort. There is something wrong
with school systems in which over half of the students are given high grades.
Over the past 10 years, the scholastic level of study books has been downgraded
by two years to help the mediocre student to graduate to the next level. Kids
are quick to recognize hypocrisy and condescension, acts that breed contempt.
Children are amazingly good learners. They are sponges for learning and they
respond admirably to challenge. If they observe that poor study effort is rewarded
with good grades, they disparage the attempt to perform well in school. If they
observe that cheating and outlandish behavior go unpunished, they learn that
honesty and good behavior are not worthy goals. If home life does not include
an atmosphere of love and respect between father and mother, and between parents
and children, the children will be less likely to respect others. Self-esteem
comes from affirmation of good effort and attainment of properly set goals.
Failure to make good effort should not be met with ridicule, of course, but
with graded meaningful incentives to do better.
Fear of damaging a child's self-esteem should not prevent the parent from
exercising some control over their child's activities and associations. When
we read that the parents were not aware of their children's web site communications,
or their stockpiling of guns and explosives in their bedrooms, we must realize
that this is not good parenting. This is a neglected child. A strong family
life includes an understanding of parental authority.
5. Lack of accountability
Accountability has lost its meaning. In auto accidents due to prescription drugs
(e.g. Valium), the driver is generally not held accountable. If you leave your
keys in the car and it is stolen, you are at fault and the car thief is not
held accountable. If it can be proved that someone was raised in an abusive
home, his/her abuse of others is excused. If "everyone" is doing something
destructive, the individual is seldom held accountable. If there is no shame
or accountability in verbal abuse, or bullying, or rape, what lessons do the
children learn? Accountability means that if you do a wrong, you suffer the
consequences. Our court system also has something to do with the loss of accountability.
If you are without sufficient funds for a responsible defense and you know
that the rich are rarely found guilty, why should you respect the legal system?
6. Desensitization to violence
Violence in the home is fearsome to children. How do they cope with it? They
are drawn to fantasies of violence where the consequences are dissipated. They
see it on the TV, in computer "games", and in movies. Violence becomes an art
form for vicarious thrills. In these media, there is little feeling of remorse
or pain. Military recruits are subjected to dramatizations of violence to desensitize
them to the act of committing violence. If they repeatedly see buildings being
blown up, or caricatured people being gunned down, the act of setting off the
bomb or pulling the trigger becomes merely a reflex. It is no accident that
abusive relationships are more common among military families than among non-military
Violence as a method of conflict resolution seems to have become the method
of choice. Four decades ago, the hero in the movie, Shane, avoided violence
except in extreme emergency. Violence is not negated by refined art. In
Clockwork Orange, the villains performed their violence to the music of
classical composers. Even Dirty Harry used his gun only when conventional
police work failed. Now, however, movies, TV, and computer games portray
violence as a senseless thrill devoid of personal feelings. Often the violence
is wrought by robots or by long distance (e.g., bombs and rockets from
planes too far away to see their victims), acts that remove the last vestige
of personal feeling. When the victim is depersonalized, the moral and ethical
consequences of violence disappear.
7. Desensitization to death
Very few children ever see anyone die except in movies or TV. Real people with
serious illness or accidents are removed to hospitals where death occurs behind
closed doors. A generation of so ago, people with lingering illnesses or serious
accidents more often died at home where children could see the loss of life
first-hand. A child will cry if he witnesses the death of a favorite pet. The
child rarely cries if he sees a death on TV or in a computer game. And the
hero is almost never killed. Lacking any real exposure to the death of a known
friend or loved one, death has a way of becoming depersonalized. On TV, the
permanence of death is lacking because the child sees the same actor in other
later shows. In video games, the tape can be run again. Killing is a transitory
thrill without serious consequences. Even suicide falls into this category.
Playing Russian Roulette with a loaded revolver is merely something to do when
The concept of personal death is relatively meaningless to children. They,
themselves, feel immortal. If a group of very young soldiers are told that
their next battle will result in 90% casualties, each of them feels sorry for
the nine men around him. If the soldiers are 30 years old, they will all seriously
question the rationale for the up-coming operation. Only the very immature
feel that warfare is fun.
Among statesmen and politicians, remote deaths or deaths of multitudes lose
relevance. As Stalin once remarked, "The death of a friend is a tragedy; the death of 10,000
men is a statistic."
8. The biologic factor
Conscience and respect for the rights of others are influenced by brain function.
Brain functions are influenced by a variety of biologic factors. Let me give
you a few examples.
a. There are people who are sociopaths; i.e. they truly lack any
feeling or compassion for others. The have learned that violence and murder
are "wrong" but they lack the feeling of doing wrong when they commit violence
or murder. It is said that they lack a "conscience". But, at present, we do
not know where conscience comes from. It is quite possible that some brain
defect is responsible.
b. Two excellent studies using laboratory rodents found that pre- or
early postnatal exposure to fluoride resulted in specific brain damage that effected
behavioral responses later in life in the exposed rodents. If the exposure were
prenatal, the brain damage caused an inability to solve problems (e.g., "street" people).
If the exposure were early post-natal, the rodents showed clear signs of attention
c. A recent study of teen-age violence in a large number of US cities
found wide variation in incidence between cities. The factor that correlated
most strongly with teen violence was fluoridation of city water. It is quite
likely that the brain damage wrought by prenatal exposure to fluoride also includes
a predisposition to violence.
d. Highly glycemic diets in children results in poor problem solving,
high frustration levels, and prompt resorting to violence in conflict resolution
situations. In these children, dietary change to whole foods and good nutrition
were highly effective in clearing these behavioral disorders.
e. Premature puberty causes a disjunction of sexual drives with the ability
to make adult choices. At the turn of the century, puberty age was approximately
15-16 years. A decade ago, puberty age fell to 12 years or so. Now, 30% of female
schoolchildren show breast development and pubic hair by age 8, and menarche
by age 10-11. These early changes obviously reflect hormone levels. These changes
within the past generation mean that children will experience sexual drives while
they are still impulse driven and lack the ability to act on reason and recognition
of consequences. The age of responsibility is still 13 years. Our schools know
of this change in the biology of students but we still have no clear idea of
how to deal with it.
f. Estrogen dominance leads to an imbalance of copper and zinc blood
levels. This, in turn, effects neurotransmitters with the result that mild irritation
is turned into rage. When a mother repeatedly exhibits inappropriate rage, her
children become confused, demoralized, and angry. They act out their anger in
relationships with others. I recall a sign I saw in the kitchen of one such family
that said, "When momma's not happy, no one's happy."
g. When families living along Lake Michigan are tested for polychlorinated
biphenyls (PCBs) exposure from pollutant contaminated fish, those children born
of women with the higher exposures to PCBs during pregnancy are found to suffer
from intellectual and emotional impairments. They grow up frustrated and angry.
Toxic petrochemicals from industrial pollution contaminate much of the food supply
throughout the US.
9. Rx Drugs
Children showing signs of aberrant behavior and moods are frequently treated
by tranquilizers and antidepressants. The antidepressants used are frequently
of the serotonin uptake inhibitor variety such as fluoxetine (Prozac) and similar
compounds. There is considerable concern that such drugs may contribute to
the absence of behavioral restraint, and that the discontinuation of the drug
may predispose one to violence. It should be obvious that such treatment is
merely directed at symptom control and does not address or treat the cause
of the behavior or mood problem. In addition, the treatment appears to exacerbate
the risk of violence. This is a problem yet to be resolved.
10. Alcohol abuse
Alcohol abuse by the children is rarely the issue. Alcohol abuse by parents is
a huge problem. The alcoholic parent can not be a good parent. Bad parenting
is not good for the emotional development of children. Alcohol abuse is thus
related to the problem of school violence as well as to automobile accidents
and other social problems. Conventional treatment of alcoholism is not particularly
effective. However, this problem is far too complex for me to presume to offer
a treatment in this instance.
11. Decay of societal morals
At no time in our countries' history has there been more news coverage of moral
lapses in society. Schoolteachers are found to be pornography collectors, religious
leaders are convicted of seducing children, loaning institutions and investment
counselors misappropriate (steal) money from clients, police abet drug dealing
and shakedowns, political leaders lie about their sexual dalliances, rap musicians
become millionaires singing about sex and killings, movie stars openly use drugs
and are sexually indulgent, minor crimes often receive harsh sentences while
major crimes by the rich receive only a slap on the hand. Our news media are
awash with lurid reports of such goings on. It is not surprising the children
see moral standards as hypocritical. Where are the role models for moral behavior?
They exist, of course, but do not make the news that sells. What lessons are
being taught here?
12. Loss of spiritual values
In a world lacking spiritual values, the meaning of shame and guilt is also lacking.
In a society that glorifies abundance of goods and monetary achievement, with
families too busy to attend church regularly, or with organized churches not
meeting the spiritual needs of people, spiritual growth and values decay. It
is ironic and certainly confusing to many people including children that wars
are being fought in the name of specific organized religions. Children who are
taught that spiritual values are arbitrary or irrelevant to life will more likely
not recognize the sanctity and holiness of their own or another person's life.
The subject of gun control is peripheral to the resolution of the problem of
school violence. No one is against devices to prevent accidental discharge of
a loaded weapon or against keeping guns out the hands of children. But not even
the most ardent gun safety proponent believes laws and regulations will prevent
the availability of guns to those who are intent on obtaining them. Until we
recognize the underlying dysfunctions as described above, it is unlikely that
any successful programs will be mounted to solve the school violence problem
we are facing. The children committing school violence are certainly cause for
concern, but they are symptoms, not the cause, of a larger societal problem.
The solution will come when we understand that our house (society) is built on
sand and is in for prolonged and severe battering until we get our foundations
back in order.
John R. Lee, MD