Our kids are killing to be heard

Why are our children so angry that they are killing themselves and others? Another school shooting in Illinois happened, this immediately after our community struggles to understand why a 16-year-old has been charged in connection with the murders of his parents and two younger brothers. We all remember the senseless killings on the campus of Virginia Tech. These are senseless murders by young people that we can’t comprehend, or when we try, we utter blanket statements such as, “They must be mentally ill.”

Surely they can’t all be mentally ill? And if they were, what signals were sent before they decided murder was the answer?

Our vague answers are too easy. We need to look deeper. Our kids are angry, and I suspect they are because they are not being heard.

After a meeting at my children’s high school, I walked away angry and frustrated. I could clearly understand why my soft-spoken teenage daughter feels pushed aside and not heard.

Schools are overcrowded, and kids’ needs are underserved. We live in an area with multi-million dollar sports complexes, yet the neighborhoods surrounding them have schools without libraries and books. These kids know they are not a priority, yet we seem shocked when they act out in violent ways.

How many more times do young people have to act out before we give them the attention, love and support they deserve?

Certainly, I’m not trying to offend teachers, social workers or school administrators. Many are my friends and are deeply committed to helping and educating our kids. But how many of these same adults, including parents like me, aren’t listening to what our young people are saying, what they are not saying, and what they are doing?

I can remember speaking in 1998 with a group of teenagers who each had been accepted into college. They were voted most likely to be attorneys and doctors – kids with strong academic success. They held achievements in sports and music, and by all accounts they were well-rounded. On the surface they seemed happy and set for success.

But in taking the time to talk with them, this is what they had to say in general: “We feel we never had a childhood and were never allowed to play – to just be kids. Our parents and schools kept pushing us for more and more, without allowing us the opportunity to process and enjoy our childhood and our accomplishments.”

How many of us are running our children from school directly to this and that activity? How many kids benefit from both parents supporting them? How many are not being supported for their successes? How many young people have the benefit of something as simple as the traditional family dinner in the evenings?

As a nation we have decided to set higher standards in education with “no child left behind.” We have included a written portion to our SATs, and our state has created a high school achievement test that students must pass before they are allowed to receive a high school diploma.

I am not suggesting we should make it easier, but clearly we have piled on greater expectations and demands.

It is early and we have no way of knowing how many students will pass the required courses, only to be denied a diploma because they failed a newly designed test. Although the rationale for doing so might have been to set higher standards in education and achievement, how many more teens will be frustrated and angry because these pressures have been placed upon them?

Teachers openly communicate the expectations, yet we haven’t heard from our kids. How will they choose to communicate?

Some teachers openly admit they are “teaching for the test” rather than simply educating. Is there a connection as to why kids across the country are using schools as venues to express their anger?

It doesn’t have to be so difficult. I think we need to look back to simpler times and place more value on the importance of the family unit and necessary time in a child’s life for play. As parents and educators, we must set aside time to hear our children and really listen to them. We need to be open-minded enough to change our opinions when children tell us things; we must be willing to make adjustments.

Our kids are killing to be heard. We need to listen before they decide the only way to get attention is by committing murder.

Bernadette A. Moyer is the development director at The Monsignor O’Dwyer Retreat House, Sparks. She resides in Lutherville with her husband and teenage children.

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.