"There are no bad kids, only bad parents." Perhaps the time has come to take another look at this aphorism. There are bad kids out there. Real bad. Today, the question is who to blame, because it's not just the parents anymore. Remember the massacre in Jonesboro, Arkansas, where two kids hid in the woods near their school and shot their classmates during a bogus fire drill? Jonesboro was an ugly highlight, but not an aberration. All over the country, kids have been committing heinous acts of violence against parents, other kids and anyone else in the way.
It is not easy to make this statement. In this country, much of the political rhetoric during election season trumpets the ideal of securing our children's future. Indeed, they are our future, but what kind of future will that be?
Children, typically symbolic of our innocence, are becoming symbolic of a violent society. In early January, the U.S. Department of Justice released statistics showing an overall decrease in gun violence in the country over the last 20 years. included in that survey was proof of a 25 percent increase in the amount of gun violence among youths since the mid-'70s. This increase was given little play in the media, except as a reason to enact general handgun control legislation. Kids were only mentioned as potential victims of handgun violence -- not as perpetrators. Then, when the Jonesboro massacre introduced America to the prospect of having predatory children in our midst, crime experts offered comfort by saying that although youth crime was on the rise, it was a single-digit factor in the overall picture.
I recall being shocked by both attempts to ignore the problem. It seemed obvious that we were avoiding asking how kids could be so violent. Nevertheless, I dismissed my reaction as the paranoia of a liberal idealist. That is, until I did a story on Fox Files (shameless plug: Thursday at 9 p.m. on channel 5) about the battle for respect among our youth. Dozens of kids, many between the ages of 12 and 15, were interviewed: some white, some black, some richer, some poorer -- no group prominent enough to characterize the whole. Each described his methods for combating foes -- in some cases referred to as "getting their respect." Tales of sucker punches thrown at rival kids and other "dissers." Proud accounts of attacking a parent that told on them. Little faces with little gritted teeth and little clenched fists reliving the stalking of a math teacher who was throwing pop quizzes and making students take off gang bandanas. Watching these adolescents spew out such vitriol made my mind numb. It was like being in the Tarantino version of those Pepsi commercials with the little girl speaking with a tough-guy voice.
No matter how minor the dis, these kids would respond with extreme force. A 14-year-old called Chill told me that if someone tried to hurt his mother, he would punch or hit him with a stick, or maybe shoot him. His response was the same when asked what he would do if someone called him a punk. "A dis is a dis, and you gotta squash it" was his rationale for the extreme response to a relatively harmless offense.
Kid Slick, a wafer-thin 13-year-old with one of the best tough-guy faces I've ever seen is a prototype for today's violent youth. While waiting to be interviewed with a couple of other kids, he was engaged in a staring, or "mad-dogging," contest that erupted into a fist-fighting fiasco. When asked if hitting the other guy was the right thing to do, K.S. said no. When asked if we were supposed to turn the other cheek when someone bothered us, he said, "Yeah." When asked why he did it, he said "I dunno." This Cosby-esque I dunno was a stock response. It was not, however, an expression of their stupidity, as Mr. Cosby would lament. It was much worse than that; it was them expressing their inability to understand what they were doing.
The resulting story became one of the rare instances in television journalism where showing a social condition is not enough. Such violence demanded an explanation. Once again, it was Kevin McEneaney from New York's Pheonix House -- whom we met in last month's column -- to the rescue. In his work as a youth and drug counselor, Mr. McEneaney has witnessed the increase in adolescent violence firsthand. These kids, he said, "lack the primary education and emotional development that people engaged in those activities need to modulate their behavior. Ordinarily, an addict of 20 or so has had a degree of education, and more importantly, they are older and have more experience controlling their emotions." Thus younger kids are getting into adult situations, but because of their immaturity they are unable to control their actions. "This immaturity breeds an unpredictability and often overreactions," McEneaney concluded.
Why are kids engaging in such violence? Is it really a matter of bad parenting? McEneaney pointed to the fact that we live in not only a highly permissive society, but also a very adult society. "Everything from TV to the news is not just violent, but designed to be viewed by adults." Basically, children are exposed to things they aren't ready for. This is not a new concept by any means. What is new is the deluge of cable channels and violent programming, hardcore gangsta rap videos and violent video games. Taken separately, each of these attractive nuisances can be controlled by a parent. But, as McEneaney confirmed, "If kids do not see it on their own, they get it on the street or at school, either as a victim or a participant." Surely this is too much for any parent to combat.
I am not a fan of blaming society for our problems. That said, if you create a culture that not only condones but emphasizes violence -- making stars of violent people, championing music about violence -- the result will be violent people. Therefore, I suggest a new aphorism: There are bad kids because there is a bad society.