Why how we raise our children could be a matter of life or death

Columbine High School

Columbine High School

Remember when The Boomtown Rats released I don’t like Mondays in 1979? Letting it all hang out on the disco dance floor, head banging to the beat? I do. Huge hit. Huge. And I remember our collective intake of teenage breath when we realised the lyric was based on a true story; a school shooting that had taken place earlier that year at Cleveland Elementary School in the USA. Two members of staff had died, eight children were injured. It seemed the stuff Hollywood horror movies were based on more than an actual happening in a regular school. Weird. No wonder they wrote a song about it.

The first huge school shooting to really grab our collective attention was the massacre by an adult intruder at Dunblane Primary School, Scotland, in 1996. Heart-breaking, mindless assassinations. The shot victims were all tiny children or heroic teachers. We wept in outrage and sorrow for those terrified infants and their families. We hoped we would have been as brave as those protective teachers if this had happened to us – not that it ever would, right? Britain changed the law on handguns (effectively making private ownership illegal) just in case. Not that a little change in the law would stop an intent assassin. But it might make spontaneous murder a tad more difficult. Might.

Then came the Columbine High School massacre, USA, in 1999. Students killed fellow students in a well-planned attack involving rigged explosive devices, a firebomb and 12 students being shot dead. A teacher brought the fatality total to 13 before the two young murderers shot themselves. The western world reeled in shock. Whoa. This incident took school shootings to a whole new level. What on earth had induced two young men to kill their peers and with such pre-determined precision? Whose fault was it? Did there need to be more gun control? Michael Moore made the documentary film, Bowling for Columbine, in a bid to answer some of these questions. School security was stepped up. Gun control was not. Columbine became a household name. That was just fifteen years ago.

And how times have changed.

Yesterday, Monday, I read the news and thought here we go again. A school shooting in Estonia. Last week in the USA. School shootings on both sides of the globe, within a week, that make the rest of us shake our heads in accustomed dismay before thanking our lucky stars that our own school children and their teachers are safe. For now.

Since Columbine, schools have suffered shootings in Argentina, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, Netherlands, Sweden, more in the USA, Yemen, and, as of Monday, Estonia. How many of these schools can we name now?

Thirty-five years after I don’t like Mondays was released, school shootings have become reduced to short-lived media fodder and validation arguments for why we should or shouldn’t have the right to carry guns. We holler for change then return to our lives.

But not the families of the victims.

A few years ago, I received a phone call from a teary terrified daughter who told me the police were at her school because a gunman was prowling the vicinity. The kids were being kept behind locked doors and away from windows. She wanted picking up or permission to run as fast as I can home. Two impossible requests. A mother’s instinct is to save and protect, and I genuinely believed she was safest behind police-patrolled locked doors, but refusing her was one of the hardest things I have ever done as a mother. The police eventually apprehended the ‘gunman’ without a shot being fired, but the fear, at the time, was searing. And that incident, to all intents and purposes, was just a false alarm.

I cannot fathom how children who have been injured, or witnessed the death of their pals or their teachers, or all of these things, find the courage to ever step out of their homes again. Or how parents who have lost a child in a mindless school shooting find the strength to pick themselves up and carry on.

There is rarely any ideology involved, no religious fanaticism or terrorist organisation. Just burning anger, bitterness and revenge committed by deeply unhappy and/or mentally-ill youths.

Every child has the right to a safe and secure childhood. With love and laughter and rules. Kids blessed with a happy, stable home, raised by parents or guardians who encourage with You’re doing great!, reassure with I love you!, and step up to say No!, are far less likely to develop into teenage assassins. We cannot protect our children from intruders and terrorists, but by raising them with a sense of pride and self-worth, mutual respect and empathy, we can at least do our best to protect them from each other and themselves.

Raising balanced, happy children is not just about achieving good manners and compliance with social norms any more. Or, to be crass, saving society from future psychologist or psychiatric costs.

For some, it could also be a matter of life or death.

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