"The country has to do some soul searching about this. This is becoming the norm and we take it for granted in ways that, as a parent, are terrifying to me." -- President Obama, June 10, hours after our country's latest school shooting in Troutdale, Oregon.
Given the frequency of this ongoing threat to our nation's children, we cannot wait a second longer to start our search. I began my own deep dive today, by reading as much as I could of Santa Barbara killer, Elliot Rodger's manifesto. And the result? I can't stop crying. Not only for the promise of the lives that were cut short by his hand, not only for the parents of the victims who are mourning a loss beyond compare, not only for our mothers and daughters, who are the subjects of such a deeply ingrained misogyny that we find his seemingly extreme rants familiar (#YesAllWomen).
No, today, I weep for our sons, who we are clearly failing.
I am paralyzed by the statistic that there have been 74 school shootings in the U.S. since Newtown in 2012. And since Columbine in 1999, the largest and most fatal shootings seem to have been committed by young men and boys -- several of whom, the headlines claim, were deeply alienated, so deeply alone, so deeply unable to cope with their pain that their rage boiled over.
Searching for the reason behind these crimes repeatedly brings up so many essential cultural debates: about gun control, bullying, violence in the media, parental neglect and the great limitations of both our law enforcement and mental health systems. And Elliot Rodger's story is no exception -- in fact, his manifesto weaves quite a disturbing quilt made up of all these problematic cultural patches. Untreated (or inefficiently treated) mental illness is clearly a factor to blame in these atrocities. But somehow there's something else missing in the conversation -- something more widespread -- and it's precisely what makes me weep: In this day and age, why are so many of our boys so unable to manage their rage?
I have to wonder: If Elliot Rodger, or Adam Lanza, or Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris had truly learned early in life that: 1) What you feel is valid 2) There are ways to move through anger effectively and 3) If you can't, it's OK to ask for help, would they ever have reached such depths of despair? If they knew how to effectively express and move through their rage -- if they had gained those tools and established a healthier social/emotional foundation in early childhood -- would they have ultimately found another way?
And of course we're not just talking about boys who shoot up schools. Somehow in our post-feminist age, we still haven't managed to change the ideal of manhood to intrinsically reject the persistent pressure to be invincible, infallible, a tough guy -- impervious to sadness and rejection and failure. This video, by The Representation Project, says so much about this perpetual burden on boys:
These pressures on boys and men -- to be something no one can truly be -- provoke the rageful violence perpetrated on our streets, in our homes, in our schools and in our hearts. One of the most interesting parts of reading Rodger's manifesto was recognizing just how common -- not extraordinary -- were the actual real-life occurrences that influenced his ultimate act of violence. We need to help our boys figure out how to diffuse it.
So here's my manifesto: it's time to figure out how to boost our boys' EQ. It's time to prioritize the emotional health of our young men. It's time for them to know that it's OK to feel weak and need help. It's time to equip them with the tools they need to react appropriately to pain in life, to difficult relationships or a lack thereof. Studies show that institutionalized social and emotional learning programs result in decreased disruptive class behavior, noncompliance, aggression and delinquent acts, while also reducing emotional distress, with fewer reports of student depression, anxiety, stress and social withdrawal. So let's institutionalize a social/emotional curriculum in our early childhood educational system, make it as important as the ABC's. Let's start our boys off on the right path by giving them these essential life skills as early as preschool and then support them throughout their education and beyond as they grow into men.