He would get bullied hard... Over social media, over gaming, over everything. He was the nicest kid, the most shyest kid…He wasn’t very much of a social person after being bullied for the stutter. I think he just didn’t feel comfortable anymore at school… [His] mother used drugs, which contributed to the upheaval in the home…As he grew older, problems at home became more acute and more apparent…[He] had a pretty rough life with his mom.
(excerpts from a Washington Post article about the 18-year-old who killed 19 children and two teachers in Uvalde, TX)
At the North American Society of Adlerian Psychology (NASAP) Conference in May, participants reeling from the news of yet another school shooting shook their heads in dismay as they contemplated the conference theme printed neatly on the whiteboard: What the world needs now….
As a mother and a professional who’s dedicated over three decades to the school system as a teacher and counselor, my heart breaks for those who lost their loved ones to yet another young man’s rage. AND my heart breaks for that young man. A local reporter referred to him as “a monster.” Yes, what he did was monstrous. But he didn’t start out a monster, and neither did any of the other young men who have committed similar monstrous acts. They were all once someone’s beautiful little boy. Full of curiosity about the world, ready to learn and laugh and grow, like so many other people’s beautiful little boys. The world let them down. Their parents let them down. Their schools and communities let them down.
A 16-year-old school shooter wrote: I feel rejected, rejected, not so much alone, but rejected. I feel this way because the day-to-day treatment I get usually it’s positive but the negative is like a cut, it doesn’t go away really fast. (Brookings Institute, 2022)
A 14-year-old school shooter told the court: I felt like I wasn’t wanted by anyone, especially my mom. (Brookings Institute, 2022)
“I am a child, and I just want to belong.”
In the Positive Discipline activities that I facilitate with parents and educators, this is a line that we frequently give to participants as they role play possible adult responses to children’s behavior. We ask the person playing the child to notice the impact that the adult’s words have on their thoughts and feelings and the decisions they’re making about what they need to do to survive or thrive. When the adult’s words evoke feelings of connection, the child’s thoughts and decisions almost, without fail, lean toward I matter. I think I can handle this. I’m more willing to listen to what you have to say.
So, as I try to answer the question of What the world needs now… I come back to an essential concept in the work of psychologist Alfred Adler, whose work inspired the foundational principles of Positive Discipline. Adler emphasized the human need for belonging and significance as a primary motivator for behavior. Current brain research on attachment indicates that he was right: human brains are wired for connection (that’s the belonging part), and children who feel securely attached to their caregivers are more likely to thrive throughout their developmental process. When that sense of connection is missing, children are less likely to develop empathy and trust, which are essential for building positive relationships in which they care about how their behavior impacts others. (In other words, they develop a conscience).
Hand-in-hand with connection comes the belief that I matter to someone. This is the significance of which Adler spoke. Research comparing school shooters to other students shows that “Students who feel like they matter—that they are important or significant to others—are less likely to feel isolated, ostracized, and alone. They feel confident that there are people to whom they can turn for support,” so “making someone feel that they have value and that they matter can go a long way toward altering that individual’s life and, consequently, the lives of others.” (Brookings Institute, 2022)
When children don’t feel valued, it’s easy to devalue themselves…and, in turn, to devalue others. Listen to Aaron Stark's TedX Talk I Was Almost a School Shooter: “I was told I was worthless by just about everybody in my life. And when you’re told you’re worthless enough, you will believe it, and you’ll do everything you can to make everybody else believe it, too. I felt like I had nothing to lose. And when you have nothing to lose, you can do anything. And that is a terrifying thought.”
Imagine how our world might be different if the young man in Uvalde and all the other young men who have committed school shootings, had grown up feeling connected to and valued by people in their family and school community.
There is hope!
PBS NewsHour reporter Amna Nawaz was a guest speaker via Zoom at the NASAP Conference. On assignment in Uvalde, when asked how she can continue to report on heartbreaking stories like that one, she told us, “You have to believe that you can make a difference, that you can have an impact, and that things will get better because of your effort. If you don’t have that sort of hope and optimism, how do you get up and do the work every day?”
I believe that there are important policy decisions to be made by our governments and other institutions that will help us reduce the risk that young people will become violent. I also believe that the need for policies does not absolve us, as individuals in the community with one another, from taking action to reverse this trend of school shootings becoming the new normal.
How do we do that?
If you’re a parent or teacher (or anyone else who works with children!), I highly recommend learning more about Positive Discipline because its books and training programs offer adults tools for helping children develop the following seven resources of highly resilient and capable people:
1. I am capable of facing problems and challenges and gaining strength and wisdom through experience.
2. My life has meaning and purpose, and I contribute in unique and meaningful ways.
3. I can influence what I do in life and am accountable for my actions and choices.
4. I can manage personal emotions through self-assessment, self-control, and self-discipline.
5. I can communicate, cooperate, negotiate, share, empathize, listen and work effectively with people.
6. I can respond to the limits and consequences of everyday life with responsibility, adaptability, flexibility, and integrity.
7. I can make decisions based on moral and ethical principles, wisdom, and understanding.
If we want to raise children who internalize these beliefs, we adults must be willing to model and teach the skills that are foundational to those beliefs. This probably means that we need to do some work on ourselves, not just on our kids. Who do we feel connected to? What are our responsibilities and contributions to the relationships that ground us in our own resilience? And if we’re not feeling enough connection, who could we reach out to so that our needs are being met? It’s hard to give our kids what we don’t have ourselves. (One of the many blessings of Positive Discipline tools is that they’re good for the internal work we need to do, not just the external work. For more information, go to www.positivediscipline.org and www.positivediscipline.com)
So, my answer to the question of What the world needs now… is: connecting and mattering. This is where we start because this is where hope starts. Hope started for Aaron Stark when his friend, who he’d stolen from and lied to, offered to sit down and watch a movie with him. This is but one simple act of kindness. “He treated me like a person. And when someone treats you like a person when you don’t even feel like you’re human, it’ll change your entire world.”
A friend changed Aaron’s world. Whose world will you change today? And tomorrow? And the next day? There’s work to be done. Let’s get up and do it.