Mind Matters — Lost Boys

When I saw the newspaper photo of the young teen who was found to have guns in his room and a plan in his head to pull off a Columbine copy of a school shooting outside of Philly, I felt a wrenching wave of sadness. Another lost boy in the news. No, my first inclination was not to punish him mercilessly.

I also felt great sadness for the young boy who made a huge mistake when he threw a chunk of ice from an overpass onto a passing car. The woman driver was killed and this boy was crucified (fortunately, we still have enough justice for that not to have literally happened). (Meanwhile drunk drivers causing fatalities and who should be held far more responsible for their actions often get far less punishment and definitely less harsh community reaction than that child incurred.)

Of course, the victims of offenses committed by young boys suffer tragically. But in these cases the tragedy lies not only with the victims but also with the child perpetrators. When these incidents occur, it’s easy for us to identify with the victims and acknowledge their tragedy. But the tragedy of our lost boys is lost upon us.

However, there are knowledgeable and compassionate voices among us who can direct us to a better understanding of our boys. One such guide is psychologist James Garbarino, Ph.D.

Garbarino gives us a solid study of why boys in our culture get violent, and he offers ideas of what we can do about it. His book, Lost Boys: Why Our Sons Turn Violent and How We Can Save Them, is not a reflexive “Let’s build more prisons” diatribe but a thoughtful explication of the various factors that collide to create the violent scenarios that occur: difficult family situations, lack of bonding and attachment to a nurturing caregiver early on, having been shamed through childhood, being some examples. But Garbarino also points to society as influential.

I recently attended a safe schools summit where administrators and local police and school personnel discussed what emergency measures would be implemented in the event of, for example, a school shooting. As much as we need such planning of emergency response protocols, we need even more to learn how to prevent these events in the first place.

Garbarino’s guide to changing the violent course of America’s lost boys puts the onus on all of us. Our societal response needs to be more than disaster preparedness. Living in society does mean that we have a connection to each other. The common good is diminished when something is awry with its individuals, especially, its children. Even individualistically oriented Americans need to consider this fact!

Garbarino notes that one of the core principles anchoring a healthy society is the need for affirmation and respect of all its members—again, especially of its children. Children who can develop in an environment where they feel connected and not alienated and discriminated against are not likely to turn to violence.

The prevention of violence is possible, but it includes some unpopular notions. We rugged individualists don’t like taxes for health and education, but do like our access to guns. Garbarino’s research would have our priorities the other way around.

We do need health insurance for children (for one, so that brain development is not compromised even pre-natally). We do need parenting and home visit programs to educate those who would benefit by that. We do need to reconsider gun control measures. We do need to look at the pervasive violence that our society condones.

Change is never easy—and change of attitude or perspective? Very difficult. But I agree with Garbarino that to make a safer society, we need to see what we need to do as a culture and community to save our lost boys. They may be the canaries in the mine.