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A $30 Investment

Originally published at About.com - April 30, 1999

Last night I sat down to play Scrabble with my son. He's a very bright, enthusiastic boy of 14. The same age, ironically, as the shooter that killed a boy and wounded another at a high school in Taber, Alberta Wednesday. I can't, for the life of me, imagine a baby-faced boy of 14 killing anyone. Yet it happened.

I thought about writing this article last week after the tragic incident in Colorado but decided I should stick to subject. But sometimes events overwhelm you and you write what you have to. Just over a week ago fifteen families lost their children. Wednesday another one. Several weeks ago a friend from work lost his daughter in a car crash. The last few weeks have brought home the fragility of life.

For those of us with children, nothing is more precious, more valuable. And yet, in the hub-bub of the day, the bustle of life, we often find ourselves with little time to know them. To do things with them. But if they should die in a tragic accident, no amount of money in the world will bring that time back again.

We worry about whether we should invest $5000 in Amazon.com or in Nortel. But sometimes the best investments are the least expensive, and paradoxically, the most valuable.

Just over a week ago I was preparing the day's satellite feed rundown at BCTV where I work when someone dashed in telling me the wires were reporting a shooting at a Colorado High School. Our American affiliate NBC was covering the situation and live news was being broadcast on a closed circuit channel. I checked the wires, got the coordinates and tuned in the satellite dish to the pictures coming in.

Details were sketchy. but the pictures showed a school surrounded by police. There were reports of gunshot wounds and pandemonium. We got a story on air for Noon and continued to monitor the feeds. We went live with an update shortly after 3:00 PM. A police officer reported that as many as 25 were dead.

We're a cynical bunch in the news business. We encounter so much death and destruction daily that we sometimes joke about it. But an event of this magnitude affects us all deeply. On one level, it's a great news story. On another we feel sick. What kind of warped little monstrosities can commit such acts?

The armchair pundits come out with their theories. The most popular one, coming from the core of our Canadian snobbishness and feelings of moral superiority, is that America is a sick culture - sick with its love of guns and worship of violence. Second place goes to our alleged failure to love our kids enough. The shooters in Denver were "outcasts", reviled by their peers.

Solutions are suggested. Gun control is the favorite. Gotta lock up those guns. Gotta register them. Gotta keep them out of the hands of kids. Extra security at schools is a big winner. Beef up security. Put in metal detectors. Have shrinks roam school halls looking for the "disturbed".

We worry about our own kids. How do we protect them? Or even worse, how do we keep our own kids from becoming killers? After all, the Denver shooters came from solid middle class homes. The 14 year old Taber killer was apparently a Mormon. Few religions show greater devotion to family and to communal responsibility than the Mormons. If it can happen to them, could it happen to us?

The best answer to why there is such an increase in the number of teenage killers was an article in yesterday's National Post by psychologist Barbara Lerner. Entitled The Killer Narcissists, the article argues that it is not a simple matter of more absent parents, more media violence and more guns. The Denver killers, Lerner hypothesizes, will likely turn out to be "a lot like Kip Kinkel, the 15 year old Oregon shooter" who was abandoned as a media curiousity when he didn't fit the standard stereotypes. Kinkel "had it all", popular parents who were there for him, and chillingly, "helping him get whatever he wanted, even when the things he wanted unnerved them". They "made few demands, rejected firm discipline as too harsh" and made good use of professional help. They were, in fact, in counselling when Kip killed them and two school mates.

Lerner argues that a lack of discipline, a failure to instill moral boundaries, is at the root of the kid killer problem. Some people, with the best of intentions, are raising narcissists, self-absorbed kids who, though perhaps superficially friendly and charming, have "never learned to love another and, through love, to view others as separate persons with an equal value".

For the narcissist, says Lerner, "other people have no intrinsic worth; their value is purely instrumental". When such a person is thwarted and not given "the excessive, un-earned respect he demands" he becomes a killer. These kids, says Lerner, have a "moral void" at their core. Psychology cannot cure such pathology, she says.

What is required is moral training, "the kind of intense gut-level experiences children have when their parents draw a sharp moral line and demonstrate a willingness to go all out to defend it".

Moral boundaries, not hugs and kisses, is what will keep your kids from becoming killers. Not the unconditional love we grant to them as infants and toddlers, but "love that is no longer unconditional" so the child sees the parents as "more than human piñatas full of goodies" but as "moral beings with standards and values that are more important than his own immature wishes". Such parenting will develop a conscience in the child.

I would add another important thing parents can give their children. Empathy. Recognition of the child's own pains in life. I've seen a mother brusquely brush aside her daughter's bruised knee with a curt "Well it's your own fault. I told you not to run," instead of tending to the injury and empathizing with the child's pain. This teaches the child that her own pain does not matter. Taken farther the child learns that other people's pain does not matter.

I've done a lot of investing but probably the best investment I made was one of only thirty dollars. A few years ago my son's hamster got sick. The boy was heartsick over this fuzzy little creature named Pavel (after the all-star Vancouver hockey player). It would have been easy to dismiss his concern as "It's only a hamster" or "We'll buy you a new one."

It would have been easy to let nature take its course and let the creature die. But we decided to take the hamster to the vet. He had a cyst. An operation might save him, but it was doubtful. Here was the choice: spend thirty bucks on an operation that might fail or do nothing, let the hamster die, and buy a new one for five bucks, saving $25. The math is easy. Which was the better investment?

I let my son call it. "Do you want us to get the operation for Pavel?" "Yes," he said tearfully. So we did. The operation was a success. We picked Pavel up from the vet's the next morning. But it was too much for him and he died later that Sunday. We gave him a proper funeral in our back yard. $30 wasted? Or a $30 lesson in life? My son understands the pain of losing a life precious to him. He knows that we care enough to treat his love for his pet seriously.

Both moral training and empathy are living legacies we can give to our children. Morally - respect for other people and their property, that a violation of people's rights earns consequences. Hand in hand with that goes respect for truth - lies cannot be tolerated. And empathy - letting the child know that his feelings are real and acknowledged, not brushed aside as being of no consequence.

The events of the last two weeks stress the importance of investing in our children. Investing in their moral upbringing. Investing in teaching them to empathize with others, that pain hurts. This is the best and least expensive investment you can make. And it will produce rewards that will enrich you throughout your life. Rewards that money cannot buy.

Additional Links of Interest

Malignant Self-Love: Narcissism Revisited - a complete 230 page book online on pathological narcissism by Shmuel Vaknin, Ph.D. He argues that narcissists are devoid of any true love of themselves and live their lives second hand - reflected in how they are perceived by others.


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