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School Murders

by an Anonymous Traditionalist Orthodox Clergyman

I just read a fascinating article by a Chicago psychologist, Dr. Barbara Lerner, in the "National Review" (May 17, 1999). This piece has relevance for us Orthodox Christians especially, since it reinforces Patristic teachings about the centrality of moral values and a spiritual, rather than materialistic, orientation in the rearing of children.

Dr. Lerner points out that since the 1960s, psychology has placed tremendous emphasis on understanding the stress, neglect, and abuse that lead children to engage in violence such as that which has surfaced in America's schools. The contemporary solutions advocated by this post-1960s world of unscientific psychology are early intervention in the control of anger and strategies for establishing more intense parent-child communication, all of these centered on "calm, rational, smiley-face, didactic lessons" that reject discipline as "too harsh."

Lerner points out that the kind of psychology that predated the 1960s,the kind which still survived when I took my doctorate, emphasizes, as do the Fathers of the Church, the therapeutic role of those "gut-level experiences children have when their parents draw a sharp moral line and demonstrate a willingness to go all out to defend it." Indeed, she notes that Freud, at least, "had the humility to recognize" that counselling and anger-management do nothing to fill the "moral void" that exists in the kinds of children who engage in acts of violence against others.

Children who are indulged, who are given everything by their parents, and who are denied nothing, while at the same time being offered no strict moral standards by which to conduct themselves, then, are more likely to commit such horribles acts of violence as those which we see in today's schools. As Dr. Lerner points out, a child who is taught that he is the virtual center of the universe, and is then reinforced in this by constant attention and material rewards, develops narcissistic tendencies that lead him to believe that those around him have only "instrumental" worth. They are "useful," in his mind, only "when they satisfy his desires and enhance his self-esteem" and are as "disposable as bottle caps when they don't."

In fact, as Dr. Lerner points out, like Kip Kinkel in Oregon, who killed his parents and a number of classmates, Eric Harris and Dylan Klybold, who slaughtered numberless classmates in Littleton, CO, were also children of wealthy families, indulged and spoiled, and the objects of both parental attention and the "benefits" of modern feel-good counselling. Kinkel was

the son of popular teachers, was given everything that his parents could give him, and received counselling for his uncontrolled anger and various inappropriate behaviors. The two CO killers fit a similar pattern.

These children, in the final analysis, lacked not parental attention in their upbringing, but a moral system. They were not neglected, but over-indulged. They are not the products of deprivation but of materialistic excess. Narcissists, they lack the ability to understand the importance of other people. They have never been trained to derive pleasure and satisfaction from serving others. And they have failed to learn that self-knowledge arises from defining ourselves through others and, in Christianity, through our relationship to them through Christ. One does not learn such things without strict moral guidance: without seeing that there are negative consequences when we infringe on the rights of others; and until one sees that he cannot enjoy what he has until he shares it with others (indeed, with the less fortunate), he can never become fully human.

Dr. Lerner's observations are truly insightful. She does not, much to her credit, pretend to know or arrogantly put forth moral guidelines for the rearing of children. She simply rightly recognizes, again, their centrality in the formation of children. In the Orthodox Church, however, we have guidelines which can help us to put her suggestions into practice. Through confession, and at an early age, children learn that they are responsible to others for their actions (to the Priest, if no one else). By the corrective measures of a repentant life, they learn that they can rectify wrongs visited on others. By almsgiving, they come to understand that material things are the cause of happiness only when the are shared. And by understanding the Church as the primary source of life, as the single priority in human existence, they overcome the selfish view of life that is now ubiquitous among American youth (Orthodox included).

As we see an emerging generation of young people chasing after homes, cars, physical pleasure, material gain, and narcissistic ends, we must come to a clear understanding that more attention, more things, and increased self-indulgence in the name of "feel-good" therapy are not the solution to America's youth problem. Such counselling, to quote Dr. Lerner, is indeed

"part of the problem." It reflects the very sickness which it attempts to control and cure. Discipline, deprivation (fasting, almsgiving, the denial of various wants by careful, loving parents), and an understanding of one's responsibilities to others are the backbone of genuine and effective psychological and spiritual counselling. And they are at the very core of producing healthy individuals in a perversely self-indulgent population that now sees children killing one another.

In a nutshell, one cannot learn to love others when he considers himself the center of all things. If he does have any love, it will be selfish and limited only to his immediate family or a small circles of friends (if that). To know real love, one must suffer with others, understand the limits of his own world, grasp the necessity of never impinging on the rights of others, and ultimately grasping the fact that the unity of self derives from our unity with others through empathy and self-sacrifice.