A month ago I picked up Dave Cullen’s Columbine, considered the most definitive account of the Columbine massacre that took place 13 years ago last Friday. Like many I reacted with horror but then detached interest when the story came out. Of course, I was still relatively young then, and nowhere near parenthood. Now a mother, and a mother of a school-aged boy, I flew through the book with vested interest.
The mastermind and leader of the killings, Eric Harris, was confirmed by experts to be a textbook psychopath: cold, heartless, calculating. The second killer, Dylan Klebold, proved to be more complex. In fact, the initial profile of him sent chills down my spine: He was bright, curious, athletic, sensitive. He loved Lego and origami. It was irrational, but I shivered because that just described my son. How can a killer have started out this innocent boy, so similar to my own?
To my own surprise, I finished the book without judging the parents of the two boys. Unlike what some might think, Eric and Dylan were not raised in broken or abusive homes. Their parents were middle class or upper middle class and well educated, loved their sons, made efforts to discipline, and appeared to have paid attention to their children. And yet the question lingers on every parent’s mind: How could they not have seen this coming? Could we be as equally blind?
I look at my own parents. My father, a product of his generation, worked 80 hour weeks and left the childrearing to my mother. My mother devoted her life to caring for my brother and me, “dedicated” being an understatement to describe her. And yet, for cultural and generational reasons, my mother did not “hear” us much less listen to us. She was not raised in a culture or in a time where concepts like self esteem and depression were even conceivable. How can you hear what you don’t know exists?
But I, on the other hand, born into a cotton candy pop psychology bubble, would know. I’ve gone through periods in my life where self-help books lined my shelves, and I continue to talk like an amateur psychologist. I only amp up the psychoanalysis now that I’m a parent: Have I told my son enough times that I am proud of him? He was a little quiet after school today – did something happen with his friends? Don’t tell him to drink milk so he’ll get bigger – you’ll teach him to pursue a false body ideal!
And even so, as emotionally in tuned to my child as I think I am, I’ve missed some critical spots.
Like when Fred was about to start kindergarten, and he began acting out and throwing tantrums. I was taken aback, shocked at my 5 year old’s new aggression. We scolded and threatened and wondered if it was heightened testosterone, until Max brought up the idea that maybe Fred was simply anxious about starting school. Of course. We’d made such a big deal over kindergarten, telling him how exciting it was. But given his limited experience as a person, he had no idea what kindergarten was. We took him to an ice cream social at his new school, let him meet his teacher, and, like that, the aggression disappeared.
Then when he started first grade he began showing signs of more extreme stress: nervous tics, inability to sleep long. “I never get a day off!” he would shout, and we felt the guilt, but we plugged on with his activities, having convinced ourselves that they were non-negotiable. He had to go to Japanese school, to keep up his language and culture. He had to study Chinese, to keep up his language and culture. He had to stay with soccer, to build up his physical strength and teamwork skills. We finally took him to a behavioral pediatrician, who said to us, “Fred’s fried. He’s not telling you with words, but he’s telling you with his body.”
I look back on that time – just a year ago – with shame. Shame because I’d prided myself on being such a good mother, a mother who can see her child through and through. But maybe what I need is not so much to see – especially only what I want to see – but to really hear, and to really listen.