If a child is a killer, are the parents to blame?

Psychologist and author James Garbarino says the responsibility for teen violence must be shared.

By Damien Cave

Published September 6, 2001 7:25PM (EDT)

James Garbarino spends a lot of time with kids most people try to avoid. For close to 30 years -- since earning his Ph.D. at Cornell in human development -- he's counseled, interviewed and studied hundreds of deeply troubled, and often extremely aggressive, teens. Kids who have killed are his specialty. Gang-affiliated murderers, Gulf War veterans, kids who commit suicide or kill their fellow students out of irrational rage -- Garbarino takes an interest in them all. In fact, few psychologists can claim to have more experience in the research of young killers' motives, struggles and consequences. Garbarino is currently co-director of Cornell's Family Life Development Center.

After being immersed in the study of delinquency for three decades, Garbarino remains a child advocate who declines to directly condemn his subjects or demand harsher punishment for their crimes. He regularly testifies as an expert witness on behalf of teenagers accused of violent crimes, often arguing that young "criminals" are most often victims of circumstance. He has written frequently about the impact of abusive parents on their children's ability to respect human life; and denounced a "socially toxic" culture of televised violence, racism and poverty as a major contributor to the psychological confusion and angst of teenagers.

In his latest book -- "Parents Under Siege: Why You Are the Solution, Not the Problem in Your Children's Life" -- Garbarino makes a significant departure from his usual stance about the defining influences on troubled teens. Co-written with researcher Claire Bedard, this new book aims to comfort the parents of children who are violent, difficult or even murderous. Garbarino's last book, "Lost Boys," revealed the close correlation between abusive parenting and violent children; in "Parents Under Siege" he staunches the criticism, arguing that parents -- good or bad -- ultimately "are responsible but not to blame."

In the new book, Garbarino says that in today's post-Columbine environment, parents of problematic children are suffering an unjust, extreme attack. The public's caustic outrage over kids who kill has overflowed, he says, going beyond blaming the children to accusing their families, who in some cases are being sued for civil damages. Garbarino then goes on to show that the anti-parent ire is scientifically unjustified, that it attributes too much power to parents in a familial relationship. By shifting the blame, rather than taking contructive steps to end the violence, says Garbarino, we are forfeiting the opportunity to minister to troubled teens and eliminate the danger of youth violence.

Borrowing ideas that he first fleshed out in "Lost Boys" and "Raising Children in a Socially Toxic Environment," Garbarino stresses that children are shaped by forces both inside and outside the home. To truly prevent school shootings, suicide and gang violence, he says, educators, policymakers and parents themselves must accept that some children enter the world with temperaments that predispose them to aggression, and that cultural forces can often trump even the most positive parental influence. Violent video games, overcrowded schools, poverty, gang violence and other factors can all add to a child's "tower of risk," and no matter how hard parents try, some kids will simply topple over.

Still, should parents be able to completely separate themselves from their children's actions? Should the proverbial buck stop with our "socially toxic" culture or with those who are charged with regulating how children interact with it? And are there solutions that can be easily applied to help violent teens and improve parents' lives?

In San Francisco for a brief visit, Garbarino took some time to talk about the myriad ways that children become overwhelmed and violent; and how parents can become more of a solution than a problem for their struggling kids.

Your book is dedicated to the parents of Colombine killer Dylan Klebold. You met with them while writing this book, and the work feels like an attempt to comfort them. How far should this comfort go? Do you think they are in any way responsible for their son's actions?

Let me explain something about the situation with the Klebolds. There's a statement in the book about the lawsuits, saying that the claims have been settled. But I just heard from the lawyers a few days ago that they aren't all settled, and that they really don't want me talking directly about the Klebolds until they are. So I have to be very circumspect about what I say.

But I can certainly say that what happened to the Klebolds is an extreme case of something quite common. That's the premise of this book -- that there are millions of parents who love their kids, who spend time with their kids, who care about their kids. And nonetheless, the kids end up in big trouble: Some commit suicide, get involved with drugs, get involved with violence; others are obnoxious and difficult to have around. So the Klebolds are an extreme case of what's very common.

But do you think that parents of children like Klebold have any responsibility for their children's actions, criminal or otherwise?

There's a line in the book that says "parents are responsible but not to blame," which means that these parents will have to live forever with the fact that their kids murdered, or killed themselves. So every parent is responsible. My kids are grown, but I still feel responsible for them. You can go back after the fact and say, "Well, look, here are things that parents did. Had they done this instead of that, there might have been a different outcome." And you can certainly say that parents are responsible in that sense. The actions they took contributed to what happened.

But when you go further and say that parents are to blame, I think you have to be able to show that what they did violated the norms of acceptable parenting and that they knew it was going to have this consequence -- or should have known.

For example, when my parents drove me around in the early 1950s, I didn't sit in a car seat. Had I been killed, should they have been blamed? Well, they're certainly responsible because it's their child, and that child wasn't in a car seat. But nobody would say my parents were to blame, because in 1952 there wasn't any expectation or knowledge or standard of care for children in cars. To me, that's a deciding moment.

Like in my book "Lost Boys," it would be much easier to say those parents -- the ones who abused and neglected their children -- are to blame because they're ruining those kids, torturing those kids. But "Parents Under Siege" is different; it's really about the fact that parents' knowledge is imperfect, their self-awareness is imperfect.

So if parents don't deserve 51 percent of the blame, who or what should be held accountable? You argue that a child's personality is formed through a mix of three things -- temperament, socioeconomic environment and parents -- but are any of these forces more important than the others?

It depends. For example, if you had a child born with Down syndrome and you ask why, you'd have to say it's because of an extra chromosome. But if you're talking about whether that kid ends up with an IQ of 60 vs. an IQ of 40, that's probably mainly due to the kind of treatment and care he gets from the parents.

If you ask, what is the likelihood that the Down syndrome kid is going to be a thug, or vicious and violent? That has a lot to do with the kind of television he watches.

Speaking of television, you're obviously not a big fan. You write in both "Parents Under Siege" and in "Lost Boys" that "the effect of televised violence is about as strong as the effect of smoking on cancer." I can't think of a stronger cause and effect relationship for cancer, so what it sounds like you're saying is that children are more influenced by television than by their parents. Do you really think television is that powerful?

The point is that televised violence accounts for anywhere from 10 to 15 percent of variation in behavior, depending on which studies and when they occurred. So the question is: Does parental influence account for more than that? Maybe. Probably, at least in some situations. Certainly if you get to extreme situations [in which parents torture their children or teach them to do violent acts], they do. But if you're talking about mainstream regular parents, parents who love their children and don't fall outside the norm, probably not.

In fact there was a study a while back that compared the cause and effect relationship of TV violence on kids' aggression with the effects of smoking on cancer, condom use on getting STDs, calcium intake on osteoporosis. And TV violence was more strongly related [to actual violence] than all of those other factors were to significant health issues. The only one with a correlation that rivals it, according to the study, was smoking and lung cancer.

Is it just a matter of dilution? Are parents weaker now because there is so much more outside influence on their children?

Sure, because prior to the advent of broadcast TV, television programming wasn't a player in family relationships -- other players had a proportionally bigger role. And if you remove the recent rise of big high schools packed with hundreds, even thousands, of kids, it's the same situation. So historically, yeah, that's a good way to look at it: It's a question of who's at the table. You clearly see this developmentally. Parents are much more influential in early childhood than in adolescence, when a child has peers, and the school and the culture become dominant.

To the extent that they have an influence, what is the most common mistake that nonabusive, nonneglectful, so-called normal parents make?

If you take out the hardcore people [the abusive parents], the well-intentioned people who read parenting books probably err on the side of blurring their authority and not being strong enough. My favorite example is the young parents who consistently turn statements into questions by adding "OK?" "It's time for dinner, OK?" Well, which is it, time for dinner or not?

Partly to soften their demands and because they don't want to seem too authoritarian, parents do this all the time. What they don't realize is that they're undermining their own authority and in the long run they're going to need that authority. When a child is 3 or 4 or 5, you can say, "We're going on the plane now, OK?" "We're going to Grandma's now, OK?" But when they're 14, and you say, "Be home by 9 o'clock," and you don't say, "OK?" the kids say, "Hey, who are you to tell me what to do?"

Some psychologists -- such as Lynn Ponton, author of "The Sex Lives of Teenagers" -- argue that the "teen crisis" is largely a figment of these easygoing parents' imagination. Is it possible that today's boomer parents obsessively reflect on their own risk taking, exaggerate it and project their own fears onto their children?

I look to things like the Achenbach study [which attempts to establish the percentage of American children who have psychological problems that warrant professional help]. That study doesn't ask parents questions that are as subjective and broad as "Is your child crazy," or "Does he need counseling?" It poses a very specific list of "does he/she do this? questions. There are 112 or 113 items. And using the same checklist over a period of 15 years, you come up with 10 percent of the group having enough problems to qualify for professional help in 1974. By 1989, it's 20 percent.

But isn't it possible that the rise in the number of children needing professional help can be attributed to a heightened willingness -- on the part of parents and children -- to talk about difficult emotional issues? We live in a much more confessional culture.

Actually, it's very hard to attribute the rise to a greater awareness or sensitivity because the study is very behavior specific. It asks questions like: Does your child have stomachaches? Is your child cruel to animals?

And even if it establishes that a minority of children need serious help, it's a minority of troubled kids that is big enough to be of financial, moral and political concern. And the opportunities for troubled kids to do dangerous things has increased a lot, particularly with guns and drugs in the mix.

What's the best way to help these children who are violent? If you could remove one of these socially "toxic" forces, what should it be?

I'd remove the guns, just to make things physically safer. Set Dylan [Klebold] and Eric [Harris] in Canada and they're still troubled, but the likelihood that they would have pulled off the massacre drops by a lot. I think the psychological and physical availability of guns is a very dangerous element when you add these other things -- like violent television and large schools, for instance. So finding some way to keep guns away from children would certainly be at the top of my list, making the troubled kids safer -- for everyone.

In terms of solutions, you note that an obvious aid to troubled youth would be smaller schools. What other policy ideas do you recommend?

Well, less TV is one suggestion. More involvement in structured activities is better than hanging out. Being involved in spiritually promoting activities and institutions is better than being in a purely materialistic institutional setting. Acceptance is clearly better than rejection. So I think you can come up with a whole set of things that work, that keep at least some children from becoming violent and antisocial.

Many of these approaches work best when applied to young children, but what about wilderness boot camps as a possible solution? These are extremely expensive and have come under fire for allegedly extreme treatment recently. Where else can beleaguered parents find help?

Certainly, my book stresses that parents have a first go at this at the early childhood preventive level, understanding that you can adapt to the child you have and avoid getting off track. Then there's another go at it in the elementary years, when you see the emergence of the things that are troubling. Then in adolescence, you're facing it more as a crisis. And as you rightly point out, boarding schools and wilderness camps are very expensive. But some people take out second mortgages on their houses, or totally reorganize their finances, so it isn't only affluent parents who are making use of these programs. And there are programs that are subsidized by the government, or by private organizations, so certainly one thing you can do is explore the options for getting your child a change of venue -- to stop the downward spiral.

There are also some cognitive programs that can be practiced in a child's home, and many communities have an agency that provides therapy for kids who have conduct disorder, or who are on their way to conduct disorder. So there are opportunities out there.

On a personal level, you advise parents to be sympathetic, but also to lay down boundaries. How can parents find the balance between these two contradictory forces?

The problem with rules is that the temperamental variations in children make it very hard for rules to have the same impact on a variety of kids. That's why there's an emphasis in one of the chapters on two kinds of expertise: the one you have about your child in particular, and a more general expertise about children. If you really study your child, you'll have some ideas about how to apply rules; you'll know where the line goes. You do need to communicate absolute acceptance of the child and you have to set limits.

How you do those two things at once depends a lot on knowing the child: A really sensitive child can be influenced with one glance; with another you have to really get in their face. So that's the complexity of the situation, and it's inescapable.

Spirituality seems to play a major role in your plan to help troubled youth. How spiritual do people -- and parents in particular -- need to be?

There are three components. First, you have to recognize that life means something more than the physical living of it, that there's some larger meaning beyond the body. Second, as a result of acknowledging a larger meaning, you have a concept of the sacred, a part of life that you should feel reverence for. And third, you should have a sense of being part of a bigger picture than just what's in front of your eyes.

For most people, organized religion is the context in which these components are recognized, but for others religion is not particularly useful. If your experience is just institutional and based on activities, that doesn't make it particularly spiritual. And people who don't ever go to church, but communicate and have a reverence for life, and believe that life has a purpose, can still qualify as people who have a minimum but vital level of spirituality.

But the idea of the sacred -- I think that's the key. Are there sacred rituals in a family's routine? Sacred places in the house or community? Sacred times that require silence or special actions? Are there experiences that you have with kids, in which they'll say, "Why can't we do this?" and the answer is, "Because it's a time or place or thing important in the universe so we have to treat it as such."

Focusing on these sacred things is important because it provides an anchor for when you build a tower of risk. It helps minimize the power of problems that build up on the tower of risk. It helps parents remain calm in the midst of adversity. Remembering and respecting the sacred reminds them that their child has a soul, not just a troublesome body.

Does your insistence on spirituality leave the nonreligious in the cold?

Well, there are highly spiritual people who would say that they're atheists. I used to be very involved in the Unitarian Universalist Church, and we had a lot of atheists who would go to church every week. They usually had some sense of a universal spirit or something.

It is possible to organize society around nonspiritual structures of meaning. And that's why I always try to use words like that -- structures of meaning -- because that's what matters. It's not so much atheism vs. theism as it is meaningfulness vs. meaninglessness.

I still feel like this book was soft on parents: How can they take credit for the good and not for the bad? How can they have both?

They can't. The problem is that people want to take full complete credit for the good things and that's as unrealistic as blaming themselves for all the bad things. Spiritual orientation gives a sense of limits, including one's own limits -- for better or for worse -- and an appreciation of the fact that the child you end up with has a lot to do with how easy it is to help them be successful.

The section in "Parents Under Siege" on compassion looms bigger and bigger in my mind. I don't know if you followed the case of Nathaniel Brazil, the 13-year-old in Florida who shot a teacher. I testified in his sentencing hearing a few weeks ago, and it really highlighted what the Dalai Lama says about compassion. He says that "Compassion should be based on understanding not on sentiment" and this is a perfect example.

The teacher who was killed apparently was a wonderful lovely guy; a friend who testified said he was the "Gandhi of Lake Worth, Fla." Now this was very ironic because Gandhi represents strength but compassion, and one of the friends of this Gandhi said he thought that the kid [who killed him] should go to jail for the rest of his life and be raped and tortured continuously.

So I'm trying to reconcile Gandhi with rape and torture of a 13-year-old because he killed him. And then I realize that it really highlights the point that if these people who became friends with this teacher had met Nathaniel before he committed the murder -- because he was one of their friend's students -- they would have had compassion for him. They would have had sentiment. The minute he killed their friend, they lose the positive sentiment and replace it with negative. But they still don't have understanding of this kid, so they're left with vindictiveness, revenge and rage rather than compassion.

This is why I think that if parents understand that you can't claim as much credit for the good stuff, then it's also why you don't blame the Klebolds as much for the bad stuff. There are other influences that loom very large; and we're all imperfect.

Damien Cave

Damien Cave is an associate editor at Rolling Stone and a contributing writer at Salon.

MORE FROM Damien Cave

Related Topics ------------------------------------------