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Should Parents Be Blamed For School Shootings? Here's What The Facts Say

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The school shooting in Parkland, Florida has unified this all-too-divided country in fear and anger. Unfortunately, that's where our unity ends. As with every other important social issue, we're divided. Emotionally, we have no idea how to grapple with the scope of these tragedies and, as a result, concoct simple answers that aren't necessarily practical but feel good screaming into the void of the internet. One of those angst-filled rants includes blaming parents for school shootings and, in particular, parents' inability to "properly discipline their children." Well, with all due respect, STFU about discipline and school shootings. Like, now.

I could show you innumerable versions of this particular hot take — from social media personalities and mostly conservative-leaning publications, online or otherwise — but I won't, in part because I don't want those folks to rack up benefits from additional views or clicks. But the other reason I'm choosing not to link is because I don't believe I have to. We've all seen them, right? If not from a notable writer or online personality then from that lady we were friends with in high school who's been going on about it on Facebook or Twitter. Or, perhaps, it's you.

"This didn't happen when I was growing up! Kids today get no discipline."

"I grew up with guns but I'd never have hurt anyone with it, because I knew my dad would whoop my ass!"

"I would never even question my parents! If they told me to do something I knew I'd better do it! I'd certainly never shoot up a school!"

"We're all so concerned about not hurting people's feelings and spanking being 'child abuse' that we don't give kids the tough discipline they need!"

"In my day kids had respect and if you didn't you got the belt!"

In other words, the idea is: "Discipline is good. Discipline should be harsh and constant and often physical. One should not shy from corporal punishment. People don't do this anymore and that's why our children are dying at school."

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I get it: we're all hurting. We all want school shootings and senseless gun violence to stop and have different ideas about how to effect sweeping, long-term change. We all want the lump in our throats to go away when we send our children to school. So, most of us agree, we need to put our heads together and come up with a plan of action. There are suggestions I (vehemently) disagree with, but I can at least understand where someone is coming from and that they at least mean well. "Arm teachers," for example. I think it's wrong-headed, impractical, and dangerous, but I can see where one could say, "Well, if those who would do us harm have guns, maybe it would be a good idea to meet fire with fire." Again, I disagree — largely because I don't think school policy should be based on the same thought process as war zones — but, OK, no bad ideas when you're brainstorming, right? But this whole, "It's weak-willed parents who won't discipline their children that's turning kids today into snowflakes and sociopaths" mentality is something I cannot accept as part of this debate. It's based on absolutely no evidence, is often contradictory, it plays to our worst instincts, it's judgmental, unproductive, and, if anything, proven false by empirical data.

From time immemorial, adults solidly entrenched in adulthood have enjoyed mocking young people on the cusp of it, often with the same barrage of generalized complaints.

From time immemorial, adults solidly entrenched in adulthood have enjoyed mocking young people on the cusp of it, often with the same barrage of generalized complaints. "Kids today" are lazy, entitled, arrogant, and not nearly as tough and heroic as their noble forebears. The blame, then as it is now, often fell at the feet of their parents who (according to the Leeds Mercury in 1939) "frequently failed in their obvious duty to teach self-control and discipline to their own children." The fact that every generation complains about youths should give us a big clue that these sweeping generalizations about entire swathes of children is bullsh*t. The far more logical explanation, to quote The Breakfast Club: "The kids haven't changed, you have."

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Another thing that hasn't changed? Discipline. A nationwide survey conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago asked whether people agreed or disagreed with the statement "a good, hard spanking is sometimes necessary to discipline a child." An overwhelming majority — 70 percent — agreed. Depending on region, that number could be as high as 80 percent. So the idea that "kids today" just need a "good hard spanking"? Well, statistically they've probably been on the receiving end of such measures and, well, we're still here.

Let's say this survey is wrong, though. Let's say everyone who answered was lying and none of our kids are receiving stern discipline. Even in this (baseless) scenario, there's strong evidence to indicate that school shootings cannot be stopped by the stern "my will is your reason" mode of parenting.

So, no, raising kids to be unquestioning little robots who live in fear of the back of a parents' hand is pretty solidly not going to stop bad behavior or poor social outcomes.

In 1966 psychologist Diana Baumrind first brought up the idea of three prototypical parenting styles: permissive, authoritative, and authoritarian. Permissive parents are pretty self-explanatory, in that they're the parents who play sort of hard and fast with rules and don't necessarily present themselves as an authority figure in their child's life. They're warm, but don't really expect much of their child in terms of self-regulation or obedience. (Think Regina George's mom in Mean Girls.)

Authoritative parents are child-centered parents who expect a lot from their kids and have boundaries in place, but who encourage independence and do not shy from "extensive verbal give and take." In other words, they are willing to take the time to listen to and reason with their children. They're the kind of parents to "talking about feelings" that the "blah! more discipline" set seems to abhor.

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Then there's authoritarian parents, whom Baumrind described as "obedience and status-oriented, and expect their orders to be obeyed without explanation." Verbal give and take is unheard of. They believe authority and tradition should be unquestioningly respected for their own sake and that even questioning this model of behavior is worthy of punishment, which is harsh and often physical.

Now, when I see people going apoplectic about kids not respecting authority figures the woeful lack of physical punishment, I'll go out on a limb and say that this falls into an authoritarian parenting model. But numerous studies around the world have shown that children raised by authoritarian parents are statistically more likely to suffer behavioral problems, are more likely to become involved in bullying (on both sides of the equation), be less resourceful and socially adept, and have greater difficulty with self-regulation and moral reasoning.

It seems the only place the shooter was simply allowed to breeze through without trouble or consequence was a gun shop.

So, no, raising kids to be unquestioning little robots who live in fear of the back of a parents' hand is pretty solidly not going to stop bad behavior or poor social outcomes. In fact, in the paper put out by the National Science Foundation in response to the shooting at Sandy Hook in Newtown, Connecticut, harsh parenting was cited as a (single) risk factor (among many) for "school rampage shooters."

Lest I be accused of hyperbole, let me be the first to say that most kids raised by authoritarian parents are going to turn out fine. In fact, I can name a whole bunch of wonderful, contributing members of society who were raised by authoritarian parents whom I love dearly. (#SomeOfMyBestFriendsWereRaisedByAuthoritarians) But evidence shows that they "turned out fine" in spite of such a strict upbringing, not because of it.

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Another narrative about discipline and school shootings particular to Parkland is that shooter was simply allowed to breeze through life without any consequences whatsoever, and that no one did anything about his behavior even though they recognized warning signs of large-scale violence. A few problems with this, though. Let's start with his home life, of which we know very little. What we do know is that his mother was in touch with the school about her son's behavioral problems and had been for years preceding her death. She frequently called the cops on her child which, to me, points the some pretty extreme willingness to enforce discipline. The school system in Parkland had been familiar with the shooter's issues for years and, by all accounts, took him and the threat of violence he posed very seriously. He was eventually expelled from school, which, as far as I know, is the most extreme disciplinary action a school can take against a student.

As for whether his classmates "saw something and said something" (though I'll remind those who would blame children for their own victimization that it's not their responsibility to "discipline" their peers), to quote badass Emma Gonzales, a survivor of the shooting "We did, time and time again. Since he was in middle school." It seems the only place the shooter was simply allowed to breeze through without trouble or consequence was a gun shop.

In 178 years, 568 lives have been sacrificed on the altar of our flustered and stubborn inaction.

I also hear this disciplinary argument come from the same people who would say that this isn't a gun issue, it's a "mental health" issue. Of course, mental wellness is an issue that is critically under-addressed in this country (though it seems to come up around mass shootings a whole lot more when said shooter is white, which I find very interesting). But tying this idea with the idea that properly disciplining children holds the key to our salvation is absurd. You can't "discipline" mental illness out of someone. If mental illness could be "cured" like that we'd have far fewer mentally ill people and have people lining up around the block to be disciplined. People have been trying this one for centuries and it hasn't worked once.

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School shootings are not new to the United States. Since 1840, there have been 1,374 recorded deaths and injuries from guns in schools. The frequency of these events, unfortunately, only seems to be growing. In the past 20 years alone has seen almost half of the 478 incidents of gun violence in this country. In 178 years, 568 lives have been sacrificed on the altar of our flustered and stubborn inaction.

I do not contend that this is a simple issue, or that there is one just-out-of-reach magical solution that can put an end to this societal ill. The causes are myriad and the remedies difficult to enact effectively, but we must begin the work. This is a gun issue. This is a mental illness issue. This is a school funding issue. This is an empathy issue. But as good as it might feel to think, "If this were my kid I would have put a stop to this before it started," there is little-to-no evidence to suggest that this phenomenon in general, and Parkland in particular, is a discipline issue.