I just finished a recommended book by Susan Francis Klebold: A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy. It’s not an easy-breezy fun read; it is heavy and it exposes so many emotions about certain behaviors that are hidden in plain sight. It took days to read the book but the lessons will stay with me for a long time as I now see certain aspects of life through a different lens. There are certain nightmares schools, parents, children, and communities should never have to experience, yet they persist. Sue Klebold’s son, Dylan Klebold along with his friend, Eric Harris were the perpetrators of the 1999 Columbine School massacre. Sue Klebold for a long time blamed herself as others blamed her for her son’s grievous and permanent mistakes. When I came across this story years ago, I also prejudged the parents of these boys for their poor parenting skills. How did they not know their kids were planning to end not just their worlds but the worlds of others? How?
After reading this book, I came to this conclusion: Parents are not their children.
My father is an extrovert and my mother is an introvert. They complement themselves nicely. They raised us to pray, say please, sorry, and thank you. Also to participate in life, be productive members of the society, serve and help others, and be our brothers’ keepers. Looking back at my childhood, I would say I have been prepared for the pandemic from a very tender age. I lived a melancholic sedentary lifestyle for a while, choosing to hang out in my solitary world without interruption from friends or family. I isolated myself and would only come out of my shell temporarily when it suited me. I would lash out at family, friends, and even strangers who tried to include me in any social activity because it meant coming out of secludedness, which was a comfort zone for me. I was athletic in elementary, middle, and high school but I only became sociable in high school. Even then, I was still closeted, taciturn, and problematic to a fault. Looking back, it scares me to think what might have become of me if I did not grow out of that behavior. None of my siblings were like me, they were easy-going and good-natured. I dampen my early years to a degree because I do not want to be looked at with a magnifying glass. But it wasn’t one I was proud of. Like most people who are introverted, whenever I was depressed (be it low-grade depression or whatever form it presented itself) I held it in. I hid it very well, usually behind the facade that if I could help someone else, I could in turn help myself. But I have learned that depression should not be fed, instead we should guide ourselves away from it by seeking help no matter how daunting the task might be. Regardless of the way we were raised, several factors can influence who we turn out to be. Do not just think about pliable nature versus immutable nature—the circumference is wider.
I don’t blame anyone who has chosen to live or exist in an indestructible bubble of ignorance. But like inflammation, the world around you is turning red and swelling. It is wise to shed light on your ignorance to dispel the notion that because you live a certain way, bad things will never happen to you. The unpredictability of life is what makes life so bearable and unbearable at the same time. Sue Klebold said, “there is a miniature gyroscope in each of us, searching for equilibrium and maintaining our orientation.” That equilibrium can become unbalanced at any point, leaving us exposed.
Parents are not their children.
I have essential tremors and more migraine days that I can begin to explain to you. I turned to my mother in my time of distress when I feared my health may be greatly impacted and my brain was giving up on me. It may have been a gross exaggeration on my path but I was fearful, so I poured out my fear on the one who gave birth to me. My mother encouraged me to drink water every morning, in fact, all the time. She looked up various healthy remedies online because she knows I don’t like medication. She even began to send me prayer points. We were conversing a few days ago and I told her how she did not encourage us to drink water until later in our lives. It was not meant to be an accusation; it was just a thing we were not raised to do. She said to me and I loosely quote, interpreting it in my way: I parented the best way I knew how to, making it up as I went along. No one told me to drink water either. Everything I knew then and know now, and will know, I will teach you.
Without a doubt, my parents have done their best to raise my siblings and me the right way and for that, I am indebted to them. But—what is the right way to parent a child? To ensure that they never go down the irreversible path of destruction? Dylan Klebold’s mother said, “I parented the best way I knew to parent the child I knew—not the one he had become without my knowledge.” While it is tantamount that parents pay attention to the friends their kids hang out with, they can not always be with their kid 24/7. These kids grow up and get jobs, make friends, and are influenced by external factors that are beyond the control of their parents. Indeed, we don’t always recognize behaviors that may be indicative of risks. You can give birth to a child and instill love, light, right and wrong, and kindness in them but you can not control who they turn out to be. You can only hope for the best. Sometimes, people do things in spite of the way they were raised, not because of it. There is so much that has been done in terms of research, treatment plans, medication, therapy, and otherwise to combat a myriad of brain illnesses. But if people aren’t pliable to the help available, every effort will be for naught.
For instance, I have expressed certain worries to my parents over the years (sometimes adamantly) but I have never told them that I was depressed. I have always been worried that my parents, friends, and family would not understand. And that they would appease the worry or anxiety instead of pursuing it. Instead of trying to figure out “how” this came to be, they’ll be too focused on “why” I am depressed. How many times have we told people how we felt and instead of truly helping, they gave us that universal response—it will be okay, you’re not the only one going through it, call if you need anything. Some say these words passively of course because not everyone means it. It is no wonder people keep matters of mental health to themselves. They don’t want the uniformed response, they don’t want to burden people and honestly, certain people may not understand because all brains are wired differently. As I started studying to become a school counselor, I realized that not everyone approaches the delicate matter of depression, brain illness, and other forms of mental health issues the same way. I used to bask in the light of advising people instead of just listening. No, I don’t have it all together and should not constantly pass on what I would do in a certain situation to others. I have learned to guide people towards the answers they seek instead of giving them the answer. Because I now understand that behavior is the result of a complex interaction between nature and nurture. People have to believe that regardless of these complexities, they are capable of making healthy decisions about their lives.
Parents are not their children.
This statement does not alleviate any stress on the parents or is in any way suggesting that parents are not responsible for their offsprings. As Sue Klebold said and I agree to the maximum: parents should listen more instead of lecturing. Parents should acknowledge the feelings of their kids instead of trying to talk their kids out of it. Like a bird on the ground, parents should approach brain health and brain illness carefully. While it has become increasingly difficult to decipher certain behaviors because adolescents, teenagers, adults, and the elderly will go to extreme lengths to hide what they don’t want their loved ones to see—it is like stranger danger, when you do see something, say something. Don’t ignore it or think it will go away. Sometimes, the mildest signs and changes in behaviors may be a symptom of an even greater issue. I am not encouraging anyone to become a helicopter parent or harass people into exposing their vulnerabilities. But the person most likely to suffer from a destructive impulse is usually the one who has it and those around them can be greatly affected too. You see, brain illness is like a ticking time bomb and if it’s not treated, one day it will denote, sometimes taking you with it, many times taking others with you, but all the time—leaving scars, sorrows, and questions in its wake. Carefully analyze behaviors when you come in contact with them. If you have no clue, get a clue by seeking answers from professionals. Sue Klebold ended her inexplicably painful and eye-opening book by stating that “one thing is certain: when we can do a better job of helping people before their lives are in crisis, the world will become safer for all of us.“ There should not be a stigma around brain illness because it is also an indication of an unhealthy person. If your brain is healthy you are healthy; if your brain is not healthy you are ill. The same way you go to the dentist and doctor for checkups, you should also be able to talk about your brain health without fear of stigmatization. When a person’s sense of reality is greatly impaired, we begin the harrowing job of turning a pile of broken bricks into a solid structure after they have fallen. But if we remove the stigma around any form of mental illness, we may be able to prevent it before we have to cure it. Amen.
Parents are not their children.
When I read about Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, Columbine High School massacre, etc—I blamed their parents as most of us do. After all, if their parents raised them well, they would not have become monsters. I clearly remember Ted Bundy’s mother, Eleanor Louise Cowell refusing to accept the sins of her son because that was not the way he was raised. After reading Sue Klebold’s story and crying painfully with her, I began to understand that we are not just calling the people who perpetrate violence ‘monsters’ but also calling their parents monsters as well. Ted Bundy did not look like a monster, neither did Dylan Klebold. While I am not comparing these two people or their atrocities, I am stating that evil is not written on the faces of anyone. You can not decipher an evil person from one who is not by merely looking at them, neither can you decipher the intentions of men when it is hidden in their hearts. Calling anyone a monster means you can see their evil intentions written on their faces and that will be a colossal misjudgment. In the book, it was stated that there is a confusing borderline between evil and disease. There are so many factors that come into play when a child goes from a loving son to a high school shooter. Assassinating the characters of the parents of people (adolescents and adults alike) who have committed unforgivable grievances is also digging graves for them for the sins their children committed. Many times, these parents have atoned and repented on behalf of their children even when they did not know their children were harboring disturbing secrets. When the Columbine shooting happened, a lot of people said it would have been better if Eric and Dylan had not been born. But these were people’s children, whose parents loved and cared for. It would have been better if they sought help and not committed a murder-suicide act. But now I know, it would have not been better for the parents, if these children had not been born. Not all parents are emblematic of erroneous parenting. Sue Klebold said, “Eric wanted to hurt people and didn’t care if he died, and Dylan wanted to die and didn’t care who died as well.” In the end, these are kids who on top of the violence they committed, also killed themselves. Think about the pain some parents go through—when they don’t see the signs of truculent behaviors as a huge cause for concern until it’s too late. Violence against anyone is inconceivable and I too like Sue Klebold is amazed at where the line between conscience versus cold-bloodedness is—and how people go over that threshold towards severe and intractable violence—violence in such a final way.
Parents are not their children.
Children make awful choices, harbor awful secrets, and sometimes make awful mistakes. Oftentimes, no matter what parents do, their children slip away from them. But we can be vigilant and watchful, making sure that we detect signs, ask questions when unsure, attend seminars, stay up to date with the news, and dispel the thought that this could never happen to you—because violence does not ask for permission. Life can become replete with new significance because people are capable of change. Parents should make it okay for their kids to be able to come to them about anything or to their school counselors in school. We should not encourage the culture of bullying—while the smallest teasing may seem harmless to one, it does not seem harmless to another. Exposure to suicide or suicidal behaviors can influence other vulnerable people. The most vulnerable people are at special risks of exposure and should not have to watch explicit details of horrendous acts of violence. While kids should be educated on what could happen, they shouldn’t have to see step by step how to make it happen on social media or from news reports. Let’s not make a fetish out of violence.
Just as hatred does not obliterate love, parents are not their children.
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