The Broken Moral Compass

I’ve been thinking lately about what drives a person to walk into a church (or a theater, office building, school, etc.) and start indiscriminately killing people. Fortunately, I think few people can really grasp that level of depravity. After students committed murders on two school campuses recently, I keep coming back to the story about a thwarted plot here in Tennessee. Two 6th grade boys were planning to sneak weapons into their lockers and hide them until the last day of school, when they planned to kill as many students and teachers as possible before killing themselves. Luckily, the resource officer at their school heard rumors about their plan, followed up, and prevented a tragedy. No weapons were found on the boys or in their homes, and it is possible they would never have actually tried it. I’m grateful we’ll never know.

What were you doing in the 6th grade? I was trying to figure out how to be less awkward and how to avoid the biggest bully in my school. I was looking forward to running around outside after lunch and whatever was happening in PE that day (as long as it wasn’t the Presidential Physical Fitness Test or climbing that darn rope!). I was looking forward to getting home, having a good supper, and maybe watching a little television or working on whatever model aircraft I had going at the time. These boys were planning how to kill their classmates and teachers, as well as themselves. They’re 11 or 12 years old. How is it possible for a kid in the United States of America in 2019 to reach such a dark place at so young an age?  I wish I knew.

I know it is an incredibly complex issue, as are all things involved with human behavior. There are many factors which influence people in different ways. The news media, loathe to let a good tragedy go unexploited, tells us it’s because of poverty, guns, global warming, Trump, Bush, the NRA, and whatever else they’ve decided is a crisis on that particular day. Maybe there are aspects of some of those things at play. I think all this overlooks a bigger issue and one which may actually hold the key to preventing a lot of these problems: family.

The family unit, once the very foundation of American society, has been devalued for many years. Not so long ago when I was in high school, it was rare for a kid to not have both parents at home. Today, my wife (a high school teacher), has more students living with one parent, a grandparent, or other guardian, than those from a two-parent home. The divorce rate in this country is around 50 percent, at a time when the rate of marriages is decreasing. I understand there are many definitions of family. I know there are situations where it is healthier for all involved if one or both parents are out of the picture. Even in two parent households, too many kids are being raised by a device with a screen and not the parents. In addition, the media has been telling us for years how the father is a bumbler and isn’t necessary for a healthy household. I think they’re wrong.

Please understand I have nothing but respect for single parents who raise happy, well-adjusted kids. I know many who have done it and I honestly don’t know how you manage. Parenting is the hardest thing I’ve ever done and I don’t know how I would do it without my wife. So please don’t take anything I say in this piece personally. I’m not condemning you in any way.

A child’s moral compass is set very early by those around them. Ideally, it is set by the parents. There are so many lessons to be taught before the kid ever sees a classroom. By the time they get to school, they should have a good basis for how to treat other people. As they get older and are exposed to more people and more situations, the parents build on the early foundation with the help of teachers, clergy, and extended family members. Today, I wonder if the compass is being set in some cases. I’m sure there are some products of two parent homes who are monsters, just like there are lots of people who go on to do great things who grew up with only one parent at home. We were taught important lessons by both parents, one backing up the other if there was ever a question. My grandparents reinforced those lessons, as did a long list of teachers. Even the parents of our friends kept us straight! I think it was a better way to do things.

I’m not saying the family structure of a person is solely responsible for whether or not they commit a heinous crime, although I think it would be interesting to see if there is a statistical correlation. As I said before, it is a complicated issue and one not simply solved. But I have no doubt it matters. In the case of the sixth graders who wanted to murder their classmates, I don’t know what their home lives were like. I do know someone, or several people, failed to set a moral compass for those kids. Their failure could have been tragic.

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