"The Epidemic" — Chapter Excerpt

The Rot of American Culture, Absentee and Permissive Parenting, and the Resultant Plague of Joyless, Selfish Children

by Robert Shaw, M.D.

Chapter One

Stricken Children, Stricken Families

"You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth." — Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet (1923)

We are in crisis. Large numbers of children, even including those who could be considered privileged, are no longer developing the empathy, moral commitment, and ability to love necessary to maintain our society at the level that has always been our dream. The emotional, psychological, and moral well-being of the current generation of children has reached a frighteningly low point, and it's going to require a powerful shift in thinking to save them. A few short years ago we were in serious denial that there was such a problem, but recent catastrophic events in our society are forcing us to face the inevitable: our culture no longer offers what children need to truly thrive. Look around you. While happy families were once the norm, more and more often we see parents and children today rushing frenetically from one task to another — children whining, bickering, tantruming, pouting, parents nagging, complaining, and trying to ignore their unruly, surly offspring. Can you go to any store, restaurant, or library without seeing these joyless children screaming, throwing food, or pulling packages and books off shelves? Are you comfortable seeing such scenarios — or tempted to look the other way?

For some strange reason, our way of dealing with this has been not to look, not to notice, not to care. But we can no longer turn a blind eye: there is a mountain of evidence now telling us what's truly good — and really bad — for kids, and in this book I want to help you find the strength to do what has to be done so that you can raise happy, productive, and pleasurable children. I want to help you take a close hard look at your lifestyle, your values, your goals, and what your precious children could become. I want to help you create the kind of family environment necessary for their future — and nothing less than the future of civilization.

Our awareness that something bad was happening in our society became clearer on April 20, 1999, when, with serpentine coldness, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold slaughtered twelve fellow students and a teacher and injured twenty-three others in the once quiet halls of Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. Then came the horror of September 11, 2001: there isn't a person alive then who will forget the day religious radicals hijacked four passenger-filled planes and crashed them into the twin towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, killing thousands of innocent people and leaving a grieving nation of widows, orphans, relatives, friends, citizens.

Two separate horrors, conceived at opposite ends of the world: the idyllic, well-to-do suburbs of Colorado and the barren, sand-beaten deserts and caves of Afghanistan. What could these perpetrators and pivotal events possibly have in common. Both showed the extreme to which children can be led to develop. Both showed the merciless cruelty that can come from people who are alienated from themselves and lacking in empathy. Both sets of perpetrators were terrorists, many from privileged families: one group comprised Islamic fundamentalists hell-bent on holding the world hostage to their ideology; the others were younger but equally confused domestic terrorists, if you will, filled with hate and despair, also hell-bent on control and totally lacking in empathy. The religious radicals indifferently slaughtered strangers for an ideal; the alienated, angry, grandiose teenage shooters terrorized those they knew: friends, teachers, people who should have mattered to them. These were relationships that should have had value in their lives, yet they didn't. We can identify somewhat with crimes of rage; on some level we can imagine people becoming greedy or desperate enough to rob a bank or embezzle from their companies. But we cannot connect with senseless slaughter; the mind of the high school shooter is beyond our comprehension.

When you hold a baby in your arms and see her sweet face looking up at you, you hope and expect that she will naturally grow up to be a well-developed, compassionate person. However, it doesn't happen naturally -- children can be trained to a variety of outcomes, including these two tragic situations I just described. As a culture, we need to start noticing that the path to severe dysfunction is often subtle. I will help you identify what is causing this epidemic and encourage you to take a close, hard look at what you do yourself and how it affects your children. Like termites, the epidemic of problem behavior can silently burrow into your life and do great damage before it's discovered. if we as parents don't "train" our children in constructive, safe, and expressive ways of operating in our society, their natural drive to connect with someone or some idea may well lead them toward some of the most destructive behavioral manifestations. They'll be "trained" all right, but perhaps by wayward peers, gangs, the media, or radical religious cults.

Teachers and grandparents have been complaining for years that today's children are out of control, and Columbine made those concerns an overriding reality. The events of September 11 revealed how tragically wrong things can go when humans grow up devoid of empathy. We looked the other way -- until the behavior became so horrific that it could no longer be ignored. This book is meant to be such a wake-up call. The day of reckoning has arrived: we simply can't afford to raise our children this way.

We Determine Our Children's Future

Children are extremely malleable and plastic, and how we rear them is the major determinant of their outcome. I believe that the parenting trends that have evolved over the last thirty years promote the development of unattached, uncommunicative, leaming-impaired, and uncontrollable children. We are experiencing an epidemic of school problems, both learning and behavioral...

The foregoing is excerpted from The Epidemic by Robert Shaw. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022

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