As a teacher and a mom I’ve had to dole out justice and hope for the wisdom of Solomon on many occasions. It’s perhaps the least pleasant aspect of either job but one that is impossible to avoid. Sooner or later a young person will cross a line that demands attention and decisions about how to make the moments teachable. Loving a person means having honest and instructive interactions with them when they have done wrong. Finding the appropriate reaction whether it be counseling or punishment or both is often a painful process for everyone, but as anyone who has worked with children knows simply ignoring blatant infractions is lethal. Finding the sweet spot that changes wayward behavior in a fair and consistent manner can be like navigating a field of land mines. Every teacher and parent has lain awake from time to time wondering how to make meaningful decisions regarding the rehabilitation of a youngster who has gone astray.
I’ll never forget a documentary that I watched decades ago. It featured three men who were on death row for murder and asked the question of what had led them to that place. Each case was a bit different but the most glaring commonality of all three men was that their bad behavior had been enabled again and again from the time they began committing minor crimes as children until the fateful moments when they took other persons’ lives.
One man in particular sobbed as he asked why nobody had made the effort to stop him before he had destroyed his own life. In a kind of twisted logic he described how his first offense had occurred when he stole the bicycle of a neighbor friend when he was only seven years old. He said that nothing happened to him as it should have. Instead the adults in his life laughed about it as though it was no big deal, leading him to believe it was something everyone does. At that moment he felt that he had been given the green light to become more daring and so he stole a car when he was only thirteen. This time he was punished by spending a few weeks in an alternative learning center but little else happened. His next foray was in robbing a convenience store for which he received a sentence of a couple of years which were commuted to less than a year. As he described his situation he kept asking why nobody really made an effort to help him understand that he should have stopped when he stole the bicycle. He wondered why nobody had cared enough to be certain that he understood how wrong his actions had been because the next time he thought he might get away with what he saw as a petty crime he carried a gun and shot a police officer.
Most adults understand that bad actions from young people must be nipped in the bud but all too often there is a temptation to leave the moment before the process of understanding and true contrition has been resolved. Other times the punishment is so severe and abusive that it fails to address the learning outcome that should have happened and instead creates anger and rage inside the offender. It takes time, patience and genuine concern for the good of the person who has committed bad actions to result in positive changes that create a stronger and better human.
From the time of Adam and Eve and their sons Cain and Abel we humans have transgressed but we have also proven ourselves capable of positive transformation. In every case there has been a person who took the time to show an individual the error of his/her ways and then devise a process of meaningful restitution along with a dose of counseling and introspection. Holding people responsible for their actions can and should be a positive learning experience with just enough honesty and penance to ensure that they do not simply believe that they got away with something that was obviously wrong.
History has proven that when we look the other way when someone’s behavior is problematic they almost always escalate their actions until we either have had enough or they have done something that is impossible to ignore. Before Eric Harris entered Columbine High School armed and intent on killing fellow students he had created many problems both at school and within his community. Because he was charming and a fast talker those tasked with punishing him tended to let him off lightly and underestimate the depth of his degradation. When one of his English teachers became frightened by the essays that he wrote she alerted school administrators who laughed and insisted that it was just the imaginative boasting of a typical teen. When he was caught with stolen items he received probation that was not even successfully completed because the counselor working with him felt that he had truly learned his lessons. At the same time he was recording in his journal that he had totally fooled her. When another student and his father went to the school to report concerns about Eric they were told that since Eric had not seemed to do anything wrong there was nothing they could do. Eric Harris slipped through the cracks with a ready smile and people’s reluctance to understand that by never really holding him accountable they were step by step enabling him to become the monster that he became.
As a society we need to do our best to catch people at the very first moment when they do wrong and take all the necessary steps of both teaching and punishing to help them to change rather than to develop a habit of believing that they are untouchable. We should be wary of any adult who through money, power or adulation boasts of being free from the the guard rails that keep the rest of us in line. There is something very sick and disturbing about fearing either a child or another adult so much that we smile and continuously enable behavior that we know to be wrong. If we truly love someone we will stop them and take away their opportunities to break the laws and mores of a civil society. The sooner we do that, the more likely it is that they will become good and decent people. Sadly we have not been too good at doing that lately and the results are becoming more and more dangerous to our well being. It’s time we became more willing to do the difficult work of saving a life before it becomes too late