Once again, the country is horrified by a violent school shooting. Parents are mourning the loss of their children, other parents wonder how to talk about this with their younger children. Once again, too, the larger conversation focuses on mental illness and school security. But something different is happening as well, which may be the one bright spot on the horizon. This time, children are speaking out on their own behalf.
This is a generation that has grown up in an era of mass shootings. Their school life has included practicing active shooter drills and huddling through lockdowns. Their experience is reminiscent of school days during the cold war in the 1950s when school drills were related to the fear of a nuclear bomb. But this is also a generation that has grown up with Twitter and Facebook as vehicles for the expression of opinion.
These students are now a force in the national debate over gun violence, calling attention to a need for gun control and using social media to make their views known to politicians. Part of the new high-tech world, they used their phones to make videos even as the shooting was happening, as one student said, to leave a record if he didn’t survive.
How widespread was this kind of student reaction? I had an opportunity to discuss this with two high school freshmen from a different part of the country. Both were 14, as were many of the students from Parkland. They started by expressing confidence in the better security of their own school — perhaps as a way of reassuring themselves about their own situation. They reported that the school entrance was kept locked and identification was required to be buzzed in. Also, a police guard is stationed at the school.
In terms of the reaction to this recent event in their school, they reported that the principal spoke to the students through the loud speaker but there was no further discussion in any of the classes they were in. One of the girls expressed her opinion that the teachers steer clear of anything that might be controversial, whether from concern about possible parent or school administration disapproval. They worry about not seeming neutral.
I said it seemed they could be neutral by presenting all points of view, such as that of those who believe the Second Amendment protects gun ownership rights. The student replied that they had never studied the Second Amendment — except in history class as part of more general teaching about the Constitution.
This same student had sent a tweet to a political figure criticizing a focus on mental illness rather than gun control. In her opinion blaming mental illness was a way of avoiding action related to needed control of guns. Both students reported that their fellow students seemed less aroused in calling for political action than the students reported on in the press.
It is understandable that young people directly affected by the recent school shooting would react both more emotionally and with a greater call for national action. The students with whom I spoke commented about how open the school hit seemed, and apparently took comfort in what felt to them like the greater security of their own school.
Nevertheless, striking is the degree to which young people today feel ready and able to speak out on their own behalf. Although adolescence is a time of self-assertion, often directed at parents in seeming rebellion, this appears to be a more constructive form of self-expression.
A generation often criticized for acting out, may instead be speaking out.
— Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: The Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: The Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at goodenoughmothering.com.