Sins of the Child?

I suspect that none of us who have parented children to adulthood would like to have the international press corps sift through that peoples’ opinions of our parenting as well as whatever public records they might locate to give them “insight” to how we had performed in our task.  Should it turn out that our child was responsible for harming people, and thus that the press corps had a particular narrative to pursue in which they could identify where we had erred, we would be even less enthusiastic.

Demonization is in full swing, as it always is in the wake of mass killings.  The ubiquitous narrative is Manichaean: “evil caused innocents to die,” and that narrative is all the more powerful when the dead are young children.  So the scribes dutifully serve up the pre-digested, comfortable narrative, and are thereby able, in some measure, to make sense of the senseless.

In the wake of the Connecticut school shooting Liza Long, the mother of a troubled boy with autism spectrum disorder, wrote a piece that attracted considerable readership titled “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother.”  In it she describes the difficulties she is having raising her now 13 year old son; the doubts she had that she is doing it well; the doubts she has that she can find him help.  It is a remarkable piece.

My son, Kristopher, died in November 1993 when he was 5 and a half years old.  He had an autism spectrum disorder diagnosis, and was also diagnosed as developmentally delayed (which was described to us more than once by medical professionals as severely and profoundly mentally retarded).  One pediatric neurologist at Denver Children’s Hospital, upon diagnosing Kris, advised that we concentrate on having more children.  Several years later, when I was seeking respite care services by qualified care givers, the psychologist who was doing the intake interview at the Riverside County Regional Center suddenly stopped his note taking, looked at me point blank and asked: “Are you aware that your child is severely mentally retarded?”  I could go on and on, but the point of this post is not for the reader to serve as my therapist.  The point here, of course, is that good help can be hard to find.

I share this about Kris because in the months prior to his death he twice bit someone at his school.  We changed all of the locks on the doors of our home to ensure that he could not get out (that’s right, our house was rearranged to lock us in).  We put plywood over the windows in his bedroom so that he would not break the glass and harm himself.  He was five years old.  And, of course, we attended parent support groups, so we knew that what we were experiencing was not unusual for some parents of children with special needs.  And we already knew families in both Colorado (where he was born) and California (where we had moved) who had institutionalized their children (given up custody, making them wards of the state).  One really great experience occurred in the event history analysis statistics course I sat in on, taught by a colleague of mine in Sociology, when he shared with his one of his ongoing projects: a study of the time to failure when a family places their special needs child in institutionalized care.  What variable had the largest impact on the outcome?  You guessed it: the child causing physical harm to others, much like the event Liza Long writes about in her post.

In a story published on 17 December the Associated Press published “insight” from a number of people who apparently knew Adam’s mother, Nancy Lanza, including on man who

said Nancy Lanza told him she introduced guns to Adam as a way to teach him responsibility.  “Guns require a lot of respect, and she really tried to instill that responsibility within him, and he took to it. He loved being careful with them. He made it a source of pride,” he said.

We know that Adam used those guns, and drew on that experience, to first kill his mother, then shoot his way into an elementary school and ruthlessly murder all of the children and six adults, that he found in two classrooms there, before turning one of them on his own head and committing suicide.

You and I know nothing about Nancy Lanza.  Precious few of the journalists who write the stories we consume, and the editors who approve those stories, have experience raising children with special needs.  Liza Long shares this about her son:

At the start of seventh grade, Michael was accepted to an accelerated program for highly gifted math and science students. His IQ is off the charts. When he’s in a good mood, he will gladly bend your ear on subjects ranging from Greek mythology to the differences between Einsteinian and Newtonian physics to Doctor Who. He’s in a good mood most of the time. But when he’s not, watch out. And it’s impossible to predict what will set him off.

Surely Nancy Lanza is an irresponsible woman who should have known better than to try to teach her son, Adam, about the proper use of guns.  She certainly should have known that he would murder her, then go to his elementary school and systematically slaughter the children and adults there.  She was a frigging moron, right?  You would have seen it coming, wouldn’t you?

Try harder not to be a fucking idiot.  Please.

About Will H. Moore

I am a political science professor who also contributes to Political Violence @ a Glance and sometimes to Mobilizing Ideas . Twitter: @WilHMoo
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4 Responses to Sins of the Child?

  1. ES says:

    Your perspective as a parent of a child with a severe disability is very useful. I think that any investigation/analysis of the terrible tragedy in Newtown has to consider the supports and services that were available to Nancy Lanza as she struggled with raising her son. Many mothers of children with severe disabilties wind up raising their children alone; it is possible that her son’s problems contributed to the dissolution of her marriage. And hindsight is 20/20.
    But it is worth investigating whether, before the incident, there were any clues to suggest that this young man should not have easy access to guns, especially to military-style weapons with the capacity to inflict mass casualties. And did anyone suggest to his mother that it was unwise to have so many guns so easily accessible to her son?
    While limiting access to guns will not prevent all crimes, it might prevent some. After all, we live in a society in which many state laws require eight year old children to ride in booster seats even though none of us did as children, yet we survivied. In my community, which is much like Newtown, one common crime is stealing from cars, mostly cars that are unlocked. So the police advise us to lock our cars although that is no guarantee against theft as it is easy enough to break a car window. Yet, locking the cars does deter some thefts. Thus, instituting some gun restrictions may well reduce the number of gun deaths in America.

    • Will H. Moore says:

      Thanks for taking a moment. With respect to gun control, it turns out that my personal views on that topic are fabulously inconsistent (over time), and since I do not actually have to take a stance, I permit myself the luxury of holding inconsistent views. I certainly have no argument to offer against the observation that restricting access to (some types of) guns (and/or ordinance magazines) will reduce gun deaths in America (after a period of time, as there are so many presently “on the street”). In particular, I am quite certain, given statistics I have seen, that the number of both accidental deaths and male suicides would drop, eventually rather considerably. I am however, dubious that mass killings would drop much at all as they are incredibly rare events. I do agree, however, that the number of dead at any one event would drop.

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