Once again, this time as we pause to share in the season of peace, we are reminded that hatred puts us all at risk and that trauma too often begins in the hearts and minds of children. In the flash of an instant, gunfire shattered the lives of a quiet New England community and its nation, shaking the foundation of personal security and human trust for a new generation of Americans. The young survivors at Sandy Hook Elementary will hopefully recover emotionally and return to their freshly blossoming lives. Yet I suspect that their youthful faith in the greatness of human possibilities may be scarred for life. Their acute grief will likely heal but their capacity for inner peace and shared intimacy may be displaced forever.
How can we create peace in our homes, streets, schools and nations? Certainly, we must, as a moral society, reject violence as a solution. Many citizens are calling for stricter gun control laws and tighter security systems at schools. Restricting access to weapons yields positive results. Nations that limit gun ownership experience less mortal violence. Yet, just as access to healthcare does not, by itself, guarantee health, so too safety depends on removing access to deadly weapons and on removing a person’s will to hate. Guns provide a means to kill, not a reason to kill. Schools and schoolyards serve their purpose when children feel like they are sanctuaries in which adults care about their well-being and development. Locked doorways, armed guards and electronic monitoring undermine children’s sense of security by adding constant reminders of deadly threats that may lurk around every corner.
Given the ease of acquiring a deadly weapon in the U.S., the task of disarming dangerous individuals becomes nearly impossible. Considering, on the other hand, the common psychological source for becoming a killer, the achievable goal of prevention must focus on childhood experiences that shape mental health and avoid psychological trauma. Violence is an end product of hatred – usually self-hatred as much as hatred toward others. During the first years of life, children learn how the world values them. Kids who are loved consistently and unconditionally, whose parents and other caregivers demonstrate caring and service to others, whose families affiliate with a diverse group within a community, and who observe that skin color, wealth, education, and culture differentiate people’s background but not their intrinsic worth, are children who will grow to feel connected and devoted to the dignity within everyone.
In nearly all the awful instances of kids (and adults) killing kids, the perpetrators felt profoundly isolated and unaccepted. Violence erupted when these dangerous ingredients reached a boil inside the kettle of each killer’s developing psyche. The force of the final violent explosion took many years to develop. The message seems clear to me. Violence prevention begins during early childhood as we work to understand, love, guide and model for our children. Recent scientific research teaches that the emotional experience of infants and very young children directs the wiring of nerves in the developing brain. Our ability to control our emotions, to regulate our physical response to stress, to achieve mental health, even our capacity to muster an effective immune response to infection gets shaped by experiences during the first years of life. Children begin to learn as soon as they are born. Most of all, they learn how much others support, value, respect, enjoy and expect of them.
Each of us plays a central role in building peace. In the end, guns would have no use if we love our children unconditionally, relate to our neighbors, build community, model caring and service, value diversity of ideas, customs, traditions and expressions, and open our minds to new relationships and ideas. Children who grow up isolated - emotionally, intellectually, and culturally - are those most likely to continue to sow the seeds of fear, distrust, hostility, and violence.
Feeling ineffective, disrespected and unwanted causes the deepest stress to our personal health and happiness. Would that we and our neighbors routinely welcomed newcomers or tolerated, appreciated and joined with people of diverse ethnicities, cultures, traditions, faiths, ideas, abilities and conditions. How many adults teach children by example the personal rewards of regular volunteer service? Caring friends, community service, neighbors actively concerned for each other’s families, dignified treatment services for those encumbered by chronic illness – research demonstrates that such humane, inexpensive resources help reduce violent crime and improve population health.
So let’s learn this lesson now and for all time – we can only secure peace by providing emotional security for all our children. We can only defend ourselves against violent acts if we inspire in children an alternative path to hatred. Killers, after all, are indistinguishable as babies. They just lose hope long before they ever find death.
Dr. Gorski, a pediatrician, is the Chief Health and Child Development Officer at the Children’s Trust of Miami-Dade County and Professor of Public Health, Pediatrics and Psychiatry at the University of South Florida.