Sunday, January 15, 2006

My heart has been heavy all day with the news that the boy shot in Florida by a police officer is now dead. I am the mother of a son and a daughter. There is no thought more terrible to me in this world than something happening to either of them, that they should lose their lives. My heart is broken for this boy's parents, whoever they are and whatever kind of parents they were.

Patrick Lafferty, a 15-year-old neighbor who has known Penley about six years, said he wasn't surprised by what happened. He said Penley was a loner who "told me he wanted to kill himself dozens of times."

"He would put his headphones on and walk up and down the street and he would work out a lot," preferring to keep to himself, Lafferty said.

Kelly Swofford, a family spokeswoman and neighbor of the boy's parents, said the boy had run away from home several times. Her 11-year-old son, Jeffery Swofford, said Penley had said he had something planned.

"He said 'I hope I die today because I don't really like my life,'" Jeffery Swofford said.

I have hopes and dreams for my children. I think every loving, normal parent does. However, my greatest, deepest, and most motivating desire for them both is that they know deep within their hearts that they are loved, first and foremost by God and secondly by us, and thirdly by each other. I want them to have such a strong sense of family that they would never feel the need to behave in this way or despair in such a way that they lose the desire to live.

It is so hard to write about this because I don't want to sound preachy or judgemental or freakishly reactionary. What I mean is that in no way am I making a statement about this boy or his parents and who they are or how they lived--I know nothing more than what I have seen in news reports. The facts are that a middle-school boy brought a pellet gun to school, wielded it at a cop, and now he is dead. I know nothing of his motives and nothing of his life except its end, but I have to ask myself, "what on earth could have prevented this?"

My head has been racing all day with past news reports and flashbacks of visuals that began with Columbine High School and incidents that continue even to this day. It's not like there is one school in this country that is impervious to this kind of thing--anywhere there is a school there will be bullies, loners, freaks and geeks, preps and jocks, in crowds and outcasts. There are experiences that children have in school that they never tell their parents, and they are harbored in the heart and carried for life. Schools are a world unto themselves, and no amount of PTA involvement can completely eradicate the weirdness of the situation--hundreds of children to handfuls of adults, and they are expected to thrive. Many do. I wonder, though, if any of them thrive without ever having an experience that they would gladly trade away if they could.

The more I learn about parenting and the more I pray for my children, the more I become convinced that these situations do not need to happen. I believe in a few principles of parenting that reach the heart of a child, and it is my prayer that by practicing these things, my son will never harbor hurts so deep in his heart that he hates his life. These principles are:
  1. Quantity of time spent with a child matters as much as the quality of time.
  2. Preventive maintenance in discipline is just as important as correcting wrong behaviors (see #1), and this can be done by listening, talking, praying, and playing together.
  3. A child needs to feel welcome and at home in his own house. If there are too many "no's" and not enough acceptance of who he is and what he likes to do, he will want to be elsewhere.
  4. Gender roles are important and should be modeled by a child's parents to the greatest extent possible, not a substitute.
  5. Kindness in a home must prevail. Where there is unkindness, bitterness develops.
I realize that many, many children do not have homes that can even begin to embrace all, or even some of these ideals. Thus it becomes our mission to teach others at every opportunity, by word and more importantly, by example, how to be for our children what they need. Otherwise, children being shot in school will continue to be something common, though I doubt we'll ever get used to it.

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