Teenage violence: A deadly scourge

If teens are loud and disturbing late at night, instead of threatening them or yelling to quiet down, why not join them for five minutes?

Teenager Depression Anxiety (photo credit: Nir Keidar)
Teenager Depression Anxiety
(photo credit: Nir Keidar)
With summer fast approaching, more teenagers will be on the streets. While most are wonderful examples of the behavior that the teen years offer, some are a major nuisance, others deadly. While the government does its best to develop programs to deal with this rising scourge, the question is what can communities and parents do?
In her May 10, 2012, Jerusalem Post article Rivka Lazovsky of WIZO says that teaching teens proper values will help. Reader comments in the letters section were mixed; most saying it’s not the parents, but the individual teen who is responsible.
Who is right is not a simple answer.
There are many examples of great parents raising very troubled children, just as there are many terrible parents who raise wonderful children. In my most spiritual moments, I thank God for all the beauty in the world and more personally, for my wonderful family and finding a path for me to move to Israel.
But then, from the dark side, the ageold Jewish question haunts me. If God is responsible for all the good, why is He not responsible for all the bad? The answer that works for me on a personal level is the same answer for understanding the role of parents when it comes to teen violence. God gives us the tools and capacity for all types of behavior, but we are responsible for which we choose.
In the same framework, we often think of how good parents are when seeing their well-behaved youngsters.
They are responsible to give tools and positive values to their children. If they don’t, or are emotionally or physically abusive or demanding beyond capability, they hold much of the responsibility for their children’s deadly behavior.
HOWEVER, THIS raises another question.
Telling parents to teach values answers the “what” question, at least partially, but the harder question is “how?” There are two ways that we can teach our children values. One is to actually live by choosing behaviors that reflect our values. If you tell your child to say you are not at home when someone calls, but are really there, you teach your child to lie. If you say “wait a minute” when they want to show you something, then expect the same when you call them to the dinner table. If you break promises, even for good reasons, remember that to a child, their reasons are just as good. If you want your children to read, then read in front of them yourself. Most importantly, follow your own rules. If they really matter, then live them as well as tell them. From a child’s eyes, breaking any rules means it is okay to choose which rules should be followed; a dangerous lesson, indeed.
The second way to teach values is to teach acceptable behavior in the same way we teach science, language or math. Children don’t learn manners, courtesy, altruism and respect for others, or any of the myriad social skills only by osmosis. Instead of criticizing or condemning bad behavior, it’s best to teach them how to behave appropriately.
Remember that knowing what good behavior is differs from being able to behave appropriately. Don’t ask, “What are you supposed to do?” when your child misbehaves. Say instead, “Show me what you are supposed to do.” Then coach them how to do it even better.
The way we treat dangerous youth matters. The work I’ve done with violent adolescents over many years has included incarcerated teen sex offenders in Newark, New Jersey; youth homes in California and Michigan, among others including a youth village for offenders in Jerusalem. At least 90 percent of these violent juveniles respond to dignity, respect and a commitment to not give up on them that is stronger than their stubbornness to make us want to do so.
In my neighborhood, all the teens I know are great kids. I also learned in my years in San Francisco that entering their world is better than the police or alarms when it comes to safety. They protect you when they know you care.
I always stop for five minutes or so when they play ball on the street and encourage them to try harder or shout, “Great shot!” when one is made. One time, I discretely bought a net for a basket that had ripped off. I told no one, but days later at least five teens knocked on my door to thank me. I don’t know how they found out it was me. When I see them on the way to school, I stop them and tell them to learn something and shake their hand.
This is not a strategy, but an expression of my love of teens and an appreciation of the difficulty of those most confusing years, especially when facing the army in the very near future.
Teens talk about their neighbors with each other. Reputations of who cares and who complains affect their choices.
Behaving in a caring fashion must be genuine. Teens have built-in crap detectors and know when adults are being condescending. I know that I live in an unusually wonderful neighborhood in Efrat. The parents and children here are uncommonly friendly and caring of our neighbors.
I’M SURE it is different in many more dangerous and less community minded places. But when I lived in San Francisco, on one side of me was a dangerous family of squatters, regularly raided by the police. On the other side was a group of Hell’s Angels who were very prone to violence and mayhem.
Motorcycles rumbled all night long and sometimes up to 20 lined the street. But talking with them, having the odd beer with them and talking about their bikes made me the safest person in San Francisco. These guys looked like characters from a movie, but dignity reaches even the most dangerous.
When I was about to move to Israel, the leader was going to federal prison for 10 years on drug charges.
Yet, he was more worried about my safety than his.
Our generation, interests, lifestyles and values couldn’t have been more different. But treating the “other” with dignity is universal in its effect.
Finally, I want to say that I never blame the victims of violence or second guess their responses to the circumstances they were in. What I am about to say next is not about what could have been done better in past events. If teens are loud and disturbing late at night, instead of threatening them or yelling to quiet down, why not join them for five minutes? Ask them about their music and why they like it. Ask to listen to one of their favorites. Tell them what you like and ask if they ever heard of it. Offer to play some if they are interested at a later date. Then, ask then politely if they might quiet down, because your child can’t sleep. This takes more time and is especially difficult when tired and angry. I believe the reduction in danger is worth it.
Obviously, this type of interaction will not always work. The only solution might be calling the police. But it most likely might determine whether not a life might be saved.
I once met Roxanne, a 16-year-old girl who was soon headed to federal prison.
I asked her if she ever listened to any of her teachers when they asked her to do something. I will never forget her words: “Yes, the ones who believe in me and care. And man, it really, really matters.”
The writer, a doctor, is the author of Discipline with Dignity: New Challenges: New solutions and Rediscovering Hope: Our Greatest Teaching Strategy, and a professor at David Yellin College in Jerusalem.