Life was a little simpler for me before I started thinking that I could be Dylan Klebold's mother. Klebold, the Littleton, Colo., teen who along with his buddy Eric Harris murdered 13 people in a rampage at Columbine High School in 1999, has etched his surname into the national consciousness as a symbol of everything that could go wrong in a family. Like many parents, I had always assumed--perhaps hoped--that once this family's story was known, it would be clear that the parents were checked out, maybe even uncaring, and so on some level responsible for their son's monstrosity. Now Parents Under Siege, a new book by researchers James Garbarino and Claire Bedard, challenges that smug assumption.
Garbarino has spent a lot of time interviewing Klebold's parents (though he was constrained from directly quoting them, since they are being sued by victims' families). Tom and Sue Klebold, he told me, turn out to be loving and involved parents. It's not that they didn't work hard at knowing their son. Rather, he deceived them about who he actually was. Garbarino considers the Klebolds an extreme case of a common phenomenon, where children grow adept at hiding their vulnerabilities and dark secrets, while at the same time being exposed to influences that can translate their adolescent violent fantasies into reality.
Parents Under Siege urges parents to be vigilant about the media their children consume and knowledgeable about the social environment at school. The atmosphere at Columbine High, while presumably positive for other children, was toxic for Dylan Klebold. The movies he saw, the games he played and his friendship with Harris were all part of a confluence of influences his parents didn't know about.
Teens have secret lives--different selves they show to their family, friends and teachers, as Garbarino learned when he surveyed 275 freshmen at Cornell University. These "good" kids reported committing crimes, drinking, doing drugs and having sex without their folks' ever knowing. The only way for even watchful parents to know what's truly going on is for kids to tell them.
So how do you get children to let you into their worlds? Garbarino echoes other child development experts in saying you should start when they're young and don't know any differently. You have to let them know early on that their fears and concerns will be met with calm, love and guidance, not disapproval. Garbarino cites studies showing a connection between how much kids divulge to their parents and how well-adjusted they are. He is convinced that if Dylan Klebold had shared his desperation with his parents, they could have helped him.
You can e-mail Amy at firstname.lastname@example.org