It’s a Sad Christmas in Connecticut

It reminds me of Anna Quindlen’s novel, Every Last One. A Christmas party. A boy rejected by his mother. A nurturing neighbor so engrossed with her own family that she did not intervene when she might have – years before, when both the boy and his mother desperately needed her help. The story’s shocking ending only hints at the neighbor’s oversight. No blame. And yet it is she who suffers most in the final analysis.

The book is fiction. We can only speculate as to what happened in the tragic case of Adam Lanza. And so I ask myself, was there someone who could have made a difference for Lanza and his mother – before he shot up Sandy Hook Elementary School on Friday?

For weeks I’ve been caught up in Christmas projects, happily making, doing, and mailing. Even ignoring my beloved blog. Until yesterday.

That’s when Christmas came tumbling down. How could any parent, grandparent, son or daughter not be utterly distraught over the 20 children mercilessly gunned down in Connecticut?

How the obviously deranged 20 year-old shooter, Adam Lanza, acquired his guns doesn’t really matter. Their kids are gone.  Six staff members, including Principal Dawn Hochsprung, also died.

And like a nail-studded piece of drift wood, the gun control debate is bound to resurface with even more fury after this horrific tragedy, the latest in a series of mass shootings that have marked 2012.

I can’t tell you what type of guns Lanza used. Now I’m hearing it was an assault rifle.  Some of the guns in his possession, I read, belonged to his mother, Nancy Lanza, whom he murdered that morning before going to the school. Why she owned them is anyone’s guess. But I’m guessing she felt unsafe.

The only question left to ask is “why?” Why did this young man do it?

Why did the boy in Anna Quindlen’s novel kill?

Lanza’s father is apparently successful, although divorced from Nancy Lanza since 2009. Adam would have been about 17 at the time. News reports say Nancy Lanza was well-liked, had friends in for Bunco, and enjoyed decorating her house for Christmas.

But we have no way of knowing what is real and what is window dressing, like the candles in a window or a wreath upon the door.

Behind that door and the pretty Christmas lights, families have secrets. Perhaps there are parents who function perfectly in the work place but cannot relate in an emotionally healthy way at home:  Fathers come home and disappear inside their heads. Living in a cloud of pain generated by their own dismal childhoods, they are incapable of tossing a ball around the yard with their kids. Or a mom who is depressed due to childhood neglect can’t sit and listen to her young daughter talk about her day at school and sends her off to do some chore.

How hard it must it be, then, to try and change the direction of a young person’s life when their needs for nurturing have not been met, when they become angry teenagers and dress in black and want nothing to do with the world?

As I continue to learn about the developing brain, and how it is impacted by parents’ interaction with their babies and small children, I am convinced that we have it within our power to do better. What our kids really need is not fancier diaper covers, more karate lessons, or more money to spend, but something called “contingency.”  Contingency is having someone’s complete and focused attention.

I remember only too well standing outside the dressing room while my teenaged daughters tried on a dozen pair of jeans. Or sitting on the floor while my youngest “made me beautiful,” combing my hair and dripping water down my back. It’s what they wanted me to do at that very moment, and I went with them.

We can set our children on a path to security, well-being, and creativity, or anger, fear and violence – violence so terrible it devastates families, alters communities and forever changes lives.  We get to choose.

Was Nancy Lanza too depressed to be a joyful mother? Was she caught up in domestic turmoil? Did she ignore her son’s need for love and security when he was a child because she was too busy trying to find those things for herself?

Memories of feeling valueless as a young child, or “voiceless” under the thumb of a domineering mother, or powerless as a witness to domestic violence, are not something a 20 year-old would necessarily think about at a conscious level as he prepared to march into a peaceful school building and tear people apart with bullets. These memories would be burned into his psyche – what some scientists call “cellular memories.”

In Secrets, Lies, Betrayals: The Body Mind Connection, author Maggie Scarf writes that blow-ups have more to do with the abuser’s self-directed negativity, of which he is unaware and unequipped to handle or understand.

If Adam Lanza felt such self-hatred, he turned it outward in a most vicious way.

And if we learn anything from all of this violence, if ought to that we need to practice “contingency” with our kids.  Without contingency from the mother, a child’s brain architecture is not going to be shaped properly. “Research indicates the importance of contingency both psychologically and cognitively, in order for babies to form secure attachments, and linguistically in terms of the child developing gestures, vocalizations, speech and syntax,” according to a review of review of research by Dr. Cathy Hamer, policy and communities manager for the UK’s National Literacy Trust, published in the journal Perspective of the National Childbirth Trust (March 2012).

Additional studies show that parents who display a high level of contingency with their children help babies acquire “an understanding of the rules of conversation AND A SENSE OF SELF during the first year of life.” (Emphasis added).

What children need is a sense of self, one that continues through adulthood and feeds them positive messages about who they are as valued members of family, community and society. It’s only worthlessness that kills. FFG

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