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Five Ways To Keep Our Kids Off Death Row

Nov 30, 2007
In an instant, it could all be over. A parent's worst nightmare. A situation that could ruin our lives forever. Everything we'd ever worked for, everything we'd ever dreamed of, everything we'd spent a lifetime building for ourselves and our families would be gone just like that. And what could be so horrible? All it takes is one regrettable moment for a child to commit an act so horrendous that it leads him to prison, the morgue, or death row.

Imagine what that would be like. One minute we're dropping our child off at school, hugging him and telling him we love him, and then we're off to work. A few hours later we get the phone call, the one we've always dreaded. "Someone's been hurt," a voice tells us. Or worse. Maybe it's our child. Or maybe it's someone else's child, and our kid was responsible. But now our child is beyond our help, no longer within an arm's reach. He's been locked away behind bars, and there's nothing we can do about it. No hugs. No tearful pleas. No emotional arguments. Nothing can be done other than to sit down and try to figure out what we could have done to avoid this moment of no return.

Does this scenario sound a little unreal? Not for the thousands of parents whose lives have been thrown upside down by their child's misbehavior. The child we thought we knew. The child we believed we could trust. Our kids are maturing faster than ever, and sometimes, when given too much leeway, they get into trouble, and a zero-tolerant society awaits them like a steel-jawed trap bearing its fangs.

Many of us believe we don't have the time or the energy to keep up with what our kids are up to. As parents, we feel overburdened with work and overwhelmed with the traumas that affect our daily lives. We find that we've lost touch with not only ourselves but with the reality of who our kids have become and what they're thinking. As a society, it's costing us dearly. Prisons are filling with our offspring. Youthful offenders under the age of 18 account for over 20 percent of all violent crimes committed in this country. In the last 10 years juvenile arrests for violence have increased by 75 percent.

Juvenile arrests for weapons violations increased by 103 percent. Illegal drug use by teens has increased by 150 percent and the number of juveniles admitting to having used drugs in the past month has more than doubled. These statistics affect everyone. Children fear in school violence. Parents fear their kids won't return home at night. And the statistics are only getting worse. So what can we do about it? There's plenty, and it starts with a little compassion, and a lot of time devoted to the most important investment of our lives: our children. Five things that we can do to help keep our kids off of death row include:

Being proactive as a parent

We can't be absentee parents. We need to get off the snide and strive to know who our kids are. We need to communicate with them. Keep a finger on the pulse of what they're up to in life. Anticipate what they're doing and what they might be getting themselves into. We need to know what our children are thinking. And the best way to do this is to ask them: What are you thinking?

Find out what our kids' likes and dislikes are. Set them up to succeed. Our kids want to do what's right. They just have a tough time figuring out what that is sometimes. That's why it's up to us to teach them right from wrong, and to be patient with our lessons. They will continue to dictate our joys and frustrations. And if our kids are living happy, healthy lives, we can rest assured that we will too. That's why we've got to take the time to deal with them. Play into their likes in a positive and constructive way. Work with them in planning their daily schedules.

One great way to do this is to get a week at a glance planner and help them set up what they're going to do. Kids love this. It gives them a chance to participate in setting up their schedules, and it teaches them how to manage their time in a positive and constructive manner. Everyone likes to be able to plan his or her life, and it helps to avoid unpleasant surprises. It also gives both parent and child a point of reference to communicate from.

Sit down and go over their week's schedule with them on Sunday nights. And then each night thereafter make sure both parent and child knows what's in store for the next day. This allows both parties to prepare for and to put positive energies into accomplishing important goals for each day of their lives. When the child is old enough, and he's proven himself responsible and worthy, allow him to have a bigger role in creating his schedule. But the bottom line is we're the bosses, because we know what's right. And we have to make sure they understand this in a loving and constructive way.

Communication is key with kids

How many of us grew up with communication problems of our own? Where at home, our conversations were not easy to come by with parents or siblings? Either mom and dad were too tired or too tied up in their problems to communicate with us about our own strange moods and teenage issues. It's important to break that pattern with our kids. Communication is the lifeblood to a happy understanding between parent and child. It's the opportunity to get to know who they are, and with their feedback, to teach them a little bit about us. Kids appreciate this. They want their parents to care about them in an honest and compassionate way. Even if communication has been poor in the past, there's no better time to straighten this out than right now.

Make time for our children. Take time out of each night to ask them what their day was like. Find out their moods, because these are good indicators of their happiness level. And with a strong level of positive contentment comes excelled performance. If communication goes bad one day, don't fret just start again the next. And always communicate from a positive place.

We don't like it when someone criticizes us, or gets on our cases constantly, and neither do kids. Once we've opened that line of dialogue, and trust has been established between us, then we have the basis set up to begin discussing deeper issues, and problems that need to be dealt with. Our kids learn their communication from those around them, and it's better that they learn it from us, parents who are emotionally healthy and verbally communicative.

Don't trust the mass media with our children

As parents, we tend to get lazy sometimes and use the TV as a baby sitter for our kids. Plop little Willy in front of the television set and watch him become a zombie while we tend to our chores and pretend for a while that he doesn't exist. Or maybe we feed him hours of banal video games as entertainment or we let him listen to the constant barrage from a radio while doing his homework. It we really thought about it, this would probably not be the kind of programming we want for our kids.

One thing we know we can count on is that the mass media is not out to educate our kids. Their job is to generate programming that will bring in advertising revenue. Period. That's why sex, violence, and manipulative advertising fill the airwaves. Our children learn improper lessons and misguided values through TV that generally have little bearing on real life. Their life's lessons need to come from us. We need to guide our kids by keeping them away from television and video games and getting them involved in wholesome, consciousness expanding endeavors. And if we want to help them in school we could start by helping them with their reading.

Find out what kinds of books they like and read to them. Or have them read to us. Books are available everywhere. Take them to the library, go to a used bookstore, check grandma's attic. Anywhere it takes to find educational books that are filled with positive social messages. The more time our children spend reading, the better they get at it, and the more confidence they have in their studies. Good study habits lead to good grades.

And good grades lead to a better education, and the potential for financial freedom at the end of the road. And if little Willy needs a break from studies and begs for a videogame fix, every now and then it's okay to give it to him. Just make sure it's educational. Make it fun but leave the sexual and violent content for the adults. Teaching our kids the value of learning is the most important thing we can do. We should be spending quality time with our kids rather than wasting it on the bad habits we developed when we were young. Our kids deserve so much more than the mindless gratification delivered by MTV.

Don't create a victim by playing the victim

We've all played the victim at one time or another in our lives, and if done too much it can become habit forming. When growing up, we experienced victimhood with our parents, our teachers, and our government. Then as adults, we had kids, and we become victims to their ill emotions and verbal abuse. We tell them how much they hurt us. We cry in front of them. And we create the child victim. Our children then become the victims to their parents. They become the victim at school and on the streets. It's a vicious cycle that needs to be broken.

Sometimes it takes our stepping back and looking deeply into ourselves to see if we're still playing the victim in our household. If we're always acting like we're hurt, we need to change it. If our parents played the roles with us, we need to recognize this, and reverse the pattern. We don't want to turn our children into society's victims. Victims end up in prison, the morgue, and worse.

Don't turn our heads to other people's problems

We look through the newspapers or watch the sickening stories on the six o'clock news about the horrible grief that has struck someone else's family. How someone else's child got sick or was badly injured or murdered. We say, "Thank god it wasn't our child or our family," and then we change the channel. Eventually, we become immune to other people's pain. We find ourselves desensitized to the grave issues that seemingly affect everyone else. We act like this could never happen to us.

But the truth is that it could. It only takes a second for tragedy to strike the hearts of those we love. We need to reverse this by becoming sensitive to other people's plights. This sensitivity and compassion that we share with our brotherhood will ultimately come back to pave the way for success in our own lives. It could also be used to teach compassionate lessons to our children. By teaching them that these kinds of problems are real, that they affect average people just like us, we set the groundwork for teaching them more valuable lessons. We can teach them the proper kinds of behavior necessary to avoid such calamities. By recognizing problems and their solutions in others, our kids will learn what it takes to shield similar problems from their own lives and how to protect their family from it ever happening to them.
About the Author
Michael Mehas is a writer, attorney and associate producer of the 2007 film Alpha Dog. His extensive research for the film became the book Stolen Boy, a fictionalized account of the youngest person on the FBI's Most Wanted list. Visit Stolen Boy.
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