Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Family Structure And School Shootings

Let me start this off by saying I was raised by a single mother. As I've alluded to many times, my father was an Army careerist. I am the unusual Army brat in that I didn't move from base to base. My parents made the decision long before I was born that my dad would move base to base and on deployments while my mom maintained the family home in North Carolina. It don't know why they came to this arrangement but it just was what they did. The result was that I saw my dad on occasional weekends and when he got leave. While my parents officially separated when I was nine, it really didn't change the reality of things for me.

W. Bradford Wilcox of the American Enterprise Institute has a very interesting article in the National Review Online regarding what he calls "sons of divorce" and school shootings. He notes that most school shootings over the past year from Newtown to Arapahoe High School have involved young men whose parents were divorced or never married. Wilcox goes on to say that upheaval at home often finds its way to the world outside.
The social scientific evidence about the connection between violence and broken homes could not be clearer. My own research suggests that boys living in single mother homes are almost twice as likely to end up delinquent compared to boys who enjoy good relationships with their father. Harvard sociologist Robert Sampson has written that “Family structure is one of the strongest, if not the strongest, predictor of variations in urban violence across cities in the United States.” His views are echoed by the eminent criminologists Michael Gottfredson and Travis Hirschi, who have written that “such family measures as the percentage of the population divorced, the percentage of households headed by women, and the percentage of unattached individuals in the community are among the most powerful predictors of crime rates.”

Why is fatherlessness such a big deal for our boys (almost all of these incidents involve boys)? Putting the argument positively, sociologist David Popenoe notes that “fathers are important to their sons as role models. They are important for maintaining authority and discipline. And they are important in helping their sons to develop both self-control and feelings of empathy toward others, character traits that are found to be lacking in violent youth.” Boys, then, who did not grow up with an engaged, attentive, and firm father are more vulnerable to getting swept up in the Sturm und Drang of adolescence and young adulthood, and in the worst possible way.
I was lucky in that I had a strong (and strong willed) mother who had taught high school for many years and was used to dealing with adolescent boys. I also had many good male role models in my life including uncles and Scout leaders. My father, while absent from my life for long stretches of time, did his best to keep involved through letters and through making sure I got plenty of good attention when he was at home. I still remember some of the fishing trips we took.

I think it is harder for young men and boys nowadays. Divorce is more prevalent, the media and the entertainment industry have denigrated the role of fathers in the family, and bullying in schools is more insidious through the use of social media. Good male role models are fewer and farther between. I don't want to even get started on the role of schools and their emasculating curricula. Supporting and promoting the family as well as activities such as Scouting and organized athletics would not cure the problem of these broken young men but it might be a good start.


  1. I would point out the latest CO shooter was a Boy Scout and participated in organized school athletics. I have not heard anything about his family situation. I would like to see a breakdown of family situation of mass shooters compared to societal average or the average for kids in their socio-economic group. I know at least one of the Colombine shooters folks were still together.

    I think you are undoubtedly correct that parents being together (functionally together) and those extra-curricular activities help produce more stable children that grow into healthy adults. But it obviously isnt a rule and it may not have that great a correlation in the end.

  2. Thank you, John. That made me think.

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