If we want to understand why children kill, we first should ask ourselves the more fundamental question: What causes people to do anything they do? Iíd like to suggest an answer: All behavior is a function of our beliefs. Thus, violent behavior is the result of specific beliefs.
Dr. Lee Sechrest, Professor of Psychology at the University of Arizona, and I conducted a controlled study with teen and adult offenders in two penal institutions. We wanted to determine if their violence and other criminal behavior would stop if the beliefs that caused them were eliminated. We used the Decision Makerģ Belief Process, to eradicate the beliefs.
In an early session one participant described his typical behavior: "I threaten people with a gun and shoot people. When I feel that people disrespect me, make me feel like a fool, like Iím nobody, I get mad. Then I get violent." During the study he identified almost 30 beliefs, which he subsequently eliminated, including: Iím not worthwhile. Iím not good enough. I donít matter. The way to be respected is to use a gun. People who make you feel bad should be punished. The way to punish people is to make them feel pain.
Think about these beliefs. Can you see that most people who had them would act as violently as this offender did?
The overwhelming success of our research was dramatically captured in a remark by this subject near the end of our research: "Iím thinking of the people who wonít get shot in the future because I just got rid of these beliefs."
Once we grasp the logic of the premise that beliefs determine behavior, the next step is to determine the specific beliefs underlying violence and how they are acquired. Then we must figure out what we can do to prevent them from being formed and to eliminate them if they have been.
Negative beliefs about ourselves, commonly referred to as low self-esteem, are created if we perceive our parents to be overly critical, busy and not available, not affectionate, or excessively controlling. Children usually interpret this type of parental behavior to mean there is something wrong with them.
Imagine placing someone who has a very negative sense of himself in a school environment similar to the one in which Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold found themselves. They were treated as outcasts, seen by the popular preps and jocks as "discarded, unwanted geeks," taunted, picked on, physically thrown up against lockers and threatened, had rocks and bottles thrown at them from moving cars, and got into trouble for things jocks would get away with.
For many teenager, especially those with low self-esteem, these events likely would be interpreted to mean: Iím powerless. I have no control over my life. Life is dangerous. People are mean and cruel. I canít protect myself. I donít fit in. I donít belong.
How would these beliefs make us feel? Powerless, helpless, and out of controlĖin other words, like a victim. Because these feelings are so painful and overwhelming, we would need to find some way to get rid of them.
One common strategy for coping with terrifying feelings like these is to use drugs or alcohol to deaden the pain, to numb ourselves. Another one is to get rid of the people we think are causing the pain.
Harris and Klebold specifically wanted to kill the jocks, the kids who humiliated them, and they wanted to destroy the school itself, the place where they experienced being victimized.
The best way to stop this inevitable progression from beliefs to behavior is to prevent it from ever getting started. Parents who usually focus on what their children are doing, learning, and feeling need to give at least equal emphasis to what their children are concluding about themselves and life. We must learn the importance of, and the skills for, engendering positive beliefs in our children.
If, despite our best efforts, children form negative beliefs at home or out in the world, our study proved they can be eliminated.
In the weeks following the Columbine slayings most of the blame for it and similar tragedies was placed on the ease with which guns can be purchased and on the excessive violence in films, television, and video games. Owning firearms and watching violence on a screen wonít cause people to be violent if they have healthy self-esteem and experience themselves as effective.
Violence can be stopped, but only if the beliefs that cause it are never formed or are eliminated.