The Kids is Slate’s science-based parenting column, assessing the latest research around children’s health, development, and well-being.
In the wake of another horrible school shooting, this one committed by a 19-year-old armed with a semi-automatic rifle, many in the pro-gun crowd have rallied around a new talking point: Guns aren’t the problem—lax parenting is. Apparently, lenient moms and dads are rearing child murderers because we’re unwilling or unable to discipline our kids.
I was introduced to this theory by a friend of a friend who posted Thursday in a Facebook comment: “Do you really think this is about guns? It’s about establishing expectations with your kids.” Then I did some searching and found this Facebook tirade that has been shared more than 415,000 times, which among other things blames the “lack of discipline in the home” as a cause for our country’s rampant gun violence. Some even advocate hitting children as a solution: “We need to whoop the shit out of our kids like our parents did to us.” Between 8 and 11 p.m. yesterday, friends of mine shared dozens of examples of similar sentiments that had popped up on their social media feeds.
These arguments are hogwash. For one thing, none of the reports that have tried to detail shooter Nikolas Cruz’s life suggest that he was the product of effusive parental coddling. His adoptive father died years ago. The New York Times reports that before his adoptive mother’s death in November, she had “called sheriff’s deputies to the house numerous times in an effort to keep Mr. Cruz in line.” His school had expelled him for disciplinary reasons. Cruz clearly didn’t commit mass murder because he was treated like a precious flower. His tragic family background may have contributed to his anger and loneliness, but there’s nothing to suggest he was a sheltered child.
And Cruz aside, when you look at the body of evidence relating parenting styles with child and teen violence, you see a clear pattern that contradicts these factually empty claims. The kind of harsh, discipline-heavy parenting style popular in past generations—what psychologists call “authoritarian” parenting—is far more strongly linked with youth delinquency, violence, and mental illness than the more sensitive “authoritative” approach, which incorporates negotiation and respect. While authoritative parents balance warmth with limit setting, authoritarian parents are heavy on demands. They’re the parents who bark, “Because I said so!” in response to a child’s “Why?”
And their kids don’t fare particularly well. One 2016 study reported that teens who have authoritarian parents are more likely to be depressed and become bullies than are other teens. The Cambridge Study in Delinquent Development, a long-running investigation that has followed 411 boys from ages 8 or 9 for more than 40 years, has found that having authoritarian parents is one of the strongest predictors of criminal violence convictions. Other studies have linked authoritarian parenting with poor self-control, alcohol problems, and being secretive.
By contrast, more “lenient” authoritative parents—who still set boundaries and have expectations but who engage in more of a give-and-take with their kids—tend to have more successful, well-adjusted children. In the wake of the 2012 Newtown massacre, Rep. Frank Wolf of Virginia asked the National Science Foundation to assemble an advisory committee to summarize the available evidence on youth violence. The committee concluded, in a 2016 paper, that kids with the lowest risk for youth violence have “close attachment bonds with consistently supportive caregivers [and] effective and developmentally sensitive parenting.”
The societal shift away from harsh school discipline isn’t spawning murderers, either. According to a study published this month in the Journal of Adolescent Health, kids who attend schools using authoritative approaches, like nonphysical discipline, strong classroom structure, and supportive teachers, are less likely to become violent, to bully, and to abuse substances than kids who attend schools that use other disciplinary styles. Corporal punishment by teachers or parents, including spanking, has been consistently tied to kids’ later aggression and poor mental health, too.
The idea that oversensitive parenting is responsible for our country’s devastating school shootings is patently ridiculous. If anything, the more warm and responsive American parents become, the more well-adjusted our kids will be. But as long as all people have unfettered access to guns, we will always have firearm massacres.