Making Childhood Safe for Children

Making Childhood Safe for Children

GSSW's Garbarino has advice for schools and parents: Get out from under the lamppost

By Sean Smith
Chronicle Editor

One glance at his McGuinn Hall office says an awful lot about Prof. James Garbarino (GSSW).

From one end to the other, the wall behind Garbarino's desk is covered with portraits of children he photographed during his visits to Iraq, Kuwait, Sudan, Vietnam, Croatia and Palestinian territories in Israel, among other places. Their faces - gleeful, somber, engaging, shy - seem like silent witnesses, almost literally peering over the shoulder of Garbarino.

Prof. James Garbarino (GSSW)
But Garbarino, who is closing out his first semester on the Graduate School of Social Work faculty, is no chronicler of some romanticized ideal of youth. His subjects of interest include the school bully, the kid who gets picked on and then lashes out, or children - such as those whose portraits line his wall - living in areas of violent conflict.

He has shared his expertise and knowledge on children and violence with teachers, principals, families, child advocacy professionals and organizations in numerous public settings, including his first Boston College lecture last month - and, privately, with the parents of Dylan Klebold, one of the Columbine High School shooters.

"I have come to a less idealized view of children over the years," said Garbarino in a recent interview. "I focus more on what they need, and this reflects what I have learned from exploring the darker side, if you will, of childhood.

"But I do have a better appreciation of kids as well. I have greater respect for their resilience and for their potential once their basic needs are met."

Garbarino's analysis of those basic needs and how to fulfill them, laid out in a series of critically acclaimed books, have earned him national recognition. His most recent works include And Words Can Hurt Forever: How to Protect Adolescents from Bullying, Harassment and Emotional Violence, co-authored with Ellen deLara, Parents Under Siege: Why You Are the Solution, Not the Problem, in Your Child's Life, co-authored with Claire Bedard, and Lost Boys: Why Our Sons Turn Violent and How We Can Save Them.

His forthcoming book, What Children Need: Lessons Learned from Kids in Extreme Situations, is based on his experiences abroad as a consultant for UNICEF and other organizations and programs aiding children in war-torn or excessively violent societies.

The publication of Lost Boys was marked by dubious, almost eerie coincidence: It was released on almost the same day as the Columbine High shootings by Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris. Garbarino was later contacted by the lawyer for Susan and Thomas Klebold, who had read Garbarino's book and wanted his assistance for legal, as well as therapeutic, purposes. He visited with the Klebolds at their home, watched family videos and looked through Dylan's room and possessions.

While at first his work with the Klebolds was in an official capacity, Garbarino says he was able to form a friendship with the two and "respond to them as hurt people."

If Columbine was a more extreme case of school-youth violence, Garbarino says trying to understand Dylan Klebold nonetheless offers the possibility for greater insight.

"You have to look for the humanity in the Dylan Klebolds, instead of simply viewing them in demonic terms, to see what is possible within people," he said. "It is not a way to excuse their actions, but to hopefully understand them better."

Garbarino is hardly the first scholar to address youth violence issues, but his plainspoken style and temperate yet firm urgency have helped him find wide appeal, say colleagues and peers.

"He translates research into language that is meaningful and understandable to parents and educators," said Susan M. Swearer, an assistant professor of school psychology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, who also studies school-age bullying and victimization.

"Jim Garbarino brings the research on bullying and aggression to the people who can benefit the most from his expertise - parents and teachers who are in the trenches working to improve the lives of youth."

For Garbarino, improving children's lives means that adults need to take seriously the problem of bullying and aggression, whether physical or verbal, in schools and communities. Tacit acceptance of such behavior as "all part of growing up" is simply no longer acceptable, and never was, he told the audience at his Nov. 19 lecture in Gasson Hall.

"The commonly accepted figure for the number of children affected by sexual abuse is one in 10," said Garbarino. "Fifty years ago, a child welfare journal reported it as one in a million. Have things truly gotten that much worse in the past half-century? Probably not. It's more likely that we as a society have come to see the problem in a way that we did not before."

As with child sexual abuse, he said, Americans are beginning to realize that bullying, harassment and other instances of what is called "emotional violence" is more pervasive than thought, and carries the potential for great harm, including stress-related illnesses, depression and interference with the child's education.

"In the past few decades, we have fought to make the workplace a safer environment, emotionally as well as physically," he said. "How can we not do so for schools?"

Garbarino cited the phenomenon of "poisonous pedagogy" as contributing to the presence of bullying and other undesirable behaviors in school and society. "The term refers to something that is culturally acceptable, statistically common but demonstrably harmful," he said.

"You can point to, for example, female circumcision in the Sudan, which has very serious long-term consequences. But there's a similar mind-set at work when we see parents forcing a terrified little child to see Santa at the shopping mall. The kid is crying, having a terrible experience, and everyone says, 'Oh, isn't that cute, he's afraid of Santa.'

"Why do we think that's somehow OK? And why do we think that it's beneficial for a kid to endure continual teasing, harassment, or worse, in a place of learning that's supposed to be safe and secure?"

Garbarino explained for the audience another favorite phrase he uses, "lamppost programs," to describe well-intentioned but ultimately unsuccessful initiatives to deal with youth violence or other issues: It refers to the joke about the man who, rather than look for his lost car key in the darkened area where he was, instead searches under a lamppost because "the light's better here."

In the same vein, he said, schools and communities stay "under the lamppost" by enacting programs that are "politically comfortable" and, as a result, more assured of corporate or governmental support. But the limited scope of these efforts ultimately renders them inadequate, he said. Garbarino described how one western state's secretary of education excluded parents of gay and lesbian students from participating in a conference on school violence issues that brought together numerous community and family groups.

"What would be more relevant to this discussion than the perspective of gay and lesbian students, who are especially at risk of bullying and harassment?" said Garbarino. "When something like this happens, you have to ask: Are you going to stay under the lamppost, or go up the road - even though it's dark there - to actually search for the keys?"

Garbarino listed characteristics of schools that have been successful in cracking down on bullying or other anti-social behavior. These included schools with student populations of 500 or less, where there is more familiarity and frequent contact between adults and students, and those which promoted cooperation rather than competition - unlike one school in which a teacher assigned class seating based strictly on performance, placing the higher-achieving students at the front of the room, a practice highly likely to foment division and harsh feelings.

Character education, he said, "must be fundamental to a school, and more than posting inspirational slogans on a wall. You have to evaluate whatever goes on in the school in relation to its core values, whatever those may be."

Above all, said Garbarino, reasserting adult authority beyond the classroom is a necessary step in making schools safer places.

"When I visit a school, one of the first places I go to is the boys' bathroom, because what I see there is likely to tell me how serious the school is about creating an overall positive atmosphere. Until adults take charge of the kids' bathrooms, they haven't gotten to the core of the kids' experience in school.

"The presence of adults, and their ability to convey rules, is critical. Do teachers stay in the hallway during pass time between classes? Are there adults in the cafeteria or on the buses, or in other unregulated areas? At this time of their lives, kids need the structure of adult authority to protect them from their own behavior as well as to educate them."


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