The New Age Of Anxiety

It is indeed an anxious season--nowhere more than in Littleton, Colo., where students return this week to Columbine High School. Some, like junior Lance Kirklin, whose face was shattered by a bullet in the massacre last spring, bear physical scars of the tragedy. Others carry wounds in their hearts. Parents in Littleton say they are determined to protect their children. "We're trying very hard to make it as normal as possible," insists the mother of junior Diana Cohen. But will things ever be "normal" again, in Littleton or anywhere else?

Columbine--and Paducah and Granada Hills--sounded the alarm for parents around the country. Whether they live in the inner city or the most serene suburb, they now know that their kids are not immune from the threat of guns. "The places you used to think were safe have been violated by these random acts of violence," says Kathy Thomas, a mother of three from Thousand Oaks, Calif. "I certainly don't want my kids to live in fear." Parents worry about how schools will protect their children and aren't sure how to begin the uncomfortable but essential dialogue with their kids about the risks of guns. In that task they face "a terrible dilemma," says Neil Guterman, a professor of social work at Columbia University and an expert on children and violence. "They have to convey a sense of safety and security to their children and, at the same time, not hide the truth."

Although 81 percent of those surveyed in the NEWSWEEK Poll think there has been an increase in gun-related incidents at schools lately, violence in the classroom has actually declined dramatically in this decade. Schools are among the safest places children can be. The National School Safety Center reports that last year there were just 25 violent deaths (including 15 at Columbine), compared with an average of 50 in the early 1990s. Only a tiny fraction of all homicides involving school-age children occur in or around schools, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But it's also true that guns are a serious threat to kids. "People are too worried about school," says Kevin Dwyer, president of the National Association of School Psychologists. "I think they need to be more worried about the avalanche of guns in the community." According to government statistics, 4,223 children were killed by firearms in 1997, many of them in accidents while playing at friends' homes in their own neighborhoods. Thousands more were injured by guns. Some experts predict that firearm-related injuries could soon replace car crashes as the leading cause of death for young children.

More and more people seem to be getting that message. In the NEWSWEEK Poll, 64 percent of parents of kids under 18 were somewhat or very concerned that their children might get hurt or into trouble while visiting the homes of friends who own guns. "I lived in New York City for 14 years and felt safer there because nobody had a gun in the house, but here people have rifles," says Debra Leonard, a physician who lives in rural Bethel Township, Pa. "I tell my kids nobody can protect themselves from a gun if it's not locked up in a cabinet, so they should leave the [friend's] house and call me to pick them up if anyone ever handles a gun."

Unlike some parents, Leonard did allow her two sons to play with toy guns. "Our children have water guns and cowboy guns," she says. "If you don't give them guns, they build them. My younger boy was a Lego maniac, and he built guns out of Legos." In fact, there's no evidence that playing with toy guns turns kids into killers. Many studies confirm Leonard's experience, that children--particularly boys--will turn anything available (a carrot, even a piece of spaghetti) into a weapon. "Toy guns are a minor issue," says Kathleen Heide, a criminologist at the University of South Florida. "The real concern should be helping kids deal with negative feelings and resolving conflicts." But the problem is that younger children often think real guns are toys. Parents should make sure their kids understand the distinction between play guns and weapons that kill.

Staying alert is the best defense. Karen Kaul, the mother of a third grader in suburban Wilmette, Ill., took quick action recently when she overheard the younger brother of one of her daughter's playmates say he was going to get a gun from his house. Although it turned out to be a BB gun, "I called the parents, and they talked to the kids about it," Kaul says.

Experts advise tailoring information about guns and violence to the age of the child. Youngsters under 6 may have heard news about shootings on TV and worry that they are directly in the line of fire. "Adults should be saying very emphatically that they are doing everything they can to keep kids safe," advises Betsy McAlister Groves, director of the Child Witness to Violence Program at Boston Medical Center. And, she says, limit their exposure to violent images on television and in the movies. Slightly older kids, from about 6 to 10, "may sound more sophisticated than they actually are," McAlister Groves says. "Talk to them, reassure them." Young adolescents, from about 11 up, are more able to understand real risks and statistics.

At all ages, McAlister Groves says, "allowing kids to voice their worries is very important." The worst thing a parent can do is fail to provide an opportunity for children to talk. "We tend to think that if they don't talk about it, it will get better, but that's not the right message," she says. "They might think it's something that frightens us," and that would only increase their own fears.

The wave of gun violence has irrevocably altered the national self-image and should be a wake-up call to parents. "People had their confidence shaken and their complacency dispelled this past year," says Cornell University's James Garbarino, who has studied children and violence for years. "There is a growing recognition that the epidemic of youth violence has now reached a point where virtually every school contains boys who are troubled, angry and violent enough, who have access to weapons and violent scenarios and images, to become the next tragedy. I think people are now understanding that in their hearts--and minds."

No one is safe anymore. That's the lesson Lance Kirklin learned last April at Columbine High School. One bullet dug a crater in his cheek, and he faces four more operations. Still, he says he's not worried that such a cataclysmic tragedy will strike Littleton twice. Should people in the rest of the country be scared? "Yes," he says. "It will definitely happen again." Parents everywhere can only hope that he's wrong.