MANY CHILDREN in Baltimore face numerous challenges every day. Drug violence abounds, substandard housing is the standard and obtaining an education is often a full-contact sport.
As a psychologist working with children in Baltimore for more than 10 years, I have seen the struggles many of them grapple with. Amid the struggles, I have also experienced the shock and awe of resilient children who thrive despite all odds. Our children face a new challenge with the war on Iraq.
Children cope with their threatened lives in many ways.
Sometimes it is an adult with whom they are able to form a relationship that can teach them that what they see around them is not a life sentence. Sometimes this person is a parent, a teacher or someone more removed from their daily life, like a sports figure or someone in the news.
Messages are somehow transmitted that present a view that is a healthy alternative. Of course, the number of negative messages is almost countless. Whether it is the video game Grand Theft Auto: Vice City or rapper 50 Cent or Arnold Schwarzenegger, they are bombarded by the dominant message that solutions will be found through violence and dehumanizing people.
Children with whom I work are often confused by the conflicting messages. They wake up to chaos spewing from TV, hurriedly are shuttled to the possible refuge of school that too often is a confirmation of failure and then off to the street where the laws and norms are powerful and omnipresent.
Every once in a while, they hear another voice. Maybe that parent, that teacher or that voice in the mass media suggests another message that gets through. This message, though quiet in comparison to the cacophony that surrounds it, somehow can work its way into their psyche.
We psychologists and other mental health professionals cannot quite explain how a new voice can be heard and, sometimes, listened to. But it happens, and more often than many think. I see 12-year-old boys discuss tender feelings toward others or recognize that there are things in this world to love and appreciate. These children may have to hide these views or proclaim them against an overwhelming bluster, but somehow they find this positive message.
Often, children are not able to hear the positive message. Even if they do hear it, the message does not make sense to them.
"Violence is not the answer" rings hollow when life seems like a multiple choice test on which all of the options are the same. Twelve-year-old boys are not known for their ability to find the gentle response because they are in a constant battle to protect themselves from the many physical and emotional threats around them. It's easier to grasp onto the voice that confirms their reality. They learn to hit first, hit fast and hit hard. If they hesitate, they will be on the wrong end of the fist.
Children now have a new voice. The voice of President Bush, linked with flashy videos meant to shock and awe, proclaiming that the message on the corner is correct - hit first, hit fast and hit hard. Confirmation comes from on high. Do not verify, do not negotiate, do not seek out alternative solutions.
The message to our children is that if you are angry about something that goes wrong or if you are afraid of the unknown, then lashing out is the acceptable response. If you are hit by someone, find someone else to take the punishment.
Expecting our national leaders to think of the children as they make the really important decisions is far too much to ask. National leaders must put on blinders, ignore any conflicting information that might steer them off track and move ahead.
If there are voices telling them to look for alternative options, those voices must be either ignored or belittled. The aggressive response is so awe-inspiring that it must be right. The children face their choices. They now have another voice to follow that does not conflict with the street.
Daniel Kleiner is a child psychologist who works for the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore.