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Randi Kreiss

How well do you think you know your kids?


The operative word above is “think,” because no parent can ever know his or her child, especially during the firestorm known as adolescence.

Every school year, teenagers die and others teens are charged as adults in incidents in which brutal hazing leads to death. I first wrote about hazing, fraternities and sororities some years ago, when a group of teens hazed a group of high school junior girls taking part in a so-called “powder puff” football game. Thirty-two teens were suspended from school. During the brutal incident, caught on video, the girls were smeared with mud, paint, feces and garbage. Several were beaten, and five were hospitalized. The incident took place in a middle-class Chicago suburb, not unlike the communities in which we live.

How are so-called “good kids” capable of inflicting such humiliation and pain on their fellow students?

The striking element of this particular incident was the excessive brutality exhibited toward the young girls, and their apparent willingness to be hazed, at least initially. It makes us ask why the desire to belong, to be included in the pack, is so intense. Will these same victims victimize others next year, when younger girls are begging to be included? Perhaps part of the problem lies with the word “haze.” It softens the reality. These teenagers punched their schoolmates in the face, broke their bones and covered them in filth. How could they not know they were going too far?

Every year, in universities across the country, young people die from hazing, almost always associated with alcohol. Statistics indicate that 2017 was a particularly tragic year. Campuses across the country were rocked by a number of fraternity deaths, generating a national conversation about the danger of fraternity culture and what can be done to keep students safe.

In one case, a young man was told to drink 18 shots of alcohol in 90 minutes. He was dead within hours. And so the stories go. And so the parents grieve. And so the universities investigate or close down fraternities, yet the culture persists on many campuses.

There is much talk these days about how to teach empathy. Empathic people are less likely to inflict pain on others or consider personal humiliation a form of entertainment. I do think we can teach our children empathy through our own behavior and through regular discussion. “How do you think that would feel?” we might ask a 7-year-old as we read a story together about bullying.

If we adults watch reality TV shows on which people are humiliated, forced to eat garbage and live vermin, starved and threatened and tormented, it’s a natural step — for teenagers, especially — to experiment with the same behavior in their own lives. If we watch these shows and laugh at what we see, we’re telling our kids that the violation of other human beings is acceptable as sport and entertainment.

I was sitting with a number of other parents when I first saw the video of the Chicago assault, and a few of them said, “My kid would never do something like that,” meaning that their kid would never assault another or submit to such an assault. We all hope and pray that our children aren’t capable of such brutality, on the one hand, or might have such low self-esteem, on the other, but it’s foolish for any parent of any teen to say, “Not my child.”

If we bring violence into our home via TV and video games, we are tacitly condoning such behavior. As parents and as a society, we must hold accountable teenagers who assault other teenagers — but we have to begin our lessons way before that. We have to make them know when they’re just toddlers that hurting someone else is wrong. And somehow, we have to raise children with enough emotional strength to say no when the price of belonging could be their lives.

We have to allow them to experience the consequences of their actions, even when we want to save them that pain. When we lie for our children when they’re 6 years old, we’ll be lying for them when they’re 16, and the consequences will be far greater.

Copyright 2019 Randi Kreiss. Randi can be reached at randik3@aol.com.