Michael Mendizza

Writer, Filmmaker

Broken Kids, Not Guns


Parenting, Preventing Violence

On Tuesday, the Federal Bureau of Investigation released a report titled “Active Shooter Incidents in the United States in 2021,” which logged sixty-one mass shootings last year.

The violence we see all around us, personal and global, is a failure of development. Period. The seed is not the cause, or to be blamed for being planted in poor soil, not being watered, isolated, shoved in a dark closet, screamed at, compared, humiliated, ignored, beaten, or illuminated by a screen instead of nature’s sunlight. Then, when these stunted plants grow sharp tangled thorns, we blame them for moral failure, punish them, chastise, incarcerate, and kill them, self-righteously.

To blame guns, TV, video games, Twinkies, the bully next door, bad genes, and all the rest, for the pervasive violence, self-mutilation, self-medication, suicide, and similar unbelievable acts on others, is simply a misguided defense, empowering our justifications to continue to fail at our most basic challenge and responsibility; modeling what it means to be a whole, connected, available, awake, sensitive, empathically-entangled human beings. After all, that is what every child needs and is desperately screaming about, real and inspiring models.

We are responsible for the society we co-create by our willing acceptance and participation, not guns or any other tool. We are responsible for the behaviors we model and allow at home. We are responsible for everything that happens at school, the form, structure, comparisons, curriculum, rewards, and punishments. We are responsible for everything our children experience with screen technologies. All the barbed wire around our schools, police, and metal detectors, won’t fix a thing. Rather, more of the same will only intensify the loneliness, hopelessness, despair, and inner rage our broken children feel.

Our last post, “Bonding as Transcendent Attunement” describes the root. How Joseph Chilton Pearce predicted the inevitable breakdown in society as the result of what he termed “A Time Bomb in the Nursery,” in Magical Child, 1992.

In the mid-1990s I met James W. Prescott, Ph.D.  Jim and I have worked all these years to share his views on The Origins of Love and Violence, Sensory Deprivation and the Developing Brain Research and Prevention.”

If we have pleasurable sensory stimulation then that’s the brain engrams, the templates that will be stored and they will be images of pleasure. If they are painful they’re going to be images of pain and pain evokes violent responses. But there is something else that evokes violent responses and that’s the absence of pleasure. And that’s really different than the sensory experience of pain, and most people don’t appreciate that distinction.

And in fact, more damage occurs with the sensory deprivation of pleasure than the actual experiencing physical painful trauma, which can be handled quite well in individuals who were brought up with a great deal of physical affectional bonding and pleasure which carries with it emotional trust and security. We really have to look at the trauma of sensory deprivation of physical pleasure and that translates into the separation experiences, the isolation experiences of the infant from the mother. [Basic trust.] That’s the beginning.

What evolved to be Touch the Future began with a phone call. Pat, a colleague, and tri-athlete was training in Los Angeles for the 1984 Olympics. Pat went to bed early after returning from her workout not realizing a stranger had been stalking and broke into her apartment window, a paper sack over his head holding a butcher knife. His mission; rape and murder. Pat, being so well trained and fit, survived unharmed and described her ordeal two days later. I spent the next two years asking; “why would a male do such a thing?” Finally, after interviewing experts up and down California, and reading five textbooks, I got my answer. Failed nurturing, broken bonds, abuse, and betrayals of intimacy of young boys, who are far more vulnerable biologically and therefore psychologically than females. These are the predator males that grow up drawn to positions of power; heads of corporations, finance, the military, police, and politicians. What goes around, comes around.

What is not apparent to most is that early sensory deprivation of affection, abuse, and neglect lead to play deprivation in children and adults. Play being nature’s design for optimum growth and development. No basic trust, no play, no real development, rather, defensive conditioning.

This realization lead to a decade of deep exploration into the nature of authentic or original play, what play deprivation looks like, how it impacts development and skews lifelong learning and behavior. Fred Donaldson, PhD., play master and author of “Playing by Heart,” and Stuart Brown, MD., founder of The National Institute for Play, were close colleagues, along with Joseph Chilton Pearce, who co-authored “Magical Parent Magical Child,” applying what athletes call the zone, pure-play, to parent and child development. Stuart’s call to this field is both poignant and timely.

It was 1966, three years after the Kennedy motorcade:

I was walking down the hall at a medical school where I was a professor and the Dean called me into his office looking agitated. He had a portable radio on his desk and you could hear gunshots coming from the Tower in Austin, Texas.

The Governor, who had been shot in the Kenney motorcade, called my chief of service who put me in charge of organizing an investigation to find out why this young man, Charles Whitman, had shot 31 people, killing 19 off the Texas tower.

We organized a very intricate team and studied his life forensically, and psychologically. He came from a tightly knit Catholic family. He was abused and had practiced with weaponry. He’d been an over-controlled, humiliated kid, very bright, youngest Eagle Scout in the United States, altar boy, member of the ROTC, scholarship recipient, married a delightful woman. It looked like he had everything going for him. But what came out of the interviews, again and again, was that he had not engaged, ever, in spontaneous play.

I had been interested in play therapy as a Psychiatrist, but this caught my attention. So within the next year, I headed a team that went throughout the Texas prison systems and the State Hospital system to interview all the young male murderers in the State of Texas. Here was something that appeared out of the data that we didn’t have a good explanation for. Murderers, whether they came from higher class economic circumstances or were psychotic and in a State Hospital system, having been criminally insane by their conviction or by their crime, play deprivation was a common denominator in over 90% of these.

These were young males, all of whom had killed one or more people. There was a lot of abuse and a lot of deprivation of positive social influences. But, the most common denominator besides abuse was the absence of normal play. And this was whether it was solitary play, play with pets, play with colleagues, normal friendships, spontaneous play, imaginative play, music play, sports play, these individuals that ended up killing someone differed widely from those that we compared them to. And that finding has stood the test of time. 

Next, I did a yearlong study of fatally injured drivers and it’s a very different population than the homicidal population, but the felony drunken drivers who were anti-social personalities, who killed someone in the act of driving while drunk, also had tremendous play deprivation, almost to the same level as the homicidal individuals, but, from very different types of circumstances. Here was homicide – no play, drunken drivers – no play.

Blaming parents? Well, yes. I mean, no. I blame my parents and they blame there’s. There was never a golden age of childhood. Lloyd deMause describes the history of childhood institutionalized abuse. In the 1930’s Joe Pearce and his classmates were routinely beaten in school. The implication; parents can’t give what they don’t have. Or can they? Yes, bad things happen. But as Prescott notes; “emotional trust and security.” That is the key. And primal love is the only force strong enough to transcend both our personal trauma and that of humanity.

One of the hallmarks of Gabor Maté’s insights is compassion for ourselves, and therefore forgiveness, true forgiveness being the ability to let go of the psychological pain we hold and reincarnate. Gabor Maté’s book, “Hold On To Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers,” expands on Pearce and The Model Imperative. It all boils down to the model.

Our children become what we are, not what we tell them to be. The greatest gift of being a parent is the realization that the love we experience for our children is the most powerful wake-up call to be the best human being we can be because our kids are watching, every moment, from the inside out. Holding on to our kids implies modeling our very best, and simultaneously this holding and modeling creates the strongest and most resilient shield to protect our children from the predators who are less fortunate.

As every pregnant mother knows, eating and breathing for two changes the care and attention she gives to every bite and every breath. Mindfulness on steroids. For the connected parent, that mindfulness never stops. Realizing how we act, the way we speak, the care, attention, presence, and empathy we model every day is what our children are becoming, in their own way, of course, becomes the greatest incentive to uplift ourselves, and therefore the world. Something cell phones, surveillance cameras, police, and metal detectors can never do.