February 23, 2005

Light Fuse. Stand Back.

Michelle Malkin (cross-linked at her blog) is sounding the klaxson over a new fad among what are commonly called our young people - self-mutilation.

Malkin lays the blame for this phenomenon squarely at the feet of Hollywood. While I don't doubt this is a contributing factor, it strikes me that there is more at work here than the diabolical mind-control powers of Christina Ricci. Consider this letter that Michelle cites as an example that the practice is not just confined to malcontents and misfits:

I just found out this week that my 14-year-old daughter is a 'cutter.' She has a 4.0 average, 8th grade, goes to a good school, and is well-liked by all who know her. She is popular, has two homes (mine and her dad's) with supportive, loving families in each. Her own friends cut, too: four of them that I know of now between the ages of 11 and 14 . . . [a]s do her two cousins, ages 11 and 15.

My daughter cuts herself with a safety pin. I found this out on her own personal website, which I discovered she had been hiding on a hidden account she used at another relative's home. She had links to webrings about cutting, suicide and broken hearts as well as images and poetry. Her friends all feature cutting/suicide links, icons and song lyrics as well.

The counselor at her school told me this: At her middle school, '70 percent of the kids here cut or know someone who does. It's cool, a trend, and acceptable. Boys do it as well but are more public about it. . . . you're not even the first parent this week: you're the third, and just today a girl received stitches in the hospital for cutting herself so bad.'

Reading this, it strikes me that the root of the problem is considerably closer to home than Tinseltown. For one thing, I note how Mom sails right over the fact that the kid comes from a broken home, in fact trying to turn this into some kind of bonus. (Two Homes! Now twice the Love!) Yes, yes, yes, kids can come from such backgrounds and do perfectly well in the world. But if I'm looking for root-causes of self-destructive behavior, that's a huge red flag to me. I'd be willing to bet a fair bit that there is a darker undercurrent to this "supportive, loving families" business than Mom is letting on.

Second, note where Mom gets her information: from snooping around websites and talking to school counselors. What about face time with the girl? Yes, pinpricks can be hidden. But not as easily as one might imagine when the Parental Eye is on the child daily. Furthermore, other clues are available - changes in behavior and so on. But here's the catch - you don't spot these unless you've been paying attention for a long time. (And by that, I mean all the kid's life.) Also, from the fact that the kid was able to maintain a website at someone else's house, it seems to me that there are large gaps in the time this mother spends with her daughter, gaps where evidently no one else is properly supervising.

I'm sorry, but when I was 14, I never ran loose like this - I was never allowed to. At the time, I hated the fact that my parents seemed to have the power to read my mind, but as a parent myself now, I fully understand why and how they did it. Michelle is perfectly correct to bewail this social pathology, but parents have to understand that the primary place to fight it is right at home.

Posted by Robert at February 23, 2005 10:15 AM

Unfortunately a great post. Next discovery of Mom's -eating disorder. A good doctor or book will tell Mom that now. What will the school say then, 80% of girls this age have eating disorders?

Posted by: Mrs. Peperium at February 23, 2005 10:33 AM

Where did Malkin blame it on Hollywood? I don't see that at all.

That quibble aside, I agree with your conclusion. It is absolutely a "cry for help" from a child who isn't getting everything they need in terms of both affection and discipline from their family.

Posted by: Mark J at February 23, 2005 10:46 AM

I'll more than likely be flamed, but:

has two homes (mine and her dad's) with supportive, loving families in each...

Split families end up hiding a bunch more problems than whole families do.

As a child of divorce, I know this to be true. A fractured family might not be the only cause for such destructive behavior, but it is certainly a contributing factor.

Posted by: Jon at February 23, 2005 10:59 AM

I should also READ the whole post before I think I'm posting something enlightening, and also end my tags in the right places...

Posted by: Jon at February 23, 2005 11:04 AM

New fad? I knew kids who were into this stuff when I was in high school. It's a common self-destructive behavior. These people are just noticing it now??

Posted by: red at February 23, 2005 01:31 PM

In fact, who knows why kids latch onto fads, self-destructive or otherwise?

But I have to echo Robert's point; when I was that age I'd not have been allowed to get away with that, either. I'd never have been able to hide it from my folks or my siblings.

Of course, in my day simple pencil-lead tattoos that read "KISS rules!" were the cutting edge of body modifications among teens. O How far we've come.

I work at a Barnes and Noble in an very affluent neighborhood. Girls as young as 10 dress like Paris Hilton gone clubbing, various piercings and stud implants and the like (and ass-cleavage tattoos for teen girls) are apparently not just approved of but mandatory, and the bookstore plays the role of chaperone and parent to too many kids to count.

"Society" sure as hell didn't make it happen. Idiot parents allowed it to happen.


Posted by: ccwbass at February 23, 2005 02:01 PM

Oh, and one last comment ... I am confused a bit by your analysis here. I was never allowed to "run loose" either. And still - I was extremely self-destructive (in this hurting-myself kind of way - not in a promiscuous or druggie kind of way) in high school.

I could definitely explain to you what the appeal of hurting myself was. I know what it was about, and why I did it, but it's funny - it's like there seems to be only ONE way to talk about these issues (all the ways you list here) - and there's no room for anything else.

You can put my self-destructive tendencies down to crappy parenting, but that would be completely incorrect. I assure you - my parents were involved caring parents. And still are. Oh yeah, and they're still married.

All of this is purely anecdotal, but I have to throw it out there, because I disagree with all of the reasoning I have heard thus far.

Posted by: red at February 23, 2005 02:08 PM

Oh and lastly - "emo" has been around for 20 years. It is not a "new music genre". Malkin's column sounds like she just landed here from another planet.

"What is this 'emo' you discuss??"

Posted by: red at February 23, 2005 02:55 PM

Yeah, I know. Me Ward Cleaver.

Look, in the article, Malkin presented an example of self-destructive behavior to demonstrate Hollywood's pernicious influence on kids. The point I was trying to make was that the mother's own story suggested there were a number of explanations other than Christina Ricci for why her daughter was cutting herself, many of them grounded in the kid's own family environment. I strongly suspect that this is the case with many other such children.

My reference to "running loose" went simply to the matter of parental vigilance. Many parents, including, apparently, this mother, seem absolutely unaware of what their kids are doing until it becomes a crisis that leaves them gob-smacked. What I was suggesting is that she might have been able to spot the problem much earlier and possibly head it off before it got out of hand if she paid more attention than she seems to have done.

I am certainly not arguing that there is only one way to talk about these issues. I do not approach such matters in terms of absolutes. (And of course I don't know your particular circumstances and I don't presume to judge them.)

Rather, I am talking about behavioral risk reduction in terms of percentages. As a general premise - and based on my own empirical observation - I'm simply contending that a)there is less likelihood that a child is going to do something like this if they come from a stable background and b) if they do, for whatever reason, start to slide into such behavior, engaged parents are far more likely to spot the problem earlier and, presumably, try to do something about it. (Whether they succeed is a different issue.)

Does this mean that all those 2.3 kids from stereotypical Eisenhower Era nuclear families are squeeky clean and free of all psychopathologies? Of course not. Does it mean that all kids who don't come from such families grow up to be basket cases? Again, of course not. I never suggested such a thing.

In the end, my point was simply that Malkin's fingering of Hollywood distracts parents from where they really ought to be focusing their energies, which is right at home. I believe her example proved my point, not hers.

(And for the record, I always thought an Emo was a large, flightless bird from Australia.)

Posted by: Robert the LB at February 23, 2005 03:34 PM

I read Malkin's article, I read the whole thing. Why do you think I didn't?

I think she sounds naive, behind the times, and like an alien dropped here from another planet. I was embarrassed for her.

Sorry. I hear what you're saying, and like I said - my sharing my own story is sheerly anecdotal. Some people (not you, I'm just saying some) have an intolerance to even discuss other possibilities of why teens may do this. The bogeyman: lax parents - ah yes, we can blame them for everything! Broken homes! Yes - THAT'S why kids cut themselves!

Malkin needs to do a bit more homework. There are BOOKS written about "cutting".

You ever read Kimberly Swygert, the educational blogger? She's got some great stuff to say, in general, about emo, cutting, and goth culture.

Posted by: red at February 23, 2005 03:43 PM

And to you last point - of COURSE parents need to be aware of what their kids are doing, reading, who their friends are, etc. To point the finger at Hollywood is a cop-out.

My sister loved Marilyn Manson music as a teenager. My sister did not shoot up her school a la Columbine.

I love Eminem. But I do not smack up ho's and pistol-whip bouncers who get in my way.

Etc. Etc.

Add your own examples.

Posted by: red at February 23, 2005 03:49 PM

I'll have to check out Swygert.

I think we're cool here. I just pushed back because I didn't want you getting the idea that I was blindly pigeon-holing all kid behavioral problems under the Broken Home/Lax Parents rubric. Nonetheless, in a great many of the cases that I read about, it's not a bad place to start looking for answers.

(And, of course, I should have said that the fact pattern in the article "supported" my position instead of Malkins, not "proved" it. Bad lawyer.)

Posted by: Robert the LB at February 23, 2005 04:36 PM

I've gotta say: one of my pet peeves is when people like Malkin suddenly take notice of pop culture (when - er - most of us have been here all along) and suddenly realize that we're all going to hell in a handbasket because of, oh ,rap music. When it's been around since the 1970s. It's a really common phenomenon - and sometimes it's amusing - (and really EARNEST, too: like: "Why do kids like rap? Why???") and sometimes I find it ignorant.

Swygert's great - one of my daily reads. I highly recommend her.


Posted by: red at February 23, 2005 04:41 PM

I frequent one of the new car forums, and one topic that comes up very regularly is how soon to change the oil the first time on the new car.
Now, being Honda engines, they're supposed to go 10k between oil changes. The manual says go 10k before your first. And use normal oil.
It is amazing how many replies to the question are along the lines of, I changed my oil after the first 300 miles, use super-synthetic-slick-as-snot oil, and my engine hasn't blown up a whole 50 miles later! So thats what I recommend you do!
This is what I am seeing here. I knew a girl who was a cutter growing up. She was still doing it in her twenties. 10 years later, she still has bad scars on her arms. But back then, she was a rarity. Statisticly abnormal.
The issue before us all today is that this is no longer rare. That kids as young as 10 are doing it, and up to 70% of kids in some schools are practicing this. Do we want to see a graph here that will show this trend taking off?
So anecdotal evidences of, well, I listened to the Cure in the 80's, and I didn't cut myself are completely useless.
The problem is what, in the past several years, has made this a popular trend? That is what Michele Malkin is trying to open up for discussion. Pinning it on Hollywood? Maybe, she listed off a few popular actresses. I have no doubt that some impressionable young girls read about cutting and tried it.
Now, when the first young girl, who tries this for the first time, messes up and slices through an artery, bleeds out and dies, who will her parents try to sue?

Posted by: Chad at February 23, 2005 11:06 PM

I saw some of this yesterday and thought about posting. After reading the comments since then, I want to point out that if there were an epidemic of polio in schools, you'd get your kid the hell out of there. On the other hand, STDs, drug/ alcohol/ tobacco use, violence of the ultimate myriad that includes the risingly popular cutting, crappy education and liberalism (ha - gotcha! You thought I left my humor at home) are rampant in the schools, yet the kids stay put. Everywhere they (and their parents) turn, in movies, television, clothing, peer behavior, games and ads, the message of "do your own thing consequence-free - whatever" is repeated. And it does end up resting on the choices of the parents to expose kids to these things. It is the toughest job.

Posted by: tee bee at February 24, 2005 06:44 PM

Nice linking you you guys. Since everyone is getting all "De-linking" on this one, you guys are gone, because Malkin is a damn tool about this. And I stand with my Yankees. Kicking ASV off her roll because of an argument about a topic? Shit, I'd be left with Drudge and BlenderBoy. And Sully when Fire Island is in season.

Posted by: TC@LeatherPenguin at February 26, 2005 06:03 AM
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