Several months after he started, a new child joined the group. I’ll call him Michael.
Michael had a very young single mother who was overwhelmed. She dropped him off first thing in the morning and picked him up just as the daycare workers were turning off the lights at the end of the day.
Michael was only two years old, but he unsettled the whole place. He spat and cursed at the other children. He grabbed their toys and threw them away. He hit children and the very nice daycare workers.
After these incidents, his designated daycare mother would pick Michael up, wrap him in her arms and sit with him in a rocking chair for a long while. Sometimes she would do this early in the morning after he arrived. She met his aggression and anger with love.
It had no effect.
Michael didn’t teach himself to swear or spit or attack other children. He didn’t see other children doing those things at the daycare center. He learned this at home. He was not yet three years old, and his own mother was avoiding him. He was incapable of trusting even a generous, loving adult.
My child began to dread the daycare center. “No Michael!” he’d yell from the back seat as we drove there in the mornings. After a while, we transferred him to a preschool that didn’t have a Michael enrolled.
I don’t know what happened to Michael, but my guess is that other children avoided him all the way through high school. It would not surprise me to learn that Michael is in prison today.
Like Michael, Nikolas was born to a single mother. Two years later, she had a second son with a different father. Two months after the second child was born, both boys were adopted by a married couple in their 40s.
It is fair to conclude that motherhood hadn’t gone well for Nikolas’ birth mother or her son in his first two years of life. Certainly his father wasn’t a steadying influence.
It is a truism that adopted children have a more difficult time in childhood. A second truism is that children adopted shortly after they are born do better than children adopted later.
Nikolas had his adopted father for only three years; the man died of a heart attack in 2004.
After a middle school career marked by 25 disciplinary referrals, Nikolas was transferred to a small, very structured program designed for students with emotional and behavioral issues like his — which in his case also included diagnoses of attention deficit disorder and autism.
Then he was pulled out of the one-on-one program and dumped into a 3,000-student high school — when “he was not ready,” according to a special education teacher in the district. Not surprisingly, he reverted to his former behavior and ultimately was expelled.
Then, several months ago, Nikolas’ adoptive mother died of flu complications.
More from the special education teacher: “We failed him, and now we have dead children because of a system that didn’t work.”
Nikolas is Nikolas Cruz, the 19-year-old who shot and killed 17 students and teachers at the high school in Florida.
Virtually everyone who dealt with him said he was difficult, withdrawn, strange and angry. That he cut himself when frustrated. That on a good day he was ignored by his classmates. That on bad days he was belittled and bullied constantly.
We can guess that his early childhood, like Michael’s, had something to do with this. We can wonder whether even the best school could have turned Nikolas’ life around instead of making him just a bit less miserable.
A neighbor of Nikolas’ family said these things about him to a local newspaper reporter.
The Big Point
We must reserve our greatest sympathy for the 17 dead at the high school in Florida.
We also must hold Nikolas to account for what he has done.
BUT. It is time to acknowledge that we have a lot of children facing unusual stress now. While 91 percent of children lived with their married parents in 1960, only between 50 and 60 percent do so today. The number of ADHD diagnoses increased more than 50 percent between 2003 and 2015. Our public schools are fine if you can afford a house in the right neighborhood and mediocre-to-poor if you have less money. Church participation — which is associated with better health and civic engagement — has been dropping at an accelerated pace since the millennial generation, a concern no matter what you think of organized religion.
For some young men, the idea of shooting up a school has become the only imaginable path to glory, and in some of those cases, parents have stupidly bought guns for their maladjusted children.
Worse, murder has for years been the leading cause of death for young African American men.
All my friends can name young people who have failed to launch, who have traded their futures for the comfort of opiates and who have have killed themselves deliberately. Anyone who lives in a city has seen able-bodied young men “choosing” to live aimless lives on the streets.
In short, the traditional guard rails are gone. We bring this up mostly after school shootings, but there are many other warning signs and we never seem to connect the dots.
Ours is by many measures the most successful country in world history. But you wouldn’t know it if you looked only at what is going on with our children.