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By Laurie Marshall
I am struggling with how to prevent gun violence in the wake of Uvalde, and the fact that guns have surpassed car accidents as the number one killer of children in our country. I know I am not alone in this struggle.
As an educator, parent and grandparent, I share this thought: When we wrap every child in connection, purpose and creativity, we’ll see less gun violence.
We are emotional beings who need respect, inclusion and dignity. The task of emotional self-regulation is formidable and demands life-long practice.
When we feel attacked, the oldest part of our brain, the reptile brain, attacks back. With millions of years of evolution behind this primal brain, the instinct to attack when we feel threatened is one of the most powerful forces within us. That’s why Jesus’ words “Love your enemies” are the three hardest words ever spoken. Preventing violence is a mighty undertaking.
Just as the “attack back” reptile brain is an almost instantaneous driver of aggression, the heart is a much older and more powerful organ than the thinking brain. According to Heartmath, an adult human heart gives off an electro-magnetic field of 10 feet – the brain, five inches.
As a social animal who is hard-wired to connect, we instantly sense if we are being included or excluded. The place in our brain that registers social exclusion is the same place that registers physical pain.
Instead of teaching to the head, the heart and the hands like most schools do, we need to start with the heart. That means recognizing every child’s gifts and contributions.
It means adults having faith that children come in wanting to learn, love, contribute and belong. It means turning schools, children’s museums and higher education into heart/think tanks, joining with adults to solve the difficult challenges our world is facing.
It means partnering with the genius of youth to come up with and carry out innovative solutions to the problems of gun violence, climate chaos, clean energy, immigration, ecological degradation, racism, drug addiction, inequality and more. We need their fresh vision and hope.
Having a sense of purpose is an essential need for humans. We want to feel useful and contributing. We want to be the heroes of our story. We are story-making, meaning-making creatures who search for patterns, especially when we have incomplete information.
In Brene Brown’s book, “Dare to Lead,” she describes that one of our brain’s favorite default stories is good guys/bad guys. We get a dopamine hit from instantly making up a story where we are the hero and someone else is the bad guy.
Unless we understand the immediate and powerful physiology of story manufacture, we rarely question our made-up stories. A lack of self-reflection is a springboard for the idea that the ends justify the means, giving validation to violence. I wonder what story Salvador Ramos was hearing that allowed him to kill so many people and carry out suicide by cop?
In addition to upleveling our emotional intelligence, I call upon our schools to focus on the values our country is striving for – “Liberty and justice for all” — as a core and conscious purpose for our youth and for ourselves. Let’s support children to flourish by giving them real work to do in building a just, free and sustainable society. Let’s listen deeply to the affinities, passions and gifts of each child. We need them.
All children come in creative and curious. The purpose of our education system should be to preserve these qualities, understanding that skill-building and practice grow out of a child’s inner drive for mastery and autonomy.
Drill and kill and teaching to the test takes joy out of learning. Youth can feel the underlying fear that drives obsession with high stakes testing. Without time to practice the creativity that grows out of curiosity, young people don’t develop the muscle of innovation. With the practice of invention, art, storytelling, composition, design and scientific discovery, children come to understand the endless supply of ideas within them.
This self-knowledge fights depression, peer pressure and addiction. Creativity is empowering. Making a decision and taking action – like painting a canvas, writing a story, or researching a question – unleashes positive hormones that decrease stress.
Creativity is essential for our country to solve the compounded, complex challenges we face. The kicker is that unexpressed creativity is malignant. It can show up as violence.
If Salvador Ramos had been deeply connected to family and community, had a higher purpose besides making others hurt as much as he was hurting and had a creative outlet for his unique soul, I believe that he wouldn’t have picked up a gun.
May the bipartisan “Safer-Communities” bill pass and may the new mental health money be used to support connection, purpose and creativity with our youth and each other.
Laurie Marshall is a project-based learning and arts integration specialist who recently moved to El Paso to be close to her grandchildren. She is a certified K-12 art and social studies teacher and the founder of www.UnityThroughCreativity.org, a Peace Building Through Art non-profit.