By Lydia Hill
My heart grieves along with the many families and friends of those who died in Florida Feb. 14. Their lives were ripped open. Their loved ones are gone forever. This pain is immense.
My heart also aches for Nikolas Cruz. I have never met him and probably never will. I do not know his family or his history. But somewhere along the way, I believe Nikolas Cruz was forgotten.
Consider for a moment the early life of Nikolas Cruz in the context of six essential life skills Jenna Bilmes writes about in her book “Beyond Behavior Management: The Six Life Skills Children Need.”
Nikolas Cruz is missing these crucial skills. The first is attachment. All children must form strong attachments to their parents and caregivers. As a little boy, Nikolas needed to feel attached to his mother and father. If they were not available, then he needed to feel attached to caring adults, including teachers. He needed to feel like he mattered to those he was attached to, that he had value.
The second skill is belonging. Did Nikolas feel like he belonged? Did he feel he belonged to his family, his classroom, his school, to a group of friends? What happened along the way? Where did we go wrong?
Third, was he capable of self-regulating? Was he able to manage his frustration, could he wait his turn, could he share his toys? What about deferred gratification? Was he able to wait for what he wanted? Was he able to tolerate that sense that he would get what he wanted at some point? Could he trust that this was true, that he mattered enough?
The next skill is collaboration. Did Nikolas work well with others? Can we assume he struggled to trust that he was even capable of working with others? Did he begin to feel, at some point along the way, that he was never going to make it in school, never going to have real friends, never going to understand how to do this thing called “school”? Did he pull off his heinous crime with a group, or did he work alone? Sadly, we know the answer.
Bilmes’ fifth skill is contribution. Was he able to contribute to his family, school, or community? We hardly need to ask. Since he was expelled, it’s likely Nikolas chose retribution over contribution, choosing instead to seek revenge for the deep hurt, alienation and profound sense of loss he felt but did not understand.
Finally, was Nikolas adaptable? Was he able to pivot, and make different choices when faced with a situation that wasn’t working? Adaptability is being able to adjust to different conditions. Was Nikolas able to see a way out of his bleak existence as an outcast, someone whose one focus was to murder some people at the high school that kicked him out?
This young man ended 17 lives, ruined 17 families, and caused tremendous pain to countless others. He will now cost taxpayers $70,000 annually to keep him alive in prison for years.
Early childhood advocates will tell you investing in early childhood education is cheaper and far better for society. When faced with funding prison costs versus investing in early childhood education, the latter is, economically, the wiser choice. We need to nurture and embrace young children so they can develop the six skills Jenna Bilmes urges us, as parents and early child care teachers, to teach and cultivate.
We need to get to work. Let’s Grow Kids, a local advocacy group, says, “About 90 percent of the brain develops by age 5, making the early years the best opportunity to help children build a strong mental foundation for the complex social and thinking skills they’ll need to be productive and capable adults … such as attentiveness, persistence, time management, and the ability to work well with others all start developing on day one.”
Mental foundation. Complex social skills. Productive adults. Where does Nikolas Cruz fall when we consider these points?
We need to provide access to child care for all families who need it. We need to offer high-quality child care, which includes good salaries to hold teachers in their positions for more than six months. Finally, we need to provide accessible, affordable child care for families, so parents can be productive in the workplace, instead of distracted and anxious about the welfare of their children.
Of course, we need better gun control legislation (that’s another article). Yes, we need to prevent those with mental illness from owning guns. But let’s put children first. Let’s find ways to pay early childhood teachers the wages they deserve. Let’s find ways to provide high-quality care for our children. Let’s put money into the next generation. It’s an economic imperative.
In more ways than one, we can’t afford another Nikolas Cruz.
Lydia Hill, a parent of two grown children, lives in Shelburne and teaches 2- and 3-year-olds at the Charlotte Children’s Center.