Winnenden Commentary Do You Know What Your Children Are Doing?

Following last week's school shooting in Winnenden, the political debate has centered on gun control and video games. But the real answer could lie elsewhere: with parents.
Von Claus Christian Malzahn

The school shooters from Erfurt, Emsdetten and Winnenden all have one thing in common: they come from the very heart of the German society. It is a fact which makes the abyss that Germany is currently peering into that much more sinister. But it is exactly for that reason that, when looking for consequences to be drawn from the monstrous deed, we should not just look to new laws, prohibitions or limitations. We should look to ourselves -- all of us.

In Berlin, policymakers are at a loss, as many of them openly admit. Those who now claim to know what should be done are lying. It is in the nature of such heinous crimes that a list of demands is now being made. The center-left Social Democrats are focussing on gun clubs, many of whose members tend to cast their ballots for conservative politicians. Conservatives, for their part, are taking a look at violent video games, a hobby often pursued by Germany's younger, less conservative voters. And with politicians and investigators under tremendous pressure, results are presented only to be withdrawn later.

It is an absurd situation: In more peaceful times, the average German is concerned about too much state surveillance. But after a school shooting of the kind that occurred last week -- which saw a 17-year-old named Tim Kretschmer shoot and kill 15 people before he turned his weapon on himself -- the call is for more state control, not less.

The political discussions in the aftermath of the school shootings in Erfurt (2002) and Emsdetten (2006) followed the same path as today. In both previous instances, weapons laws were made stricter -- but it didn't prevent the Winnenden tragedy. Even the questions being posed to politicians and experts alike are the same: Could one have prevented the shooting? Why can't the police monitor Internet chat rooms, where pending school shooting sprees are sometimes hinted at? How should lawmakers react?

The question as to personal responsibility is one that is seldom asked. But exactly that should be the focus of public debate. If parents can't be held responsible for the actions of their children, who can? If parents don't pay attention, if they don't know what their kids are up to, what worries consume them, what films they watch, what Web sites they visit late at night, then they are failing their children. And in a case like Winnenden, they are failing an entire city, and an entire country.

Tim Kretschmer's father had more than a dozen weapons at home, one of which Tim used in his bloodbath. But before we place all the blame with the family: What is the name of the kid your son sits next to in class? What book is your daughter reading at the moment? Does she read at all? How much time did your child spend on Facebook last night? Does he have a problem with a specific teacher? What does your daughter have planned for the weekend?

Of course it's uncool. But if your child is lying in a virtual foxhole at night instead of in bed, then it's time to pull the plug. Consensus is not always possible when bringing up children. And PCs are not a good babysitter, even if your offspring become calm and quiet when sitting in front of the monitor. It isn't just a problem for poor families -- it exists at all levels of society.

The point is not to create a parental dictatorship. The idea is to show a lively interest in your children's lives. Speak with them. Have fun with them. Take them seriously and be there for them. That's what a family is.

And it shouldn't matter what kind of family: whether two parents or one, broken or whole. We need to pay more attention to our children. Of course parents sometimes don't have the energy necessary. Sometimes we also run out of ideas. It can help to remember one's own childhood, and then add or subtract -- because deep down, we know what was good for us as kids. And what wasn't. A weapons depot in the living room certainly does not belong on the plus side of the ledger.

But we have debated about weapons laws and video games for long enough. They aren't our biggest problem. Our biggest problem are parents who aren't doing their jobs.

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