This spring's school shootings have again left Americans asking painful questions: What's driving kids from good homes to kill their classmates?

There was the predictable cry for gun control from some politicians. Most Americans no longer buy this; they know gun control isn't the solution, but many citizens haven't a clue what is. And we'll continue to be both perplexed and fearful until we face an uncomfortable fact: We share the blame for schoolyard slaughters by allowing our kids to form a parallel culture almost completely free of adult supervision.

Leon Botstein, president of Baird College, characterizes American schools as "a gang in which individuals of the same age group define each other's world." Within this alternate universe, kids are free to determine not only hair and clothing styles, but also moral fashions: They decide the rules governing sexual behavior and drug and alcohol use. And if those rules sometimes produce bloodshed as at Santana—well, we shouldn't be surprised. The classic novel Lord of the Flies warns what happens when children go without adult guidance: They quickly descend into savagery. At least the children in William Golding's novel didn't have adults encouraging them, as real-life kids do. For, ironically, it is business-suited adults who support the parallel teen culture.

For contemporary teens, the highest value is simply being "cool." How do kids define cool? It's an amalgam of ideas fed to them by corporations that covet the $150 billion-a-year teen market. As the PBS documentary The Merchants of Cool reports, these are the clothing manufacturers, media empires and soft-drink companies that make it their business to know what teenagers want.

And what do they want? First, an adult-free universe—which is why TV programs marketed to teens feature so few adults (or when adults do appear, they are portrayed as buffoons or hypocrites). Second, teens want to see, on television and movie screens, what New York University's Douglas Rushkoff calls a "version of themselves."

These versions are the templates for two TV stereotypes: "mooks" and "midriffs." The mook is a character created to appeal to adolescent males, characterized by "infantile, boorish behavior" and trapped in a state of "perpetual adolescence." Mooks are a staple on MTV. The midriff is, as Rushkoff describes her, a "highly sexualized, world-weary sophisticate" who manages to retain a bit of the little girl. Shows like Boston Public and singers like Britney Spears provide America's midriffs-in-training with role models to emulate.

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Even more menacing are the McMorals taught by electronic game companies. Col. Dave Grossman, a former Army Ranger who researched the psychology of killing in combat, says violent video and computer games are conditioning teenagers to be violent. And then along comes Hollywood, telling kids through movies like Teaching Mrs. Tingle, Urban Legend, and Scream II that violence and killing are cool.

Should anyone be surprised when kids act on these messages? We can and should get angry with the companies that market violence to our children—but we should be just as angry at parents who allow their kids to become the companies' prey. The fact is, the parallel teen culture would be impossible without the complicity of parents. Many middle-class parents are so stressed from chauffeuring kids from one activity to another that they have little time together as a family. So today's teens enjoy unprecedented autonomy.

Christians ought to be the first to see the dire consequences of this parallel teen culture. Shootings like those at Santana and El Cajon are merely the most visible expressions of what happens to kids who live in their own dangerous universe.

What can we do? Start by monitoring what your kids watch on TV; you may end up tossing the TV into the trash. Extreme, yes, but better than giving the merchants of cool a free run at our kids. Second, insist on family time. I know one family, devout Christians, who have meals together no matter what teenage activity is sacrificed. Third, keep hammering away at those who market tawdry values to our kids. Remember what happened after Columbine? The WB TV network immediately yanked—temporarily, at least—an episode of a show that involved school violence.

There's nothing inevitable about our parallel teen culture. If merchants shape our kids' beliefs and values, it is because we let them. Unless we do more to keep them in our universe, the merchants of cool will sell our kids more than just hip clothing and hairstyles. They'll be marketing a vision that leads to savagery, promiscuity, and death.

Related Elsewhere

"Merchants of Cool," an episode of PBS's Frontline documentary series, has an impressive Web site, including a transcript, excerpts, and content that didn't make it into the program.

Colson twice linked school violence and marketing to teens in his Breakpoint radio program, "A World of Their Own | Santee & The Autonomous Teen" (Mar. 14, 2001) and "Mooks & Midriffs | Bypassing Parental Authority" (Mar. 15, 2001). He likely got much of his information from staff member Roberto Rivera, who wrote a March 6 column, "Bullets and the Pursuit of Cool | The Santana shooting reveals the real cycle of violence in our culture," for Colson's Web site.

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Megan Rosenfeld review of "Merchants of Cool" for The Washington Post was quoted on Colson's Breakpoint site as one of his sources.

Charles Colson's columns for Christianity Today are available at our site, including:

Slouching into Sloth | The XFL is but the latest sign of the coarsening of our culture. (Apr. 17, 2001)

Checks and (out of) Balance | Moral truth is in jeopardy when the courts enter the business of making law. (Feb. 27, 2001)

Pander Politics | Poll-driven elections turn voters into self-seeking consumers.(Jan. 3, 2001)

Neighborhood Outpost | Changing a culture takes more than politics. (Nov.8, 2000)

MAD No More | In this post-Cold War era, it's time to rethink our nation's defensive strategy. (Sept. 27, 2000)

Salad-Bar Christianity | Too many believers pick and choose their own truths. (Aug. 8, 2000)

A Healthy 'Cult' | A lively response by one unusual audience shows how God's power transforms culture. (June 12, 2000)

The Court's In Session | Are Christians ready to make their case? (April 25, 2000)

The Ugly Side of Tolerance | How to be offensive without really trying. (March 2, 2000)

Beating the Odds | Christians in two states defeat gambling by exposing its harmful effects on the poor. (Jan. 4, 2000)

Scout's Dishonor | The judge told the Scouts just what their oath meant—and didn't mean. (Nov. 15, 1999)

What Are We Doing Here? | (Oct. 4, 1999)

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Charles Colson
Charles Colson was the founder of Prison Fellowship Ministries, an outreach to convicts, victims of crime, and justice officers. Colson, who converted to Christianity before he was indicted on Watergate-related charges, became one of evangelicalism's most influential voices. His books included Born Again and How Now Shall We Live? A Christianity Today columnist since 1985, Colson died in 2012.
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