The massively-covered Atlanta and Boulder mass murders took place less than a week apart. Less well known is that the Colorado attack was the seventh mass shooting1 in the U.S. in just 7 days. (The FBI defines mass murder as 4 or more people being killed in the same event.2)  Nowhere else on earth are mass murders, not related to war, occurring at the rate they are in the U.S. What is so different about our country compared to other wealthy countries that have vanishingly low rates of gun violence, such as Japan?3

As usual, the response by some politicians is to declare that guns are not the problem. It’s always something else. This time, as in the past, they say mental illness caused it. No way could it have been the easy, largely unfettered access to high-powered firearms that can kill large numbers of people quickly and efficiently.

But they are WRONG. There is, in fact, a strong relationship, supported by a ton of high-quality, peer-reviewed research studies that show a strong association between gun deaths and easy access to guns.4 

The same old story all over again

I first wrote this common-sense gun control story5 after the Parkland High School mass murders on February 14, 2018. It was published in The Hill and got the usual barrage of angry comments from lovers of the Second Amendment. 

I republished it 18 months later after the El Paso AND Dayton massacres in August 2019. And, here I am again, dredging up this old story that is still relevant today because we have done NOTHING, ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to stop these horrific and predictably repetitive mass murders.

When it comes to gun control, we’ve been asking the wrong question

As the title of my original story indicates, I believe when it comes to our approach to common-sense gun laws, we have been asking the wrong question about who should have guns.

Asking who should be restricted from gun ownership is not the right question, we should be asking who has demonstrated, via a standardized protocol, that they have earned the right to have one.

We are already using standardized protocols when we implement mandatory background checks to determine who should not have guns, but the screening, often poorly implemented, is based on categories of people (mentally ill, felons, domestic abusers) we think shouldn’t have guns. 

Related story:  The Founders and the Sanctity of Gun Ownership

What I am proposing is we develop stringent and transparent tests of fitness to own a gun and then we apply those tests equally to everyone – first to get a gun and then repeated over time in order to keep the gun. This is not pie in the sky. Japan, a country with one of the lowest rates of gun deaths in the world has been doing this for years. They have proven that it works there. It can work here too.

Here is my op-ed from The Hill:

“Every time the gun control debate is reignited after another mass shooting, the conversation quickly focuses on who should be restricted from purchasing guns, almost always with the suggestion that the solution to our mass shooter problem hinges on preventing people with mental illness from acquiring access to guns. But asking who should be restricted from gun ownership is not the right question. Its answer will not make a single dent in our dismal standing as the country with the highest number of gunshot deaths in the developed world.6 [Ed. Note: Old link exchanged for newer one] 

It can’t because we have demonstrated over and over that it is impossible to enforce such restrictions dependably.

Unstable people, including mass shooters, such as Nikolas Cruz and others7, have obtained their firearms legally because, at the time they bought them, they did not meet the criteria to be denied gun ownership8 based on their mental health status.

Dr. Amy Barnhorst, the vice chairwoman of community psychiatry at the University of California Davis, explains the challenges:9

The mental health system doesn’t identify most of these people because they don’t come in to get care. And even if they do, laws designed to preserve the civil liberties of people with mental illness place limits on what treatments can be imposed against a person’s will.

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She points out that posting threatening statements on social media or scaring your classmates is usually not enough to hospitalize someone against their will.

Nor, do we (or should we) require that this type of information be reported to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).

Reframing the approach to gun ownership

I believe it’s time to reframe the approach to gun ownership from opt-out (everyone who wants a gun can get one unless we can prove they should not have one) to opt-in (everyone who wants a gun must demonstrate, on an ongoing basis, that they are capable and willing to responsibly manage gun ownership).

For those of you who would argue that this is a violation of our Second Amendment right, I ask how is this different from what we do now?

We have already determined that it is legal to restrict certain categories of people10 from owning a gun (e.g., felons, domestic abusers) in the interest of public safety.

Why not go one step further and proactively determine who should be able to have a gun just like we decide who should be able to drive a car, practice medicine, or cut our hair?

Getting a gun in Japan

There is a successful model for this approach. Japan, a country with one of the lowest rates of firearm-related deaths in the developed world11, has implemented a comprehensive system for evaluating prospective gun owners with an eye to public safety. This is what you have to do to get a gun in Japan:12

  1. Attend an all-day class organized by the police and then pass a written test
  2. Apply for training at a licensed shooting range a process that requires a certificate of residency, a photo ID, and a list of past jobs and addresses
  3. Pass mental health and drug tests administered in a hospital test and present the certificate to the police.
  4. Pass an in-person interview with a police officer who may ask questions such as “Why do you want a gun?” “What do you do for a living?” “Do any of your relatives have mental health issues?”
  5. Pass a rigorous background check for any criminal record, association with criminal or extremist groups, evidence of instability or domestic strife.
  6. Attend a training session at a licensed shooting range that includes both a gun safety class and test as well as shooting instruction and a competency exam
  7. Obtain the approval of the police who make an unannounced visit to your home and workplace to ask employees and neighbors about your behavior, including such questions as “Do you ever hear screaming voices from their apartment?”

Once approved for a temporary license to have a gun, the applicant can visit a gun shop to select a gun. But you can only buy shotguns and air rifles, not handguns. And you cannot take the gun you selected home until the official license is issued.

The gun owner must then provide police with documentation on the specific location of the gun and ammunition in their home, each of which must be locked and stored separately. You have to have the police inspect the gun once per year and to re-take the class and exam every three years.

Too much, you say? Why should gun owners have to subject themselves to this type of scrutiny? If you take the time to read about the issue, the answer is clear.

It’s because it keeps guns out of the hands of bad guys — even gangsters in Japan don’t have guns13 — as well as irresponsible,  the mentally ill, unstable teens, domestic abusers, and a whole host of other people who most of us would agree should never have a gun.

Why should we do it? Because it works and what we are currently doing does not.”

Related stories:

There is No Better Time to Commit to Reducing Gun Violence

Kristof Asks the Right Questions About the Newtown Slaughter


  1. Josh Berlinger. The Colorado attack is the 7th mass shooting in 7 days in the US.  CNN, Updated Mar 23, 2021
  2. Mass Murder, Wikipedia
  3. Gun Deaths by Country 2021, World Population Review.
  4. Harvard School of Public Health, Harvard Injury Control Research Center.


  5. Patricia Salber M.D. Asking who should be restricted from gun ownership is not the right question. The Hill. Feb 2018
  6. Gun Deaths by Country 2021.  World Population Review.
  7. How They Got Their Guns.  New York Times (subscription required).
  8. What You Need to Know about Background Checks for Guns. CriminalWatchDog, Inc.
  9. Dr. Amy Barnhorst.  Mental Health Systems Can’t Stop Mass Shooters, NYT.  Feb 2018 (subscription required) 
  10. Firearm Prohibitions. Gifford Law Center.

  11. Robert Preidt. How U.S. gun deaths compare to other countries. CBS News, Feb 2016

  12. Karl Denzer.  Behold the four-month process of buying a gun in Japan.  Washington Post. Oct 2017
  13. Jake Adelstein.  Even gangsters live in fear of Japan’s gun laws.  thejapantimes, Jan 2013

This story was initially published in November 2018. Sadly it has been updated to reflect the most recent mass murders – Atlanta and Boulder.

My fingers tremble as, knuckles white with force, I carve one last SLUT into the kitten calendar on Ally’s desk (that’s Ally with a “y” not an “ie”. I am not talking about myself in the third person).

Half blinded by sticky hot tears I fling open the closet and throw clothes all over the room. With a final burst of chaotic energy, I tear off the comforter on her bed, leaving the mattress halfway off the bed frame.

Standing in the sea of turquoise hangers and Ally’s multitude of cardigans, I stare in horror as regret turns hot tears cold. What have I done?

 Greg, my ex, had just left, so in a haze, I unlock the door and shamble over to my room as thoughts swirl in my head:

Ally telling me she was upset when she and I were fighting a few months ago because Greg wouldn’t talk to her.

“I just felt like I lost my best friend when that happened. Him and I are close.”

She laughs as he flirts with her on the couch only a day after our two-year anniversary.

 “You’re crazy Allie, nothing is going on with her and me”

 They get out of her car, laughing with ice cream the night before the Super Bowl.

 “You are reading into things. Nothing is happening with us. We weren’t even together that night. You’re insane.”

 I sobbed on the floor the night of the Super Bowl after he had sent the cops to find me because he was concerned that I was suicidal.

 “I can’t do this with you. You’re toxic, Allie. You’ve caused me so much depression.”

Are you insane? 

Forgetting that our apartment door opens with a keypad and not an actual key, I suddenly hear Greg enter again. He goes to Ally’s room and comes screaming back.

“What the HELL, Allie? Are you insane? I’m calling the cops.”

You’re good at that I think to myself.

Between sobs, I beg him not to. I didn’t mean it, I don’t even know what happened.

I said I was going to confront her. Greg refused to let me, following me to my apartment, barreling his way in. He physically restrained me. I got angrier and angrier as I tried to fight him. He yanked me all across the floor, almost dislocating my shoulder. The anger and fear blew up in her room.

I really was the crazy ex-girlfriend.

Greg didn’t call the cops, but he waited in my apartment until I called my parents to take me home because “I needed help.”

What you said was concerning

I called Ally myself, apologizing profusely between hiccupping sobs. I went back into her room and I cleaned up my mess before she saw it. Clothes back in the closet, the bed back on its frame, comforter back on the bed.

I paused at the kitten calendar before ripping off the top page as my shoulders slumped. But you could still see it, the echo of SLUT on the remaining months.

One day later, my dad and I fight the clock as we try to get my furniture moved out before band practice ends. I had talked to housing myself and asked to be moved. I played off of the fact that they already had to talk to me due to my “suicide scare” the night before during Super Bowl 2018.

“Well so, you see. I know this is dumb, but I just really wanted him to pay attention to me.”

 The officer nods, unamused.

 “But you understand how what you said was concerning.”

 “Officer, I don’t want to kill myself. I’m not suicidal. It’s just, I don’t know, I wanted him to care that he hurt me? I hoped my friends would not leave after hearing me cry all day. He wouldn’t even notice honestly. I only turned my phone off so that I’d stop trying to talk to all of them since they didn’t seem to care.”

Finally, I learn the truth

As my dad left that Tuesday night, my friend Henry, Greg’s roommate, came over to lend me a vacuum.

“I need to tell you something. You aren’t going to like it.” I brace myself against my new bed.

“Just say it.”

“Greg apparently hooked up with Ally.” He paused. “In January.”

“It was the night I went to Haiti, wasn’t it?”


That moment I expected to feel anger, but I just felt like someone had stabbed me in the chest. Then all of it, the frustration, anger, fear, confusion, just leaked out. I was right?

“He told me I was making it all up! He said I was crazy. I felt so bad for suspecting that they were sneaking around that night when she didn’t come to say goodbye before I left. I’ve felt guilty about thinking that of her for all this time. But I was fucking right”.

“I’m so sorry, Allie. They were shitty people to do that to you.”

Emotional abuse made me question myself and my sanity

I had so many questions. About myself, about my sanity, and about my innate goodness as a person. He traded one Allie/Ally for another one. Our bedrooms had shared a wall and much like we shared a name we shared the same major, neuroscience. Not to be conceited but I was prettier, I was smarter, and I was nicer (usually). What did she have that I didn’t?

“Allie. You apologized. Many times, even. You cleaned it up before she even saw it. You feel bad and that means you aren’t a bad person. I mean he dragged you across the floor!”

Andrew, my new counselor I agreed to talk to at housing’s request (potential suicidal ideations, remember?), sighs as I frown again.

“But I was insane! I can’t believe I did that. I mean, he was right, right? I’m terrible. If he ever tells on me, oh, gosh, I could lose medical school. Even my parents were afraid my anger would explode like this someday. I suck.”

Andrew gives a small smile before he says, “Allie, do you know what the cycle of abuse is?”

I blanch because, of course, I know what it is and, of course, I would know better than to stay in an abusive relationship. He continues:

“Abuse comes in many forms. Physical, sexual…emotional.”

Gaslighted and crazy-making

And at that moment, it dawns on me.

Shaking as I kneel next to him after the wild goose chase across campus to find him thinking he would kill himself. He would only talk to me and that’s how it all started…

 “I’m sorry I messed up, Allie, I’ll do better. Please give me another chance.”


 “I’m just not hungry, I don’t want to eat. I don’t want to talk to anyone else.” Staying out of fear he would do something if I didn’t.

 But then…

 “You made me this way Allie. It was all your fault, you just pushed me too far.”

 “If YOU got help, we could maybe reevaluate.”

 “You’re the crazy one, Allie. It wasn’t cheating, we were broken up. I didn’t cheat. I did nothing wrong and you have NOTHING to be upset about. You have no reason to cry about any of this.”

 And then my best friend, Lacy:

“Dude. You got fucking gaslighted. They are literally playing with you and enjoying seeing you blow up.”

A pretty normal reaction to emotional abuse

 Andrew is looking at me.

“I don’t know Greg or Ally. But I do know you. And you’re here. You feel bad. You want to change. And from what you have said, they don’t. He was physically restraining you and making you doubt your reality. You had a pretty normal reaction.”

As tears prick the back of my eyes. I look at Andrew again.

Normal? No one has ever validated my feelings like that before…


You may also want to read:
Anxiety Disorders: Everything You Need to Know
Seizing Permission to Live Life on Your Own Terms

Editor’s note: Here are some resources where you can learn more about emotional abuse:

I am going to write about the consequences of disbelieving in free will, but first I want to tell you a biblical story that has stayed etched in my memory to this day. It goes like this:

There was a traveler of the tribe of Levi and his concubine who came to the town of Gibeah. It is said to have been located southwest of Jerusalem in the territory of the tribe of Benjamin.

As they sat down to dine, they were attacked by the townspeople. He offered his concubine to the mob in order to prevent being assaulted himself. The concubine was raped all night by the mob.

The next morning, the man carried his murdered concubine to their hometown. He cut her body into twelve pieces and sent them to the twelve tribes of Israel.

The people, especially those of the tribe of Ephraim, upon hearing about the dastardly deed were outraged and proceeded to raze several Benjaminite towns, killing every man, woman, and child in them.

Was this really God’s will?

I was shaken by this story. The image of the man carrying his woman’s body, all alone, silent, grieving, probably crying quietly, tugged at this little boy’s heartstrings. “Why did the townspeople do it?” I asked my teacher. “They were bad people but they believed they were carrying out God’s will,” was the answer.

And why did the people of Ephraim kill every man, woman, and child? Because they believed they were meting out God’s punishment.

Of course, a young child cannot quite put his finger on the philosophical inconsistencies of the answer. But six decades later, I am still asking the same questions about religious zealots who rape, kill, and maim their own because they believe it is “God’s will.”

Don’t they have a will of their own? Why is it that religious zealots seem to me to be more prone to violent behavior than other groups?  And, why is their social world-view often tinged with cruelty toward their fellow human beings? Doesn’t “the good book” preach love and tolerance?

When God sanctions killing

Brad Bushman, a social psychologist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, is the lead author of a study, “When God sanctions killing: effect of scriptural violence on aggression,” It was published in the March 2007 issue of Psychological Science. It’s a bit old but still a valuable read on this topic.

Bushman directed ~500 students to read the tale about the tribe of Ephraim in order to study the role of “higher authority” in the propagation of religious violence. For half the students he added another passage:

When the man returned home, his tribe prayed to God and asked what they should do. God commanded the tribe to “take arms against their brothers and chasten them before the Lord.”

Then, the students took part in an exercise designed to measure aggression. About half of the study participants were from Brigham Young University and almost all of them were religious Mormons. The other half were from the Free University in Amsterdam. Of the Dutch group, only 50% believed in God, and 27% in the Bible (astonishingly high percentages, for Europeans).

But for both groups, regardless of whether they lived in the U.S. or the Netherlands, or whether they believed in God or not, the trends were the same. Those who were told that God had sanctioned the violence between the Israelites were more likely to act aggressively in the subsequent exercise.

What does it mean?

First, what it doesn’t mean. One cannot conclude that religious people are more aggressive than non-religious people. But it does suggest is that people are more prone to aggression when they feel that it is sanctioned by some higher authority, be it God, or his clergy.

Later studies suggest that there is a deeper aspect to the story. In the February 2009 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin researchers from the University of Kentucky and Florida State University described a fascinating series of experiments in a paper titled, Prosocial Benefits of Feeling Free: Disbelief in Free Will Increases Aggression and Reduces Helpfulness.

As the authors stated, they started from the premise that “laypersons’ belief in free will may foster a sense of thoughtful reflection and willingness to exert energy, thereby promoting helpfulness and reducing aggression.

An obvious consequence of this assumption is that “disbelief in free will may make behavior more reliant on selfish, automatic impulses and therefore less socially desirable.


Three studies tested the hypothesis that disbelief in free will would be linked with decreased helping and increased aggression.

  1. In the first experiment, they found that induced disbelief in free will reduced the willingness to help others.
  2. The second experiment 2 showed that chronic disbelief in free will was associated with reduced helping behavior.
  3. And lastly, experiment 3 found that participant-induced disbelief in free will caused participants to act more aggressively than others.

The authors concluded that “although the findings do not speak to the existence of free will, the current results suggest that disbelief in free will reduces helping and increases aggression.

More on the question of free will

The May 2011 issue of Psychological Science adds another contribution to the question of free will in an article by scientists from the University of Padua in Italy. It is titled, Inducing Disbelief in Free Will Alters Brain Correlates of Preconscious Motor Preparation: The Brain Minds Whether We Believe in Free Will or Not.

First, let’s understand what is meant by “preconscious motor preparation”. About 30 years ago, the neurophysiologist Benjamin Libet demonstrated that when a subject is hooked up to EEG electrodes and electrical activity is recorded when he is about to perform some voluntary activity (say, press a Y or an N on his computer keyboard in response to a question flashed on the screen), a few milliseconds before the activity is initiated there will be electrical activity called “readiness potential”.

Mind you, this is “preconscious” because it happens before the subject is even aware of what his answer going to be. Which gives rise to the question of whether this voluntary act was the product conscious action. Or was it predetermined by the brain before it even entered consciousness?

Is free will just an illusion?

The feeling of being in control of one’s own actions is a strong subjective experience. However, discoveries in psychology and neuroscience challenged the validity of this experience and suggest that free will is just an illusion.

This is an important question for the Church that grapples with issues of sin and free will. Or, or the Justice system that daily confronts issues of personal responsibility.

Even Libet was aware that the conclusion that free will does not exist needed much more direct evidence than his experiment suggested. Later experiments, notably in a pivotal paper by Schurger, Sitt and Dehane demonstrated that what Libet observed was not the brain making a decision. 

Rather it was a misinterpretation of random brain activity, akin to fluctuations of the weather or the stock market. The actual decision by the brain coincided exactly with the subjects pressing the computer key: 150 msec.

Does belief or disbelief in free will manifest in brain activity?

The Psychological Science paper didn’t deal with the question of whether free will exists or not. The question it asked was quite profound nonetheless: does belief or disbelief in free will have any manifestation in brain activity? More specifically, does it affect the readiness potential?

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Thirty subjects were presented with selected paragraphs from Francis Crick’s book Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul.

Half the subjects read, among other paragraphs, one that stated that free will is an illusion. The other half did not read that paragraph. The subjects were then asked to press a computer mouse when a cursor flashed across the screen.

The result: the ones who read the passage questioning the existence of free will had a significantly reduced “readiness potential” as compared to the control group.

Whether the readiness potential is a manifestation of preconscious, predetermined instruction by the brain how we should act is a matter of debate. But predetermined or not, it is part of voluntary control. And the study shows that believing that there is no free will, that all is predetermined by the brain, has, in turn, an effect on the brain and how it functions.

What are the consequences of determinism?

The familiar but unfortunate consequences of fundamentalist belief that all is predetermined by a higher authority have been with us since biblical times. And they are here today. So when we ask “how can ostensibly religious people commit atrocities?” there are no simple answers, but here is an attempt at some explanations.

Neurobiology tells us that disbelieving in free will reduces the brain’s control of voluntary activity. In other words, it is much more laissez-faire, anything-goes brain.

From an evolutionary point of view, we act on two levels:

  1. the individual aggressive animal
  2. the social empathetic one.

The latter requires self-control, which requires the feeling of self-control, illusory, or not.

Remove the belief in the existence of self-control and you removed the linchpin of civil society. Indoctrinate a person that God or your party leader (Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and others come to mind) predetermine all, that there is no such thing as free will, that there is no point in thinking for yourself because such a thing doesn’t exist, it is all illusory, and you create monsters of historical proportions.

From a psychological point of view, we as social animals are programmed to behave altruistically, exert self-control in our interactions with other members of our society. So when the aggressor in us asserts itself despite our religious or humanistic instincts it creates an unbearable cognitive dissonance.

We resolve it by denying belief in free will; God has willed us to do it, who am I to defy Him? As the comedian, Flip Wilson, kept making fun of this notion: “the devil made me do it”. Turns out, this is far from a laughing matter.

The bottom line

So regardless of whether free will is illusory or not (and recent neuroscience says that it is not illusory at all) – it is important that we believe it does exist. History taught us that the consequences of disbelieving in free will, of acceptance of determinism, are just too awful.

First published on May 30, 2011. Reviewed and updated by the author 06/21/17 and again on 8/12/20.

Pets and bullying are two topics one would not think to put together, but the fact is, pets can help play a major role in reducing bullying amongst kids. Interaction with animals, ranging from dogs, cats, horses, and even lizards and goldfish, has been shown to have a positive therapeutic effect on adults that increases both happiness and healing. Helping children was the next logical step in exploring the benefits of interaction between pets and humans. So, how do pets assist when bullying rears its ugly head?

Pet therapy

The therapeutic value of pets has long been known. Pets are used for therapy for a variety of conditions. They have also been found to bring comfort to people at the end-of-life. Wounded veterans and those suffering from PTSD have seen an easing of their symptoms related to pet therapy.

Programs that bring pets into prisons have reported improvements in the behavior of inmates exposed to the pets. They have a calming, relaxing effect on people because they release a hormone in the brain called oxytocin. This hormone is associated with feeling good and thinking positively. They relax people and make them feel more comfortable, and thus more willing to open up.

Pets and children

Children have a special relationship with pets. They are just learning about the world and they are often fascinated when they are responded to by a pet. It also gives them a sense of empowerment to care for another living being. This, in turn, manifests as compassion toward other people.

Children seem to make a transition from pets to other people more easily than children who don’t have pets. They also learn about social interaction from talking to and playing with a pet. They learn the basics of what is okay and not okay to do to other people. While at the same time having an unconditional companion they can talk to and tell secrets to.

Boy hugging his dog 1500 x 1613

Photo credit: Nathan Hanna on Unsplash

Pets take over the school

As a result, schools all over the country have invited programs that bring therapeutic pets for the children to play with. The benefits to the kids who participate in these programs exhibited in significantly fewer disciplinary actions. They also demonstrated less aggressive activity from compared with kids that didn’t participate in these programs.

Grades also have been seen to improve, as discipline and responsibility are instilled from socializing with the pets. Teaching them tricks and playing with them, even for as little as an hour a week, have been shown to improve the children’s overall behavior. Furthermore, programs like this grant the benefit of bringing domesticated animals to children who don’t have pets at home, providing interactions they may not have elsewhere.

Healing wounds

Bullying has been proven to lead to depression and a variety of other mental illnesses, but taking care of a pet can offset this very strongly. By giving a bullied child someone to bond with, pets can help ease the pain of being bullied by providing understanding, love, and support.

Pets, especially dogs and cats, are also sensitive to our emotions and tend to react accordingly. What better to have if being bullied than a compassionate friend that wants to make us happy? Children also talk to their pets. And this is a therapeutic way of coping with their emotions, which has the dual benefit of helping work out feelings and providing positive social interaction. This can prevent your child from being a bully!

Related Content: Scientific Reasons Why Keeping Fish Helps Prevent Loneliness

Dogs teach diversity

Dogs come in all sizes and shapes: large and small, hairy, hairless, long-snouted, flat-faced, big, floppy ears, and tiny pointed ears, to name a few. No matter what, they are all dogs and can be related to the same way. It doesn’t matter if the dog is a Labrador, a terrier, a poodle, or a chihuahua, dogs are dogs and children accept this.

Learning to accept this trait about dogs can help children associate it with humans. Horses and cats come in different colors, but dogs come in different shapes. When children see friendly dogs of different breeds interacting with each other and themselves, they apply that to their own interactions.

boy with trained-service-dog 1267 x 845The bottom line

Pets seem to have the infectious effect of making us happy because they evoke our compassion. This makes us feel good. There are many ways this can help children learn to interact with one another and adults.  But they can be especially useful in teaching kids to interact without being aggressive or violent toward one another.

Your pet gives back more to your family than is obvious, in the form of companionship, bonding, and unconditional love, all of which provide a strong shield against bullying.


First published on 4/18/17, this post has been updated for republication.

For the first time ever, in a very long life of international travel, I was ashamed to be an American. My husband and I went to the profoundly important Museo de Memoria y Tolerancia in Mexico City a few years ago. I have been to many Holocaust museums and genocide memorials around the world (including most recently the Red Terror Martyrs Memorial Museum in Addis Ababa). I expected this one to be similar. But I was wrong.


It was not a typical genocide memorial. Rather, it was a museum dedicated to tolerance. Indeed, there was much emphasis on understanding the antecedents and consequences of many different modern genocides, starting with the Armenian genocide and ending (at least temporarily) with Darfur.

The special exhibit

We spent almost five hours going through the museum and reading everything (in Spanish). Then, at the end of the regular tour, there was a special exhibition by an artist. It was placed in a small room that had large murals painted on walls. The murals were filled with messages of tolerance.

Two video players were also embedded in the walls. One was playing a YouTube video of Trump saying Mexico was sending us rapists—you remember this opening campaign statement from our then President-elect, right? 

Trump on Mexicans 1000 x 563

The other video was equally disturbing. It showed a young man looking at the camera from his truck. He told the viewers that he was going to pick up some men on the street to have them come and help build his deck. He nodded towards a group of obviously Hispanic men in work clothes. They excitedly piled into the back of his truck.

Related Content:
What Helps to Ensure Cooperation in Diverse Societies?

And then the camera panned to the driver again. He said, “They think I am taking them to my house to help build a deck, but that is not where I am taking them.” No surprise, he drove them to the local immigration office to turn them in.

He then returned to his truck and grinned into the camera. He appeared proud as punch for having scared the bejeezus out of some poor people who were willing to do work for him because they needed the money.

Above the video, the words “Trabajo no es crimen, Trabajo is dignidad” (work is not a crime, work is dignity) appeared.

Ashamed to be an American

We were in the exhibition room with a number of young Mexicans. We looked over at them. Their expressions showed the same shock and disgust that we were feeling. I was mortified.


This is not the America that I have been so proud of all of my life. I was ashamed to be a part of this view of America—so ashamed that I wanted to apologize to these young people, but words failed me. I did not believe this is who we aspire to be. I thought it was indeed shameful. 

Unfortunately, recent events related to our Southern border include (but are not limited to) the following government-sanctioned activities:

  • separating young children from their parents
  • deporting parents without their children
  • warehousing children in deplorable conditions
  • denying that blankets and toothbrushes are necessary to keep the children safe
  • children dying while in our custody
  • metering (limiting) opportunities to seek asylum
  • threatening mass deportations

These events make me think that I am wrong about the aspiration part.

There are powerful people (and as the featured video shows some not so powerful people) in this country who think, in fact, that demonizing people from other countries will “make America great again.”

What would you do?

The exhibit clearly showed that the men in the truck video were people who were looking for work. Work is not a crime, it brings dignity. It brings hope. Also, people hoping to seek asylum so they can enter the U.S. after fleeing horrific violence in their home countries is not a crime. Rather, it reflects a deeply ingrained and natural instinct for self- and family-preservation.

I wonder, dear readers, if you were living in a country where it is extremely dangerous to live and the ability to support your family was non-existent, what would you do? It is in our DNA to protect ourselves and our loved ones. If you weren’t born in America and you lived in a place like Tegucigalpa or San Salvador), would you accept your fate and just stay in place or would you do whatever it takes to get the hell out – taking your kids with you?

What should we do instead?

As some of the candidates in last night’s Democratic debate pointed out, instead of chasing down and deporting people, our country should be doing everything in its power to help make all countries safe to live in so people don’t have to leave.

Unfortunately, the stories of the many genocides displayed in the Tolerance museum have demonstrated that, all too often, our government (and that of many other wealthy nations) sides with the oppressors or simply turns a blind eye to the suffering of our fellow man.

This has got to change if we are ever to have a world without displaced people who are just trying to do what all of us would do if we were in their situation: Survive.

La Tolerancia Es La Relacion

If you are ever in Mexico City, please visit the Museo de Memoria y Tolerancia. It will change your view of the world. In fact, it would certainly be helpful for the future of the planet if our President, his advisors and cabinet members as well as the leadership of Congress, could spend a few hours there.

Editorial comment: This story was first published on June 27, 2016, with the title, “Remembrances, Tolerance, and Shame.” I wrote it shortly after my husband and I returned from a trip to Mexico City. If you are tracking the increasingly shameful racist events occurring all around the country – like the ones described in this story, you will understand that what I originally wrote in mid-2016 is, unfortunately, is still relevant today. Shame on us!


When we witness the horror of the mass shooting of innocent people who had nothing personal to do with the perpetrator, we wonder: “how could it be?”

How could an individual be so hateful as to extinguish the lives of dozens of people he didn’t know? People who didn’t do anything to harm him. People who were peacefully worshipping in their synagogue (Pittsburg), mosque (Bethlehem in the West Bank, Christchurch NZ) or church (Cairo Egypt, Islamabad Pakistan), to name a few.

The question “how could they?” actually goes deeper than just our generalized disapproving bewilderment. It leaves neuroscientists and social psychologists baffled as well.

Here is the scientific dilemma. Natural selection programmed us to be empathetic.

It endowed us with diverse cultures whose common moral foundation is the instinctual recognition of right from wrong. How could things go so wrong?

Let’s examine what’s happening here starting with how and why humans became empathetic and moral. And, closing with an exploration of the power of hate speech to activate primitive areas of our brains involved in evoking what are now considered to be destructive emotions: hatred, fear, revenge, and disgust.

How and why we became empathetic and moral creatures?

If you are put in an MRI machine and shown pictures or told a story, the MRI results would show something surprising. A picture of a person running, for instance, would activate your own motor cortex as if it is you who is running. If you see a mother crying bitterly over her dying baby, you would be filled with overwhelming sadness. Why does this happen?

It happens because our brains are wired with circuits located in different regions of the cerebral cortex that act as mirrors of the external world. This is the neurological basis for empathy.

Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing. It is sometimes described as the ability to place oneself in another’s position. This, in turn, gives rise to morality. It is the basis of the “Golden Rule”: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”.

Empathy begets altruism and morality

Intuitively, it is easy to comprehend how empathy (“feeling one’s pain”) leads to the generation of the “Golden Rule.” It is noteworthy that the rule is the backbone of virtually all religions and moral philosophies. 

Evolutionary biologists puzzled over the question of why should morality, basically a philosophical construct, survive virtually intact through eons of human evolution and natural selection. It suggests that there must be some survival advantage for a band, or a tribe, or society to behave morally.

There are several theories to explain the origin of morality. We’ll focus on the two that in my opinion are the most relevant.

  •  The origin of morality is based on the concept of reciprocity. 

What is reciprocity? Simply, if your family or band or tribe is bearing gifts to mine, we are more likely to reciprocate and be generous with yours. From this simple concept developed the more philosophically profound Golden Rule.

In its most common version, it states the principle of treating others as one’s self would wish to be treated. So what is the underlying principle of this maxim of all religions and moral philosophy? It is reciprocity!

How does the concept of reciprocity fit into the theory of the origins of morality? Richard Leakey and Roger Lewin attribute the very nature of humans to reciprocity. They claim humans survived because our ancestors learned to share goods and services “in an honored network of obligation.”

There is ample experimental and observational evidence that reciprocity is a strong determining factor of human behavior. It is also a powerful method for gaining compliance with a request because reciprocity has the power to trigger feelings of indebtedness.

But there is a catch: observations of monkeys and apes describe many examples of reciprocity as well. Yet, they cannot be described as moral animals. There must be an additional ingredient that is uniquely human. 

  • Another theory is a close cousin of the reciprocity model. It can be understood through the concept of intentionality.

This theory was proposed by Michael Tomasello, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University. Basically what it says is that unlike other animals, humans have the ability to flexibly change behavior to achieve a particular goal. This can be directed for the purposes of better competing with others or for the larger good of the group.

If my wife is a better cook that I am (and she really is) than I’d opt for washing the dishes. This is an elementary division of labor and is as ancient as H. sapiens. But as the size and complexity of the social unit increased, so did the nature of empathy, altruism, and morality.

The original bands were hunters (mostly the men) and gatherers (mostly the women). Such collaboration was imperative for survival. As the size of the group got larger (clans, tribes) the collaboration had to increase.

Importantly, the intention to collaborate (the reasons to collaborate) became more complex. For instance, stone age tribes in the jungles of Brazil support the survival of their elderly members for the abstract reasons of gratitude and respect. Not because it increased their own survival.

This, then, formed a fertile ground for the rise of altruism and morality as we know it today. 

Regardless of the theory explaining our better angels, one fact is incontrovertible. Either through genetics, or through epigenetics, or culture, we are an altruistic and moral species. 

The evolution of the brain

So if things are so wonderful, how is it that some individuals ignore their “better angels” and become hateful, revengeful, or even murderous?

The answer, as always, lies in evolution, more specifically the evolution of the brain. Unlike the popular concept that the brain is a wonderfully efficient computer unerringly executing our will in milliseconds, it is actually an inefficient machine. It is the product of eons of ad-hoc additions and fixes.

In the most primitive animals, the brain served mostly vegetative functions: blood circulation, breathing, some primitive aspects of digestion. These functions are located in the brainstem.

As animals became more complex, so did the functions that their brain had to subserve. When animals needed to see farther and in more detail, a large visual cortex evolved. When they needed to hear better, an auditory cortex developed. And so forth.

In order to survive to reproduce, animals also had to successfully react to the many dangers in their environment. This led to the development of a walnut-size group of neurons called the amygdala. This is the areas of the brain where rage, fear, and fight-or-flight instincts are located.

All these additional functions reside in the layer that was added onto the brainstem, called the midbrain. Later, with the appearance of monkeys about 55 million years ago, a new thin outer layer of brain cells developed, the neocortex. Initially, it was very thin only becoming thicker with the appearance of apes about 25 million years ago.

But then something astonishing happened about 200,000 years ago. With the appearance of the first human species, the neocortex began thickening at a rapid pace. It now contains many more neurons, capable of carrying out more and more complex functions, including the abilities to

  • Behave altruistically to kin and to total strangers alike.
  • Develop philosophical concepts of right and wrong, based on the reciprocity inherent in the Golden Rule.
  • Make up your mind, and change it (intentionality)
  • Become self-aware
  • Feel love

The amygdala, hate, and hate speech

There is a constant tension in our brains (and psyche) between our amygdala-based defensive urges of fear, hate, revenge, disgust (demons we all carry) and our “better angels” of compassion, altruism, and morality.

As Kahneman and Tversky have shown, this delicate balance between primitive and enlightened and good and evil is vulnerable to influences of long-forgotten experiences, of unconscious biases, and yes-even to speech. Here are a few examples:

  • When Salafist preachers incited their followers with hateful speeches about the evils visited on Muslims, tens of thousands of young Muslims flocked to Iraq and Syria to perpetrate unimaginable atrocities.
  • In 1994, Baruch Goldstein, an avid follower of the racist messianic rabbi, Meir Kahane. entered a mosque in the Cave of the Patriarchs and opened fire. He killed 29 worshippers and wounded 125 more. Kahane continually spewed hatred of Israeli-Arabs and Palestinians so it shouldn’t surprise us that one of his followers would commit such a despicable act.
  • And, where did the killer of the Pittsburg’s Tree of Life synagogue worshippers get his warped ideas? In part, from the hate-filled websites Gab and 4chan, of course.

Over 2500 years ago the Bible already warned us:

“The tongue has the power of life and death” (Proverbs 18:21).

This ancient wisdom is even truer today: words matter and they can tip the delicate balance in our heads to do good or evil. 

Understanding hate speech

A series of Polish studies showed that repeated exposure to hate speech can desensitize individuals to verbal aggression. This is, in part, because it normalizes what is usually socially condemned behavior.

What happens in the brain when you listen to hate speech? It provokes a surge of stress hormones, like cortisol and norepinephrine. It also engages the amygdala, the brain center for threat.

One study, for example, that focused on “the processing of danger” showed that threatening language can directly activate the amygdala. This makes it hard for people to dial down their emotions and think before they act. 

What we can learn from the master of hate speech

Josef Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister, was a master at understanding how to generate hatred. He called Jews cockroaches and rats. It was not by accident. These creatures evoke disgust. By repeating this name-calling, again and again, he de-humanized the Jews.

This allowed Nazis and their supporters to exterminate millions of Jews with the same moral revulsion that killing a cockroach generates. The moral sense of outrage that such an act would normally evoke was successfully anesthetized.

Fast forward to our own times. In an article on the “Neuroscience of Hate Speech,” psychiatrist Richard A. Friedman points out that President Trump’s rhetoric has been a powerful contributor to our current climate of hate and division. His words are ably amplified by the right-wing media and a virulent online culture.

Although we cannot directly tie the President’s hateful words to a mass murder, one could reasonably wonder – is it only a matter of time?

The bottom line: Political demagogues and peddlers of hate may not know the science of hate, but they do know precisely how to push our amygdala buttons. 

Never Again? Really?         

Related content: Why I was Ashamed to be an American

The mental health of American children is a topic which has seen a lot of debate and research in recent years. Investigations into suicide rates, bullying, violence, and other social issues facing students have revealed growing (or perhaps previously invisible) mental health issues among the nation’s youth.

Violence occurring in schools has been one of the major driving forces behind a focus on mental health for students. However, the connection between mental health and acts of mass violence is tenuous and not currently supported by the American Psychological Association.

Better mental health management and intervention resources are an objective good when it comes to guiding young people through turbulent points in their lives, but framing the conversation around violence is a pitfall that could have lasting ramifications.

Mental Health Resources Are Critical for Survivors

In all the discussion and bluster about shoring up mental health resources in order to prevent violence and detect violent people, one of the most crucial uses for these resources is often overlooked.

Survivors of traumatic events — not just shootings and mass violence, but abuse, assault, rape, and severe accidents — often require a great deal of assistance in their recovery. The conversation about mental health is an ongoing one, and public discourse around it often shifts between urgent panic after a major tragedy and virtual silence in the meantime.

The fact is that mental health can be a “public” epidemic if a large number of people don’t have access to the resources they need, especially young people. However mental health resources cannot be seen as an arm of law enforcement. We have to be very careful, in talking about a vital support system often used by victims, to avoid focusing on perpetrators.

Mental health resources can absolutely be employed to fight very public issues that affect youth: opioid abuse, alcohol abuse, and suicide, among others. Mental health is, on the other hand, a very individual and private experience. That must be respected if we want to actually help our children. If a student who’s being bullied won’t seek help for fear they’ll be handed over to the police as a potential mass shooter, what’s the point of having the resources in the first place?

The more we focus on mental health as a cause of violence — a conclusion not supported by any current medical evidence — the more we alienate the victims and everyday people who rely on mental health support services.

Mental Health Policy Cannot Be Adversarial

The problem with attaching mental health to crisis events in politics and conversation is that there are no quick fixes in mental health. You can’t respond to a crisis and then send people back out to fend for themselves. Well, you can, but it won’t solve any problems.

Mental health is a process of management, maintenance, and follow-up, and people often require access to help for long periods of time if not their whole lives in order to prevent more critical problems. Mental health resources are not a tool for “discovering the cr*zies” in order to prevent them from hurting people. It can’t be stated enough that violence, particularly gun violence, and mental health are statistically unrelated.

So we have to be very careful when talking about mental health as a detection and intervention strategy because it runs the risk of criminalizing a medical condition, punishing people who have done, and will do nothing wrong, and discouraging people from seeking help.

Remember that mental health can mean a number of things, which include environment or event-based incidents that cause trauma, chemical imbalances that cause things like depression, as well as permanent intellectual disabilities. Everyone has different needs, and while it may be plausible that good mental health resources may help prevent a violent event, it has not been empirically proven. Public safety is not, nor should it be, the job of mental health professionals. That’s because there is no correlation between people with mental illness and people who are a danger to public safety.

The desire to separate ourselves from people who commit acts of violence makes sense, and calling a violent person mentally ill is one way to do that. Unfortunately, it’s at best a harmful misunderstanding, and at worst a malicious falsehood. We all have a relationship to violence, the differences between acceptable and unacceptable types of violence are matters of social consensus and law. It would be a mistake to suggest that all American slave owners were mentally ill. It would also be a mistake to suggest that people who are trained to perform acts of violence under certain circumstances, soldiers and law enforcement, are mentally ill. The difference between acts of violence that we condone, or consider necessary, and those we don’t, are the rules we place on them. A propensity to do illegal or immoral things is generally not a symptom of most mental illnesses. Most of the violence in society, moral and immoral, is committed by people who do not have mental illness.

Related Content:
A 13-Year-Old’s Perspective on How to Stem Violence in the World
Why Mental Health Education in Schools is So Important?

Counselors and Mental Health Professionals Aren’t Just For People With Big Problems

Mental health is something that, at some point, almost all of us will struggle with. Some people struggle more than others, and some people struggle for their whole lives, but everyone needs a little help once in a while.

Our children are at once extremely resilient and uniquely vulnerable. Adolescents go through many turbulent periods, and there is no shame in receiving help, because, again, much of mental health is about maintaining, not fixing. Counselors at schools with more resources are able to provide students not only with help during emotionally distressing events but also develop their social and professional skills, setting them up for academic and career success. Workers for students with disabilities make a huge difference in the lives of their students. Crisis intervention workers can certainly address more serious issues but are primarily concerned with cases such as abuse, serious bullying, addressing suicide, and other situations legitimately connected with mental health. They are also uniquely positioned to intervene early before stress, trauma, and depression lead to serious disorders such as substance abuse.

The proclivity for violence is not one of the things attributable to mental health, and so however well-meaning, calling for greater mental health in order to combat school violence is not only ineffective, it actively damages the cause of mental health. It’s a disservice to children to clamor about mental health when someone commits violence and then ignore the worrying statistics that tell us 60 percent of adolescents with major depressive episodes do not receive any form of treatment.

So yes, mental health is an issue in America. It’s just not the issue politicians want it to be.

In a remarkable opinion piece in the Annals of Internal Medicine, titled “What You Can Do to Stop Firearm Violence,” long-time gun researcher, Garen Wintemute, MD, MPH, asks doctors to make a commitment to help reduce firearm-related injuries and deaths. There is a link at the top of the article that takes you to a form where you can craft your personal commitment statement. You then have the option of making your commitment statement public, appearing as comments at the end of his article. He notes correctly that “commitments to change health-related behaviors mean more when they are made in public.”

What Dr. Wintemute is asking doctors to do is

“ask our patients about firearms, counsel them on safe firearm behaviors, and take further action when the imminent hazard is present.”

If we were talking about installing cabinet locks to keep toddlers out of cupboards where we store toxic household products, no one would argue. It is our job to help prevent injuries. If we were talking about night lights so that older people won’t trip and fall when they use the bathroom at night, no one would argue. But there are people who will argue that asking or counseling about firearms is not the job of health professionals. What? How can that be?


Firearms and health—short-term outcomes

There is an average of 96 deaths due to firearms every day in this country. A large percentage of them are due to suicide. According to the Annals’ article, almost half of these people have seen a physician in the prior month. Every one of those visits was an opportunity to ask about suicidal thoughts and risk factors for successful suicide, such as a firearm in the home.

Some of the firearm deaths occur because a child has found a gun in his home or in the home of a friend, or some other place that an inquisitive youngster can’t resist. When kids find these guns, they may pull the trigger and kill themselves or someone else even though they may have been told by mom or dad that if you find a gun, don’t touch it and tell your mom or dad about it.

We all remember the horrific story of the 2-year old who shot his Mom to death in Wal-Mart the day after Christmas. He had found her gun in a zippered compartment of her purse and accidentally shot her in the head. According to the newspaper story, the mother had had handgun classes, but who knows if it covered the risks of putting a loaded gun in close proximity to a curious toddler even if she thought it was “concealed”? What if her pediatrician had talked to her about the risks of toddlers and guns at her last visit, letting her know that even toddlers can find hiding places that adults think are safe? Could it have made a difference?

We know that perpetrators of mass violence often have a history of domestic abuse. Many health professionals screen for domestic violence, but how often do they take the extra step and ask if there are guns in the home, a circumstance that is supposed to make the abuser ineligible to purchase weapons. Could that reduce, even by a small measure, the number of mass murders in this country?

Related Content: People Should Prove They Have Earned the Right to Have a Gun

Firearms and health: Long-term consequences

Long after the stories about children killed when their best friend pulls a trigger or concert-goers are gunned down in Las Vegas, survivors and their families will live with the horrendous physical and mental health impacts of gun violence.

Most people who survive a gunshot wound to the head will have neurologic deficits, some of which are quite profound. Gunshot wounds to the spine may leave a survivor wheelchair-bound or worse if the injury to the spinal cord was at a high level. The shooting of Senator Steve Scalise highlights the severe injuries that result from being shot in the pelvis, the painful and disabling sequelae of which have been chronicled in the press. Even seemingly “minor” gunshot wounds to the extremities can result in life-altering injuries.

Victims of mass murders often suffer severe mental health after-effects such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression. These are not limited to the surviving shooting victims, but also affect witnesses, even very young children, as well as family members.

Finally, victims of shootings and their families often experience long-lasting negative effects on their finances related to the uncovered costs of the injuries, both acutely and over the ensuing months to years, disability, survivor and caregiver loss of income, and more. Hospitalizations alone cost over $700 million dollars not counting costs related to follow-up, readmissions, home medications, and loss of work.

Many of these long-term consequences are invisible to most of us because the victims and their families often suffer in silence. Reporters quit calling, friends drift away, social support runs out, and no one thinks (or has the temerity) to ask why a young man is in a wheelchair or on long-term-disability. The headline-grabbing event that caused the physical or mental health injury in the first place is in the distant past for everyone except the victims and their families.


So, why don’t we ask our patients about firearms?

Dr. Wintemute provides references that document that

  1. “We already know that we should talk about firearms with patients
  2. And, patients agree with us
  3. But, we don’t do it”.

He goes on to say,

“there is a growing literature on when such conversations are most appropriate, how to ask the questions, and what to do with the answers.”

Educational materials for both patients and providers are available at the What You Can Do website. You can find them here (the URL is httpss:// ). These materials an help with the discussion. The key, he notes, is to let your patients know that you are asking about firearms because you care about their family’s health and well-being.

Here’s the beginning of the patient brochure:

What You Can Do About Guns brochure cover - patients (619 x 479


And the provider brochure:

What You Can Do Guns brochure cover - providers 476 x 613


The bottom line

Here is Dr. Wintemute’s bottom line:

Make a commitment to ask your patients about firearms when, in your judgment, it is appropriate, and follow through…Please,” he continues,”make your commitment. There is no better time, and it’s the right thing to do.

I wholeheartedly agree. Here’s that link again. There is no better time than now.

Related Content: Another Gun Massacre – When Will We Ever Learn?

Originally published Feb. 18, 2018, it has been updated to include information about the newly released patient and provider educational materials available on the What You Can Do Website.

Bullying can take many different forms but is defined as the aggressive behavior of one or more people against another for any number of reasons. It results from a real or imagined power differential. Sometimes it is an older kid picking on a younger child or a popular set of teens bullying the outcast.

Regardless of how it happens or to whom, both the person being bullied and the bully may suffer from permanent and serious damage. Bullying is an offense that is often repeated frequently over time.

Types of Bullying

There are some common ways a person can be bullied. Bullying can include threats, physical attacks, spreading of rumors or excluding and making fun of a particular person.

-Verbal Bullying

Verbal abuse as a bullying tactic can include teasing, taunting, name-calling, threats and even unwanted sexual comments.

-Social Bullying

Also called relationship bullying, this type is designed to destroy a person’s reputation or relationships. It can be as simple as excluding someone from a social event, influencing others to avoid someone, spreading rumors about that person or embarrassing them in front of others.


Cyberbullying takes place online and consists of threatening or mean emails, text messages or posts on social media. Cyberbullying is very common in our modern society.

-Physical Bullying

Possibly the most damaging type of bullying is physical bullying which may include hitting, kicking, punching, tripping, pushing, spitting, or taking and breaking other people’s belongings.

How Do I know if My Child is Being Bullied?

As a parent or adult in charge of children, the first thing to be aware of are the warning signs of bullying. Below are some things to look for in your children and if you notice any of these signs, take swift action to correct the problem.

  • Showing signs of feeling helpless or lack of self-esteem.
  • Unexplained injuries.
  • Lost or destroyed property and belongings.
  • Faking illness or frequent stomach or headaches.
  • Changes in eating habits, skipping meals or extra meals when their lunch money or lunch is stolen.
  • Nightmares or difficulty sleeping.
  • Self-destructive behavior; suicide thoughts or comments, running away from home or other harmful activities.
  • Avoidance of social situations or loss of friends.
  • Drop in grade scores or reluctance to attend school.

Bullying is a serious issue with severe consequences especially for the person who is bullied. If you think your child is the victim of bullying do not wait, take action to stop it immediately.

Steps Parents Can Take to Prevent Bullying

The first and probably most effective way to prevent bullying is to teach your children how to handle bullying if it happens to them. You may even want to practice at home different scenarios to help them become confident in their abilities to handle the situation. By empowering your kids, you give them a voice they may otherwise not use after the fact.

Another critical factor is setting technology boundaries. Talk to your kids about cyberbullying, what it is and how not to respond and how to disconnect with those “friends” who are being aggressive and mean. Make it a practice to share Facebook or social channel accounts so that you can see who your child is connected to and the type of content they are experiencing.

Monitor text messages on your kid’s phones and keep computers in a family room.

Be sure you or your partner does not use bullying behavior at home. Children learn what they see and hear. Be sure to educate your children on the legal ramifications of bullying and the serious damage it can cause. This alone may help to prevent your kids becoming a bully.

Steps to Take if Your Child Has Been Bullied

Most bullying takes place in school or on school property, so the first thing to do is report it to the school administration. You will want to meet in person with your child’s teacher, the principal or superintendent as well. Make notes of the specifics of the incidents. If the abuse is severe and taking the steps above does not resolve it, you will want to contact the U.S. Department of Education for assistance.

Talk with your child about the situation and assure them it is not their fault. Tell them they were right to come to you and report it. Be sure to glean all the specific details about who is doing the bullying, what type of bullying is going on, when and how.

What Rights do Children Have in the U.S. Against Bullying?

The laws specific to bullying are set at the town and state level. There is no federal law regarding bullying, but the U.S. Department of Education addresses bullying issues and can help resolve them or intervene in particularly serious cases.

 “History repeats itself because no one

was listening the first time.”


I wrote this post about the Bosnia war a number of years ago, but re-reading it made me think about the sociopolitical environment that exists in our country today. Our alienation from each other, and from “the other”—be it Democrats from Republicans, urban from rural, whites from blacks, secular from the religious, Christians from Moslems, and both from Jews, and citizens from migrants—is frighteningly reminiscent of the conditions that existed in Bosnia at the time of their terrible conflict. And given certain political leaders’ acquiescence and even encouragement of “the new normal”, I believe there is a compelling reason to fear for our country.


Tribalism is not destiny: The story of an ancient book

Let’s face it. We are tribal animals. Paradoxically, as we evolved into the human species, we became more viciously tribal and, at the same time, more altruistically humane. These thoughts went through my mind as I was reading Geraldine Brooks’ wonderful historical novel People of the Book: A Novel about the history of the Haggadah, the story of the exodus of the Jews out of Egypt.

This Haggadah was written in 15th century Spain before the expulsion of the Jews in 1492. It was illustrated by a Moslem girl and became the first illustrated Jewish manuscript. After the expulsion, it was smuggled out of Spain by the same Moslem girl and ended up in Venice. It barely escaped the auto-da-fe of the Inquisition.

From there, it was moved to Sarajevo in the 19th century and required yet another rescue—this time from the Nazis—by a Moslem scholar and his extended family, who hid it in a village mosque. After the war, the Haggadah was returned to its place of honor at the National Museum in Sarajevo. But not for long. The city of amity, civility, and culture fell victim to inter-ethnic and religious strife, as well as a vicious Serbian bombardment, and the book had to be rescued once again and hidden by a Moslem librarian.

I am not going to reveal the astonishing ending of the story. I will only add that the research Brooks did was absolutely amazing; some details of which I actually had personal experience with (she describes a Zionist youth movement that one of the protagonists belonged to; I belonged to the very same one).

As you can tell, the book paints a luminous picture of humaneness on the dark background of indescribable human cruelty to “the other”. So now, let’s dive into this a bit further by looking at the particular case of Bosnia.


Could Bosnia be redeemed from its nightmarish past?

The cynics among us would probably chuckle at the naiveté of such a question; the irredeemable optimists among us would say, of course. So, who was right? The answer is as always: It depends. On what? A couple of behavioral economists set out to investigate.

Marcus Alexander of Stanford and Fontini Christia of MIT observed that, whereas altruism drives the evolution of human cooperation, ethnoreligious diversity has been considered to obstruct it, leading to poverty, corruption, and war. They argue that current research has failed to properly account for the institutional environment and how it affects the role diversity plays.

The emergence of thriving, diverse communities throughout human history suggests that diversity does not always lead to cooperation break down. To study what keeps societies harmonious and what causes the harmony to break down, Alexander and Christia looked at the behavior of students belonging to two ethnic groups, Catholic Croats and Muslim Bosniacs, in post-war Bosnia and Herzegovina.

In the city of Mostar, two previously segregated school were integrated, while two other sites were left segregated. Integration happened for purely logistical reasons. Thus, any differences in behavior by the students from segregated and integrated schools can be attributed to a causal effect of integration. To measure these effects, the students participated in economic experiments that pit an individual’s self-interest against the welfare of other participants. These “others” sometimes belong to the same ethnic group, and sometimes not, at the integrated as well as segregated schools. This allowed the authors to measure the willingness to cooperate with others.

Alexander and Christia added a wrinkle to their experiment: They let participants sanction others by reducing their payoff at a personal cost. Such sanctions can reinforce group cooperation if they are directed against selfish individuals who otherwise wouldn’t cooperate. However, the availability of sanctions also raises the prospect of inflicting harm onto others for no good reason, which can then lead to an even worse outcome than when sanctioning is not possible.

Alexander and Christia show cooperation to be significantly hampered when people interact with members of another ethnic group. In mixed groups, contributions to the public good are much lower than in homogeneous groups. However, the authors also show that an integrative environment removes such parochialism, leading to the same cooperation rates within and between ethnoreligious groups. Furthermore, integration modulates the effectiveness of sanctions. Alexander and Christia find that giving means to sanction others is completely ineffective in segregated environments. Integration brings back the benefits of sanctioning, leading to high cooperation rates.


The nature of group interactions depends on context

In their commentary on the paper, Gotte and Meier conclude that

“the nature of group interactions thus depends critically on the context. In segregated societies, cooperation is strongly obstructed by group diversity, whereas in an integrated environment, even mixed groups can achieve high levels of cooperation. Given that the proper functioning of a sanctioning mechanism is a critical part of sustaining high cooperation and preventing conflict, the finding that sanctioning seems to crucially depend on the environment is important. To increase contributions, sanctions have to be directed toward selfish individuals who refuse to cooperate. However, in certain contexts, people sanction indiscriminately—a behavior termed ‘antisocial punishment’—thereby completely destroying the benefits of sanctions. The evidence reported by Alexander and Christia suggests that segregated societies may achieve lower levels of cooperation and trigger conflicts because sanctions are not working properly. This is consistent with the evidence that antisocial punishment is especially pronounced in societies with close-knit social networks. Integration can turn sanctioning behavior back to being prosocial and less parochial.”

To put the results in human terms, living in close proximity to one another, getting to know the “other” as human beings with a human heart and mind, and concerns and aspirations are part of the solution. The other part of the solution is the ability of the group to sanction the ones who try to disrupt it.

Great insight. Integrationists and segregations of our society: Are you listening? There is a lesson here for both of you.

This story was originally published 5/29/12, reviewed by the author and updated 07/10/17 and is being republished today in honor of the author’s upcoming birthday. Thank you Dov, your stories are always a gift!

According to a recent report by NBC News, America’s youngest generation is facing a serious mental health crisis, including anger, depression, and anxiety. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 1 in 5 American children ages 3 through 17, about 15 million, have a diagnosable mental, emotional, or behavioral disorder in a given year. Only 20 percent of these children are ever diagnosed and receive treatment; 80 percent, about 12 million, are not receiving treatment. Recent research indicates that serious depression is worsening in teens, which can lead to anger management problems, violence, and suicide.

As a teenager, who hopes to grow up and have kids of my own one day, these statistics frighten me. I am concerned for the kids that will grow up in this country now and in the future. Almost every day we turn on the news and hear another story of violence and mass murder. We need to help change the direction this planet of ours is headed in before it is too late. As Gandhi said,

“If you want to effectuate peace, then start by educating the children.”


Youth suicide and depression

According to the Merrian-Webster dictionary, depression is marked the following:

  • Sadness
  • Difficulty thinking or focusing
  • An increase or decrease in sleeping and eating
  • Feelings of being alone
  • Hopelessness
  • Lack of energy, and
  • Sometimes suicidal or homicidal tendencies.

There are many types of medications, therapies, and techniques to manage depression. But these superficial solutions do not help erase the cause, especially in this day and age, because depression, anxiety, and anger are such huge problems with youngsters.

Suicide is a real threat to kids as early as middle school. That’s not okay. Something must be done to help our youth.


Teaching yogic principles

We can help kids learn to deal with their emotions, to feel better about themselves and to feel love and inner-peace. We must reach them when they are young and teach them the “off the mat” yogic principles of giving gratitude and thinking well so that it becomes an automatic response to stress.

“You cannot always control what goes on outside, but you can always control what goes on inside.”–Wayne Dyer

If we can infuse these kids with yogic-tools that become second nature to them, then hopefully they will handle whatever life throws their way without solving the issue by shooting up movie theaters, concerts, or schools, hurting others, or hurting themselves. I know this is not the only answer, but it is a part of the answer, and I do not ever want what happened in Parkland to ever happen again.

Kids should not be afraid to go to school, and parents should not be afraid to send their kids to school.

It is more important than ever to teach kids the skills they need to cope with emotions in a better way so they can stop the negative loop in their head and begin focusing on the positive. The effects of living a healthy lifestyle in mind, body, and spirit, including Yoga, meditation, nutrition, positive thinking, and the ability to manage emotions, has been studied by doctors and scientists. Their conclusion is that there is a mind-body connection, and our thoughts have the ability to make us well or make us unwell. Science has shown that Yoga, meditation, and mindfulness can assist in the healing process and that our minds can control our bodies. [See references and links below] 

In order to help children grow up healthy and happy, we must reach them when they are young and teach them how to live a mindful life, how to better control their thoughts, and how to live in light.


Wuf Shanti

I created Wuf Shanti, Yoga Dog for Kids to help young people learn how to live a yogic lifestyle. Wuf Shafti videos can be found on local PBS stations, on the Children’s TV Network in children’s hospitals across the country, and on the Wuf Shanti YouTube Channel. There is also a Yoga Fun Machine mindful mobile app. All of these tools help kids learn to practice Yoga, positive thinking, and meditation so that those tools become an automatic response to stress as they grow-up.

Learning to deal with life’s issues in a more productive way will hopefully help kids to be less depressed and anxious teens and happier peace-loving adults. Our curriculum includes a focus on healing, communication, diversity, kindness, gratitude, inclusion, and positive thinking.

By teaching kids to make a Yoga practice a part of their daily routine, even if it is just for 5-10 minutes each day, they will lead a much healthier lifestyle, physically, mentally, and spiritually. Positive effects of a balanced yogic-lifestyle include decreases in depression and anxiety, increased focus, learning, and creativity, reduction of illness, and increased feelings of compassion and empathy.

With all of these proven benefits, why isn’t everyone teaching their kids to meditate, do Yoga, and eat, sleep, and think well



Mace, C. (2008). Mindfulness and mental health: Therapy, theory, and science. New York: Routledge.

Schreiner, I., Malcolm, J.P. (2008). The benefits of mindfulness meditation: Changes in emotional states of depression, anxiety, and stress. Behaviour Change, 25(3), 156-168.

Singh, N. N., Lancioni, G. E., Winton, A. S. W., Adkins, A. D., Wahler, R. G., Sabaawi, M., et al. (2007). Individuals with mental illness can control their aggressive behavior through mindfulness training. Behavior modification, 31(3), 313-328.

Bortz, J. J., Summers, J. D., Pipe, T. B. (2007). Mindfulness meditation: evidence of decreased rumination as a mechanism of symptom reduction.Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, 19(2), 217-218.




The shrillness of the gun debate is disappointing. And I am particularly disappointed by the way the “Founders” are sometimes invoked as private property libertarians who supported unrestricted gun ownership. In over twenty years of writing about the Revolutionary Era, I’ve reviewed literally thousands of documents—local and state government records and account books, militia returns and orders, veterans’ pension applications and Continental Army papers, court dockets and case papers, estate inventories and personal papers, and hundreds of pages of newspaper. So I feel like I have a pretty good sense for how the founding generation governed—particularly in lower New York and New Jersey. What follows is a short discussion of the governing record of the Founders with respect to regulating firearms.

The sanctity of gun ownership during the revolutionary war

When governing in the region I’ve studied, the Founders showed little sanctity for gun ownership. From its first days as a proto-national government, the Second Continental Congress advised States to disarm individuals suspected of disloyalty and to impound goods, if necessary, for the good of the Army. Local Committees of Safety, acting as de facto county governments prior to the first post-independence elections, assembled militias not to fight the British, but to impound useful war materials—including guns, but also livestock, foodstuffs, liquor, forage, boats, and wagons.

George Washington’s first action of 1776 was a campaign to confiscate the private arms of the citizens in Queens Co., New York. The impoundments occurred without trial, though the Army did provide receipts, which were redeemable for (nearly worthless) Continental currency. Meanwhile, local militias in New Jersey confiscated arms and livestock from people living along the Jersey shoreline. In one county, the militia was called out specifically to confiscate guns from African-Americans, both free and slave. These were not actions taken against a handful of traitors, but large actions against neighborhoods of people.

Guns were confiscated from individuals without due process. Firearms were treated similarly to other kinds of private property impounded for the war effort. In a region under British invasion, the need to win a war trumped individual property rights—including the right to own a gun.

Related Content:  People Should Prove They Have Earned the Right to Have a Gun

The Federalist papers

A decade later, as the Federalists attempted to make the Constitution more attractive to a skeptical public, they added a Bill of Rights (ten amendments to the Constitution) to lessen fears that the Constitution would become “an engine of tyranny”.

The 2nd Amendment to the Constitution, in its entirety, reads:

“A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

People will argue forever about the construction of this sentence and its meaning, but the opening phrase, “a well-regulated militia,” deserves consideration.

Minute Man Statue, Lexington, Mass (Wikimedia) 272 x 450

Minute Man Statue, Lexington, Mass (Wikimedia)

Drawing from the Revolutionary experience, the Founders believed that a local militia, properly officered by community leaders, was essential to resisting external threats and a potentially oppressive central government. The 2nd Amendment spoke to the Colonial and Revolutionary experience.

The Founders did not make detailed or public arguments regarding private gun ownership as a unique right. The Federalist Papers, written by the Founders to explain the benefits of the Constitution, discuss different rights in great detail: Fair treatment before the law, the right to vote, freedom of religion and the press, etc. To the degree firearms are mentioned, it is nearly always in the context of the right of Americans to organize into local militias to resist political tyranny and protect the nation from external threats.

Federalist #29 declares “it is a matter of the utmost importance that a well-digested plan should be adopted for the proper establishment of the militia“; and Federalist #46 discusses the strength of a militia “with arms in their hands, officered by men chosen from among themselves, fighting for their common liberties.” However, The Federalist Papers—85 essays and 200,000 words, many of which are devoted to articulating the rights of citizens—do not dwell on firearms as a unique property right.

Gun ownership in the early republic

The first president permitted the seizure of private property. Federalized militia—more or less led by Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton—confiscated a wide variety of private property from the “Whiskey rebels” of Pennsylvania (including guns). The federal government was willing to take goods in the name of restoring public order and ask questions later.

In the new nation, families often owned a gun, but it was not ubiquitous. By the late 1700s, long settled parts of the country were fully agrarian and a century removed from the frontier. The farm family estate inventories I’ve seen reveal that many families owned a gun, and many did not. And gun ownership was even less common among the large numbers of poor “cottagers” and landless laborers who drifted between agricultural and maritime pursuits.

To the British, Americans were indeed “a people numerous and armed“—but that statement is relative to the population of Britain. It was hardly an absolute.

The limits of privately-owned weaponry

The common guns of the late 1700s had limited range, limited accuracy, and a cumbersome reloading process. A man with a saber on horseback was more dangerous to a crowd of people. As no public menace was posted by one or a few guns, the Founders saw no need for “gun control”. However, local governments owned the really dangerous stuff. Casks of gunpowder, artillery, and anti-personnel weapons (i.e., grapeshot) were inventoried, secured by commissioned officers, and kept in guarded public magazines. Even the most powerful men of the day did not keep private stores of dangerous weapons. Washington’s estate at Mt. Vernon, for example, had nothing more dangerous than a small number hunting rifles. Leading merchants like John Hancock and Robert Morris purchased large quantities of war materials and then turned them over to state and local governments.

I do not mean to suggest the Founders were anti-gun or anti-private property. I do mean to suggest that they were pragmatic and, with the exception of a few cosmopolitans, locally-focused. Private property rights for guns or nearly anything else was fine unless it threatened the good of the community as they defined it based on the problem of the day. When that happened, private property rights—of all types—were sacrificed.

In a few personal letters, Founders speak glowingly of the importance of an armed citizenry. Washington’s quote about guns being “liberty’s teeth” is frequently cited. These quotes can be interpreted differently, but one read is that they simply affirm the importance of a “well-regulated militia” (led by, of course, the Founders and their kinsmen).

It also must be remembered that the Founders were prodigious writers who tested ideas in their letters, much as we do in emails today. Thomas Jefferson, for example, wrote letters in which he stated that because the Constitution did not give the Executive the power to acquire foreign territory, the Louisiana Purchase was unconstitutional. But he still signed the deal. That is why I focus on governing actions and public documents in this essay, rather than pulling favorite selected quotes from personal letters.

Keep the founders out of it

When it comes to gun control, argue whatever position you want. But maybe we should keep the Founders out of it. It is inconsistent with their governing record to believe that they were supporters of unrestricted private firearms.

P.S. I like skeet shooting with my boys. I don’t hunt, but a couple of my friends do, and it’s a nice part of their lives. School shootings like the recent one in Florida make me sad, but I am against curtailing these long-established activities.

This post was originally published on 11/01/15. It has been reviewed and updated by the author and republished on 02/20/18 because of its unfortunate timeliness.