Effect Measure

It’s a common observation that kids don’t have a good sense of their own mortality. Whether it’s from a deficit of wisdom, a surfeit of impulsiveness or adventurousness or even evolutionary reasons has been debated. I have my own ideas.

I thought about them again in the wake of the melancholy events at Virginia Tech where 33 students and faculty died in a mass shooting in which the shooter took his own life. As a parent it was hard not to think first of the mothers and fathers who had sent their children to a good university in a safe environment, only to see their lives snuffed out by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Mrs. R. pointed out to me that no one is mentioning the shooter’s parents who also lost a child, one whose death is mourned by no one else. Their lot must be a devastatingly lonely and uncomforted one, a compound of grief, loss, guilt and shame.

Parents have a special sensitivity to stories like this. We see it in the news all the time: young people killed by drunk drivers, dying in night club fires, toddlers hit by stray bullets while strapped into car seats, freak accidents of all kinds. If a blocked door saved some students, it may have doomed others as the shooter moved on to another classroom. If a daughter had not decided to change her purse, her car wouldn’t have been at that intersection at that exact instant. If a gun had pointed just a fraction of a degree in another direction the toddler wouldn’t have been hit. If friends had decided to skip the night club . . . When we have children we see vividly they are hostages to Fortune. It is a vivid reminder life can be very fragile even in the most robust. Which brings me back to my theory why kids think they are immortal.

They don’t have kids.


  1. #1 Baratos
    April 19, 2007

    This should be easy to confirm. Just see if teenage mothers still have that feeling of invulnerability.

    Also, I read a different hypothesis somewhere, that said teenagers act like that because they tend to vastly exaggerate the benefits of doing something.

  2. #2 SusanC
    April 19, 2007


    I agree with you 100%, even though I don’t begrudge kids their short-lived innocence..

    There is a flip-side to this coin called parenting though, it toughens you for the rest of whatever else life can bring.

    I have a fridge magnet that says “You can’t scare me; I have children.”

  3. #3 Cecil
    April 19, 2007

    My pet theory is that the invincibility of youth stems from their inability to learn from the experiences of others.

    I mean, if you’re only generalizing from your own experience, and you haven’t died yet, what’s to stop you from concluding that therefore you won’t die in the future?


  4. #4 Scott Belyea
    April 19, 2007

    It’s an appealing theory, and it caused me to think about my own experience. It doesn’t match up all that well (or at least some of the logic doesn’t).

    We have 2 daughters, 21 & 25. One is at university, the other is an apprentice with a ballet company. The part of your logic that didn’t match is …

    Parents have a special sensitivity to stories like this. We see it in the news all the time: young people killed by drunk drivers, dying in night club fires, toddlers hit by stray bullets while strapped into car seats, freak accidents of all kinds.

    I was mildly startled to realize that I’d not related the VT story to the situation of either of my daughters, and neither has my wife. I’m not really sure why, but it may have something to do with the fact that we’ve tried (not always successfully) to help them make decent choices, to equip them with appropriate “coping skills” … and then to try not to fuss over it or second-guess things. It may also be that we’ve been very lucky; I can’t recall any serious “awake at 3 am … what’s going on” moments with either of them. As I said, it may be a lot of luck.

    I can posit an alternative hypothesis for the “loss of feeling immortal” in adults that has nothing necessarily to do with being a parent.

    As you grow older, you become “scarred by experience.” You simply become more aware of consequences and of “fate”, you suffer yourself to a greater or lesser degree, you see other suffering consequences … you just build up more “life experience” and awareness.

  5. #5 caia
    April 19, 2007

    Perhaps. But how many people (outside of war zones) really expect to die in a mass murder while going about their daily routine? I’d say pretty few, or nobody’d leave the house.

    I think it’s a combination of what Scott said and the fact that the older you get, the more likely you are to have significant health problems, or even just an awareness of your human frailty. If you don’t catch on to this yourself, others will tell you (e.g., “you can’t do x, you’re not 25 anymore”).

    Part of why young people tend to feel immortal may have to do with them not feeling their mortality in illness or everyday aches and pains. (This may also explain why those of us who were not particularly healthy as teenagers may be less likely to share those immortality feelings.)

  6. #6 Lea
    April 19, 2007

    Mrs. R and I had the same thoughts. And the bum on the street? who rememebers him/her when they translate?

  7. #7 Ann
    April 19, 2007

    I tend to agree with revere. Having two daughters (who now have children of varying ages of their own) are always jokingly saying, “I’m so sorry for what I put you through”, meaning that they are the ones doing the worrying now and they understand what I went through.

  8. #8 N. Johnson
    April 19, 2007

    Expanding on the first comment by Baratos, your theory would imply that kid-less adults would think they are immortal. I’m sorry, but this theory doesn’t even pass the sniff test. Having kids may help extinguish any feeling of immortality, but I think the main factor is the accumulation of knowledge as you age – basically what Scott and caia said previously.

  9. #9 revere
    April 19, 2007

    To All: I think my comment is being taken too literally. Obviously there are young folks who are cautious, prudent and worried about their own welfare and they don’t have kids. My point was that becoming a parent for many people also brings a new awareness of the fragility of life, emphasized repeatedly by reading the paper and watching the news. It is a sudden switch in perspective, that they now have a next generation to worry about.

  10. #10 Scott Belyea
    April 19, 2007

    My point was that becoming a parent for many people also brings a new awareness of the fragility of life…

    Fair enough (with a bit of uncertainty as to “many”. But the alternative view that’s been represented is that it just doesn’t cut it with some folks, including me …

  11. #11 Crawford Kilian
    April 19, 2007

    Having taught a lot of Korean kids, and having met many of their parents, I know how important it is to Korean culture that children be well-educated whatever the parents must sacrifice. So I too thought about the Cho family and the disaster that their son brought down upon them.

    It’s all the worse because in most Korean families the sacrifice is worth it: The kids turn out wonderfully well, sometimes astoundingly well. I’ve taught kids who’ve learned English in just the last three or four years who can write powerful stories, essays, and poems. My Korean students in business and tourism have been brilliant, with the sole exception of one young dope this semester who thought he could plagiarize his way through my course. (I was mad at him, but I was really upset about his parents’ disappointment.)

    In the last few years I’ve also had the honour to get to know Jiwon Park and her family, especially her younger brother David. Jiwon was attacked here in Vancouver five years ago, and strangled literally within an inch of her life, by a Canadian psychotic who ought to remain in jail for the rest of his life. Jiwon’s mother and brother have built their lives around caring for her, and their efforts have succeeded more than most would have thought. See my blog about her: http://crofsblogs.typepad.com/jiwon/

    Of course I grieve for all the families wounded by this crime, but I think also about the Koreans who have become collateral damage.

  12. #12 Melanie
    April 19, 2007

    The shooter’s family is being hounded by the local media. None of the family members are willing to comment. This is another piece of the horrible fallout from this massacre.

    The thing that kills me is the paranoid schizophrenia is relatively easy to treat with drugs. This poor young man didn’t need to be suffering and none of this needed to happen.

  13. #13 Jimmy
    April 19, 2007

    Mood disorders such as schizophrenia may be easily treatable, but varieties of personality disorder frequently aren’t without good assessment and persistent treatment. My bet is the shooters in these extreme cases have an Axes II illness.

    I agree though, the issue here is mental health. I somehow doubt that we will now all become more nurturing of our fellow humans as a consequence of this event. Though likely that’s precisely what we need.

  14. #14 M. Randolph Kruger
    April 19, 2007

    Yeah Mel, every safeguard that is out there was missed as an opportunity to do an intervention. The law was followed on the purchase of the weapons, the law was followed in sending him down for an evaluation. We are now past the 48 hour mark and the rhetoric will be cranking up from here. I am just glad the kid didnt have half of a propane grille with him. He was determined to take peoples lives and then make them listen to that clearly off the wall video. Final statement from someone had obviously gone final in his mind. Intelligent nutcase using the system Melanie. I believe our state law would have prevented this in that they have to register anyone reporting violence or violent tendencies by name and SSN which is how they check them out. Virginia isnt in a rush to blame either. The really bad thing is though that this guy shouldnt have been on the streets after the arson incident.

    Jimmy, I agree with your statement.

  15. #15 Melanie
    April 19, 2007


    Paranoid schizophrenia is NOT a mood disorder. It is a very serious psychosis, although one which is relatively straightforward to treat. Mood disorders, while milder, are a relative hassle to treat. Antipsychotic drugs work quite well for schizophrenia, althought the side effects can be profound. Finding antidepressives which work for mood disorders is much more complex, individual chemistry comes much more into play and it may take many tries to find a drug which “works.”

    This young man was not simply depressed. He was profoundly and chronically ill.

  16. #16 Charles Roten
    April 20, 2007

    Which brings me back to my theory why kids think they are immortal.

    They don’t have kids.

    Revere, I completely agree with your thesis: “kids think they are immortal”. Right down to the precise choice of words.

    I think that just about anybody who spent half a decade or more of reflective time on or near college campuses would pretty much be forced to arrive at that conclusion.

    I do not, unfortunately, agree with your proposed root cause.

    I learned, permanently and gut-deep, that I was mortal, when I was 14 years old. I surely didn’t need to become a parent in order to find that out.

  17. #17 Kieran
    April 20, 2007

    This is just about risk perception, isn’t it?

    The young act like they are immortal because they perceive that they are at little or no risk of imminent death. And they are right, the risk of death at young ages in western societies is very low.

    Most kids will grow through adolescence and early adulthood without ever knowing anyone there own age who has died.

    As they get older, this changes.

    I’m 52 (only 52!). In the last ten years, two friends have died from cancer (oesophageal and multiple myeloma). A close friend, two years younger than me, has been in hospital for a heart attack. Four friends have been diagnosed with breast cancer, one with bilateral breast cancer. One of my sisters was diagnosed with breast cancer.

    My birth cohort has arrived at the time when age-specific incidence rates for most chronic diseases start to climb. I can see the evidence of that around me.

    I can perceive the risk of death now and this does have an effect. it’s a subtle effect at the moment, but it’s there.

    My dad died when he was 68. That’s only about 15 years older than I am now. Fifteen years is not a long time.

  18. #18 Melanie
    April 20, 2007

    Have to agree with Charles. Two of my classmates were suicides in high school. I got the message.

  19. #19 carl
    April 20, 2007

    I have one daughter, she is still in a local Catholic grade school but you are right; you worry about them all of the time. I think one of the issues is that you have to let them grow, explore, and find their own path in life. We can’t live it for them. It doesn’t stop you from worrying however. As adults we have some idea of both the pitfalls out there and the fragility of life. Many medical folks and people who have lived in war zones or other dangerous environments have a deep appreciation of that fragility. So too the parents of the murdered children at V Tech.

  20. #20 Nancy
    April 20, 2007

    So I too thought about the Cho family and the disaster that their son brought down upon them.

    Um, a person does not bring a disaster of this sort down upon parents without a little neglect along the way.

    As we’ve seen, there were multiple lost opportunities for intervention on the VT campus and in the mental health care delivery system. I suspect some of this was a function of choices by administrators and public safety personnel combined with the constraints of laws currently on the books.

    Likewise, I suspect there were multiple lost opportunities along the way that Cho’s parents failed for one reason or another to seize. You don’t get to be an adult without the influence–for good or bad–of your parents. From one extreme to the other–overinvolved and overprotective to benign or malignant neglect, we are shaped by the choices our parents make or fail to make. Cho’s family is no different.

    For all we know, Cho’s parents may have beaten the stuffing out of him on a regular basis. Or maybe they just ignored him every day. Then again, they may have been the most supportive, doting parents on the planet.

    Do I feel bad for Cho’s parents? I don’t know enough about them or their choices to say. Ultimately, they could be the ones responsible for the events that transpired at VT. We don’t know.

  21. #21 Nancy
    April 20, 2007

    Stating definitively that Cho was a paranoid schizophrenic is Monday morning quarterbacking. While he may well have been, he is just as likely to have had antisocial personality disorder.

    Regardless, neither are “easily treatable” with medication. Both require that the indidividual comply with the treatment plan and take the medication as prescribed, something that is difficult at best to ensure given the defining characteristics of these conditions.

  22. #22 Melanie
    April 20, 2007

    Nancy, the anti-psychotic medications used to treat schizophrenia work quite well. He received this differential diagnosis during his brief hospitalization in 2005. The course of treatment usually needs to begin in the hospital to ensure compliance, and that was definitely one of the cracks Cho fell through. We know nothing about the young man’s family and anything we say about them is rank speculation.

  23. #23 stu
    April 20, 2007

    “Mrs. R. pointed out to me that no one is mentioning the shooter’s parents who also lost a child, one whose death is mourned by no one else. Their lot must be a devastatingly lonely and uncomforted one, a compound of grief, loss, guilt and shame.”

    I am having a tough time with sympathy for the younger Cho. One would suppose the parents would have known something about their child’s condition and have been able to help, but as others point out it’s pure speculation. Does anyone know much about that? I haven’t heard squat about it.

  24. #24 revere
    April 20, 2007

    stu: My comment wasn’t about sympathy for the shooter )(whois dead and can’t be touched by either sympathy or anger) but his parents. I have no personal knowledge of how they feel, only the empathy of another parent. For those who believe they are at some fault, I cannot say otherwise, but to me it is evident the son was mentally ill and I don’t blame mental illness on others, any more than I blame cancer on others unless it can be demonstrated they are at fault (as in negligent pollution). As far as we know, schizophrenia is not caused by poor upbringing. It is notoriously difficult to treat and in this case a failure to treat it adequately resulted in the death of others. In some sense it is no different than failure to enforce environmental laws or public health laws, where someone infects others when it could have been prevented. Many people here seem to put mental illness in a different category, but to me, making it possible for a schizophrenic to get guns with ease is no different than allowing someone with hepatitis to be a food server.

  25. #25 Nancy
    April 20, 2007

    My point about the parents and their possible role in Cho’s progression toward his ultimate act isn’t that they are or are not responsible. It’s that we simply don’t know. As for the meds being efficacious, I’m not disputing that. What I am saying is that the meds have to be taken as prescribed to be efficacious. I worked at a community mental health center for many years, including as an overnight residential supervisor in a group home. The nature of paranoid schizophrenia and antisocial personality disorder is to distrust or flout authority figures, and that extends even to trusted members of a support network.

    Revere, While we continue to learn more and more about the biology of organic factors contributing to mental illness, it is undeniable that environmental factors can contribute to or exacerbate certain conditions. The statistical significance of a history of abuse, neglect, and trauma in mentally ill populations cannot be denied. I am absolutely not saying that all mental illness is attributable to environmental factors. I am saying that those factors can contribute.

  26. #26 revere
    April 20, 2007

    Nancy: I don’t think we disagree. I see interactions with the environment as critical, either as causes or modifiers or triggers, but the question of parental responsibility as an environmental factor is not a t all obvious. Abusing or neglecting children is itself a form of pathology and may not be a cause as much as an indication of common factors (etiher genetic or environmental). In this case it doesn’t sound like there was physical abuse from the parents.

  27. #27 Matthew
    April 20, 2007

    Everyone likes to speculate on what’s wrong with kids, why they don’t realize that they’re mortal, but it seems to me that the reality of your own (and everyone else’s) mortality and limits is a hard lesson to learn, much harder than anything they teach in a university department. We’re not surprised that it takes 25-30 years to master advanced mathematics or ancient languages or whatnot, why should we be surprised that it takes just as long to grasp the chaos and unfairness and misfortunes and realities of life?

  28. #28 revere
    April 20, 2007

    Matthew: Maybe because it has an evolutionary advantage and might be hardwired?

  29. #29 Matthew
    April 20, 2007

    I phrased my comment poorly, and was rather off topic.


  30. #30 revere
    April 20, 2007

    Matthew: Not off topic and never (OK, rarely) a need to apologize here.

  31. #31 olvlzl the Heretic
    April 20, 2007

    When one of my nieces became severely mentally ill in her teens it was monumentally difficult to get treatment for her. Her pediatrician was a friend of mine who told me that we were going find it impossible to get her treatment as soon as she turned 18 because she would be an adult and her tendency to fight any treatment would insure things got worse. They did and over the next twelve years before she finally died from her self-destructive behavior there was literally nothing we could do.

    Mental illness is sometimes treatable in the abstract but dealing with it in real life, with the absurd laws and next to non-existant treatment facilities it very often may as well not be. The let’s pretend they’re able to make rational choices, make believe of the laws and the lack of financial support for treatment make it a myth.

  32. #32 Alan Kellogg
    April 20, 2007

    It’s not that kids think they’re immortal, it’s that they can’t understand that they can die. Such knowledge can only come when the child has grown enough mentally for such an idea to take hold.

    Where having children is concerned, that has more to do with the realization that they are now responsible for another person. More to do with protecting their child from harm than it really does with keeping themselves from harm. Having kids yourself really changes your priorities.

    But it doesn’t always. As we’ve seen with Britney Spears, even young parents are capable of acting in an immature fashion.

  33. #33 Kimberly
    April 20, 2007

    I’ve found more than just teenagers think they are immortal. I see it mostly on the highways, with people driving 90 mph, talking on the cell phone, and eatting Mc D’s french fries all at the same time… among other stupid things. And they have all been of varying ages.

    (And I’ll point out that for some reason beyond my sense of logic, that anyone with a Jesus fish on their car is a raving lunic on the highway – maybe I just take more notice of these cars, but it follows somewhat with my next line.)

    My theory for it, is that people believe that bad things don’t happen to them, they happen to someone else. (And in the case of the Jesus fish cars: Jesus/God will protect me – yes, I’ve talked to these people)

    And kids are just worse about it, because they haven’t had too many experiences in the ‘bad stuff happens’ department. Those that have (and aren’t dead for it) tend to be wiser.

    I do, however, agree that having children does something to your sense of life. I don’t have kids, but I’ve been told I was one of the wiser children who knew life was fleeting and attempt to not be an idiot.

    But, back to the point. These people really believe that bad things only happen to other people. And everyday they wake up, and don’t have something tragic happen, only reinforces this view.

    And I’m sure there’s people with kids who still have a view of this (or at worst, that God protects us).

    Certainly having children doesn’t fix all of them. I once saw a woman driving a mini-van with the sunroof open and both of her small children (10 and 12 maybe) standing up so their heads and part of their body was out the sunroof. All of this, while on the highway.

    For them, I’d have to put them in the God protects us category (guess what was on the bumper? – A Jesus fish – Seriously, though, is this just me that notices this?).

    But hopefully, this tragedy will have some good come from it. I won’t say what good, just that I hope good does come.

  34. #34 Nancy
    April 21, 2007

    Everyone likes to speculate on what’s wrong with kids, why they don’t realize that they’re mortal, but it seems to me that the reality of your own (and everyone else’s) mortality and limits is a hard lesson to learn, much harder than anything they teach in a university department.

    Matthew, I think you are right on in this regard. I had the bad fortune to be involved in three car accidents in two years, all before I turned 18. I commuted to high school 60 miles a day, plus worked an after-school job, which added another 30 miles a day. This doesn’t include running odd errands for my mom such as grocery shopping and bringing siblings to sports practices, etc. I was the driver for two of the accidents (of which I was cleared of all fault) and a passenger in the third. Each was a low-speed impact, but my noggin’ managed to shatter the windshield all three times. Did I start wearing a seatbelt after the first, second, or third accident? No. I finally started wearing a seatbelt when the 13-year-old daughter of a close family friend had her brains literally plastered all over the inside of the family car after it was broadsided by a pickup truck (in a low-speed impact). Very, very tragic.

  35. #35 revere
    April 21, 2007

    Nancy, Matthew et al.: There are many ways to realize your mortality. One is to have those close to you or yourself come close to death. Another is to have responsibility for another life. I wasn’t saying that becoming a parent was either a certain way or the only way. I was reflecting on the Virginia Tech situation in just one of its melancholy aspects.

  36. #36 Nancy
    April 21, 2007

    Revere, I agree with you entirely. Guess I hadn’t stated that up to this point. I lost two siblings prior to the birth of my first child. Their deaths obviously drove the mortality issue home. But nothing has ever left me me feeling more vulnerable (or more fulfilled) than becoming a parent.

  37. #37 pkiwi
    April 22, 2007

    Can we dig a little deeper on the question posed? We know that kids (and we seem to be talking about adolescent to young adults):
    a) have fluctuating hormones that can prompt more impulsive reckless behaviour;
    b) have a less active prefrontal cortex during late teens, that is in the area of the brain for judgement and control.
    So it is not necessarily about lack of acquired knowledge or caring – it may be they just can’t judge risk as more mature minds may.

  38. #38 mikey
    October 10, 2009

    I think young people just haven’t experienced enough of life. Which having kids is a large part of. Yet I was young and can clearly remember knowing limits because I had parents that would let me touch a hot iron, or would slam on the brakes when I’d forget to put on my safety belt in the car, and constant remind me that they brought me into this world and they could easily take me out. I know if I would have crossed the street and not look both ways I could potentially become part of the road at a very early age. But it wasn’t until the day I almost died that I truly started to appreciate life. Not only to just protect it but to live it. I am always optimistic about life now, nothing can shake my love for life. I realize that a lot about life is not right but if we stop an appreciate life for what we have. Even though some may not have anything life has to show us the extremes for us to understand it fully.

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