Broken windows

Stacey Gross News Writer

In 1969, Phillip Zimbardo abandoned two cars on opposite ends of the country.

A lot of people don’t know that, because they’re so focused on how he basically created nazis in 1971 at Stanford. But there’s more to Zimbardo than manufacturing fascism, y’all. Come on.

One car he dropped off in a shabby corner of the Bronx, and the other in a fancy-pants area of Palo Alto.

The car abandoned in the Bronx was quickly vandalized and torn asunder, cannibalized for parts before being destroyed for destruction’s sake. The car left in Palo Alto did fine for over a week, so Zimbardo (as social psychologists are wont to do) got a little antsy in his pantsy and took a sledgehammer to it. Zimbardo wanted to prove his theory – that he could expedite what he felt certain human nature was compelling the Palo Altoans to do, just like the Bronxians, the entire time.

And it worked. The only difference in the two circumstances was how the people surrounding the car evaluated it for abandonment. Even in the nice neighborhood, a clearly neglected car was vulnerable to attack.

A clearly neglected car.

That image strikes me.

Now, the “Broken Windows” theory has gone on to spawn contentious debate in criminology circles. It became Rudy Giuliani’s theme song in the early 90’s in New York City, a city whose murder rate peaked in 1990. As people tend to do, the recognized rehabilitation of the city was attributed to its leadership. Really, a lot of factors led to NYC’s healing. Giuliani and his Broken Windows policing style were one small factor, and the argument in the field is that by overcorrecting – focusing too much on small crime and not enough on serious infractions – policies like “stop and frisk” and other borderline-fascist ways of doing things were given fertile ground in which to take root.

But I’m not a criminologist.

I’m a mom.

And every time I think of Zimbardo’s clearly neglected car, I see instead my daughters, alone and vulnerable, sitting on a city street.

I can’t help it.

The analogy just seems so natural.

If the fact is that people will exploit potential resources in their environment given the right conditions, then it must follow that other people are as much a potential resource as junk cars.

It just depends on a person’s intent who happens by. Just like Bronx residents stripped that car of its battery and radiator within its first hour on the street, there are plenty of people who would pounce on a child’s body and her mind in an instant, if they believed there was no one around to notice, or who would do anything about it if they did notice.

If a clearly neglected car is vulnerable, why are so many children neglected?

I don’t mean physically neglected. Obviously, it’s at least somewhat rare that a child is physically left unsupervised. I mean, it happens, more often than I’d like to believe, but for the most part kids have parents who are physically present and more or less engaged. Enough to keep predators at a reasonable perimeter, in any case.

“Don’t run out in the street.”

“Eat your vegetables.”

“You need to be wearing a coat.”

Basic physical needs are easy to meet. And they do matter. But not as much as emotional needs.

Our children are, I fear, wildly emotionally neglected these days. And we’re all guilty. Even me. I look at my phone more than I should, and I can be hard to break out of reverie when my children need (or think they need) my attention.

In all seriousness, I’m pretty sure they can handle the political crisis of who gets to sit on the left side of the car this morning without my intervention. But there are times they really do need my attention, too, and some of those times they probably have to work harder for it than they should have to.

It’s a problem. I recognize it. I’m working on it.

My kids are cars on a city street.

But my kids’ windows are not broken.

Like my relationship with my home and my car, my relationship with my children is not a one-and-done deal. It requires daily maintenance and investment if it’s to remain intact. And it cannot be allowed to fall apart. Because there are so many people, all around us – devils we know and devils we don’t – who would love an opportunity to take advantage of an emotionally neglected child.

And it doesn’t take much for a child to feel neglected, let alone to look it. And a child in need of attention will take it more or less anywhere they can get it. But they don’t have the judgment to choose good sources, much of the time.

The good news is that it also doesn’t take much to invest richly and deeply in your child’s emotional well-being.

Twenty minutes at a dinner table, with technology banned for the duration.

Simple, open-ended questions.

“How was your day today?”

“What was something good that happened?”

“Tell me about what you did in gym/library/art/music? Tell me just, you know, what you did in general?”

Just simple questions. And the willingness to shut up and listen, honestly, without waiting for your turn to speak, when they answer you.

Small, frequent, intentional interactions. Every day. Just like you’d do the dishes. Just like you’d change your oil.

Just like you’d fix a broken window in your house.

A clearly neglected child is a victim waiting to be made.

Fix your windows.

Talk to your kids.