Now that the bodies of Kam McLeod and Bryer Schmegelsky have been found in the northern Manitoba woods, the two-week-long spectacle is over and all the international peepers have gone home. It was about a week ago when the two Port Alberni boys were thought to be hiding out in that wild terrain when I first began to really think about the situation more deeply. I started to feel a heavy sadness for the boys, who we now know committed suicide.
Of course, they seem to have committed heinous acts in murdering innocent people, and that is despicable and would have deserved full penalty had the boys been caught alive. They were responsible and needed to be held fully accountable.
But Kam and Bryer were 19 and 18 years old, respectively. They were kids. I imagined them hiding out in the wilderness, days after the adrenalin and dissociation of their violent actions had worn off. That’s when the reality would have set in on an emotional level. That’s when they would have been cold, at the mercy of the elements and some hunger, and with no hope.
They would have then become the young boys, the kids, that they were. They would have felt scared, lonely, in shock at what they had done. They would likely have cried.
I say this because for more than 30 years I have worked intimately with teenagers and, in the privacy of my office, I have experienced their true inner selves.
What that means is that despite physical appearances and despite their power to walk their own direction, they are not fully formed. Their minds and emotions are still in flux. No matter how assuredly they talk or act, they actually only operate on partial awareness, partial knowledge, partial thinking development and very little experience.
That’s why we don’t allow them to make their own decisions with bank accounts, contracts, voting, alcohol, etc. Scientifically, we know that kids don’t fully mature until their early 20s.
So, I felt sad for Kam and Bryer. They had done horrible deeds that could not be undone and were alone in their mess, far away from any love or belonging. I wished that some authoritative person early in the pursuit had opened up arms to them and asked them to turn themselves in, declared that they were still our kids and we would help them find a future.
This is what every parent would want for their own sons. Come home. Take your full punishment because you deserve it, but come home because you are our kids.
This is the compassion that needs to underlie our reactions to aberrant behaviour because, not only are young people our kids, through no choosing of their own they also are so hugely influenced by the home lives they have and by the social norms that have surrounded them.
The adult world has created this technological/social media era in which video games and gadget addiction can subsume parts of our kids’ souls. The adults introduce and abet the consumption of the dehumanizing world of electronics.
Absolutely, when Kam and Bryer were five years old and sitting rapt in a kindergarten classroom as their teacher told them a story, they were beautifully innocent little boys not designed in any way to, these years later, kill others and themselves. This was not what they envisioned for themselves as they grew older. Only toward the later stages of teenagehood would they have begun to get so lost.
And that’s the point. It is so damn easy for our kids to make mistakes, to go the wrong way, to get lost. And too often we do not see it as clearly as they need us to. Thus it is that our kids can sexually assault, develop substance-abuse issues, turn to gangs, bully others, fall into depression, commit suicide, develop eating disorders, cut themselves, drink and drive, steal, cheat, lie or bury themselves in the insular world of games.
It’s why Kam and Bryer did what they did. They got lost.
So, out of anger we can detach from the truth and damn them as murderers, as suspects, as deviants or we can see them as our own kids, see them honestly the way we all used to be at that age, so filled with a range of fantasy, confusion, programming and uncertainty — no matter what we outwardly portrayed.
Usually, it’s our own fear or inner issues that quickly push us to condemn and assert that “They were old enough to know what they were doing!” because black-and-white thinking, being judgmental, feels better than facing our own human helplessness, our own flaws in growing our kids.
I’m not sure if any of us ever get old enough to really know what we are doing. Any objective deliberation on our current global state would put that to question. Kam and Bryer were lost in their own scrambled state just as much as any child who chooses inexplicably to end their own life.
Calvin White, who holds a graduate degree in counselling psychology and was a high school counsellor for more than 30 years, is the author of The Secret Life of Teenagers.