Can We Raise Caring Children in Violent Times?
(Special report, Family Circle)

Violence invades children’s lives.

On the evening news, we view gory images of the latest child victim to be fatally beaten by the very adults entrusted with her care. Then we sit down to dinner, comforted by the belief that our own children aren’t in danger.

In newspapers and magazines, we read about young innocents caught in the crossfire between gangs warring over drugs and turf. Such chronicles of violence have become so familiar, they’ve almost lost their power to shock us. Later that day, hugging our kids a little more tightly, we think, Thank heaven we live in a safe neighborhood.

In the peaceful farming community of Olivehurst, California, a crazed former student steals into a classroom and holds pupils hostage at gunpoint. Before the siege is over, nine people are wounded; one teacher and three students lie dead. “I thought this was the safest school around,” says a special-education teacher. Suddenly, we know that no child, no community can be completely protected. We understand with dreadful certainty that violence is not something that happens only in other people’s lives.

Today’s children are being exposed to more violence, both visible and insidious, than ever before: in their schools and neighborhoods, in the media, even in their homes. It is pervasive, and it threatens not only children’s physical well-being but also their emotional health, making them feel frightened, powerless and unsafe, and leading parents to question, “How can we raise secure, confident and caring kids in these violent times?” The following report explores the problem.

Can We Raise Caring Children in VIOLENT Times?

Violence in the Community and at School

Children are both the victims of violence and its perpetrators. Recent news stories are seared in memory: In Chicago a 5-year-old is dropped from a window to his death by two boys, ages 10 and 11; in California, a 4-month-old infant is thrown from his bassinet and pummeled by his 6-year-old neighbor.

While it’s true that serious crime by very young children is still rare, among older ones it is more widespread. Statistics on violent crime overall may be down, but youth crime has risen–dramatically. From 1985 to 1994, for example, the rate of murder committed by 14 to 17-year-olds increased 172 percent. “It’s not just that there’s more violence, but that it is much, much more lethal now,” says Delbert Elliott, director of the University of Colorado’s Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence. “It used to be that when you got into a fight with somebody and you knocked him down, the fight was over. That’s not enough anymore.”

Serious weapons: Elliott cites the increased use of handguns as a major contributor to the escalating intensity of violent acts. “Kids carry guns for protection, not meaning to use them,” he says. “But just having one lets you take a confrontation to the brink. We have to do everything possible to get guns out of kids’ hands.”

Conflict resolution: We also need to develop strategies that change attitudes about violence. We have to convince kids that being the biggest, strongest and most powerful is not where it’s at, and then we have to teach them alternatives to violent behavior. “There will always be a certain amount of conflict, and that’s not necessarily bad,” says William Kreidler, senior conflict resolutions specialist with Educators for Social Responsibility in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “But kids have to learn about conflict [how fights start and how they get worse], and about the skills that can help them handle differences so that no one gets hurt.”

Such skills are being taught in selected schools, from New York’s inner cities to Anchorage, Alaska, starting with kindergarten. Says Kreidler, “This isn’t just about conflict resolution; it’s also about transforming the school culture and helping kids to be kinder, more caring, respectful, cooperative. It’s idealistic, but it works.”

After-school dangers: The most dangerous time for children ages 6 to 17 is between 2 and 4 P.M., when school lets out. Much of the violence, in fact, takes place on school grounds or on the way home. Similarly, the prime time for juvenile crime is right after school, not (as might be expected) under cover of night.

“Many kids don’t have anything to do after school except hang out with their friends, get involved in mischief or watch TV crime shows, counting the murders,” says James Alan Fox, dean of the College of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University. “It’s no coincidence that the sharp decline in extracurricular youth programs has been accompanied by a soaring rate of crimes committed by kids.”

One solution seems clear. “We have to fill the afternoon void with both school-based and community-based programs, so that kids will get the attention, direction and supervision they need,” says Fox.

“We now have 39 million children under the age of 10 who’ll be teenagers before you can say ‘juvenile crime wave,’” he continues. “Unless we do something with these kids now, while they’re still young and impressionable, we’ll have a bloodbath of juvenile violence that will make 1996 look like the good old days.”

A neighborhood watch: In addition to after-school programs, Fox would like more of us to become involved in the kind of good-neighbor policy that was fairly common in times gone by. He recalls how mothers used to serve informally as neighborhood watchers, monitoring kids’ behavior and seeing that the rules were respected. “If Joey’s mother looked out her window and saw Billy misbehaving,” Fox explains, “she’d call Billy’s mother and tell her. Today, many neighborhoods have become ghost towns.”

Indeed, the situation of latchkey children has received a good deal of publicity. But even in homes with substitute caregivers–usually grandma, a neighbor or sitter–children need to know what the rules are, and that they will be enforced.

Peer problems: Parents who are involved in their youngsters’ lives and activities also know about their friends. “The period of serious involvement in violence is between ages 12 and 17,” explains Delbert Elliott. “That’s also when the peer group emerges as a major influence.”

So in an old-fashioned sense, if you don’t like the kids that yours hang out with, you’ve got to do something about it. Says Elliott, “I’ve found myself recommending to parents, ‘If you have to, just pick up and move to a different school district, so your child has a chance to start over again.’ That’s extreme, but it’s sometimes necessary.”

The peer group is not only coercive, it can also be unkind, as when it chooses to scapegoat and victimize a youngster, either physically or emotionally. Since we now tend to think of violence in terms of guns, knives and fists, we often pay little heed to situations in which a child is continually oppressed or harassed by another child, a gang or a clique. It’s important that we not dismiss such incidents as “just a part of growing up.” For one thing, bullies are often troubled children who are acting out on other kids the aggression they’re afraid to direct toward an abusive parent. For the bully, violence may be a cry for help, and for the victim it’s a source of unseen scars: fear, humiliation and low self-esteem.

And it is rampant. According to the national Association of School Psychologists (NASP), bullying affects approximately 5 million U.S. elementary and junior high school students. Most children are too ashamed to tell their parents that they’re being bullied. Instead, they give in , or they try to escape the bullying by staying home from school. Almost 8 percent of urban junior and senior high school students miss one day of school every month because they are afraid to go, reports NASP.

Violence in the Media

Acts of violence are learned behaviors. It’s not surprising that people concerned about what kids are being taught target TV, the great educator, as also being a villain.

TV violence: By the time an American child finishes elementary school, he has watched, on average, 8,000 murders and 100,000 acts of violence on television, according to studies conducted by the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association. All this viewing, the studies found, is taking a toll, as TV violence seems to increase children’s fears, desensitize them to violence and lead them to commit acts of aggression.

The most surprising finding, however, has to do with the vulnerability and impressionability of young children. A highly regarded study of children and aggression, conducted by Leonard Eron, Ph. D., professor of psychology and a research scientist at the University of Michigan, not only found that “the more youngsters watched violence on television at home, the more aggressively they behaved in school,” it also concluded that what a child watches by the time he is 8 years old is “one of the best predictors” of future adult aggression–more important than the parents’ child-rearing habits or socioeconomic factors.

Kid shows: Further, we can’t feel confident that our youngsters are “safe” because we’ve limited their viewing to children’s fare. TV kiddie shows are replete with karate kicks, power weapons and gratuitous violence. Children see their favorite cartoon characters being hit, slapped, bopped, thrown from high places, then getting up and walking away.

Some remedies: Alarmed by the extent of aggression in our society, President Clinton, in his 1996 State of the Union address, exhorted the media to “create movies, CD’s and TV shows you’d want your own children and grandchildren to enjoy,” and he asked Congress to pass legislation that would require the installation in TV sets of a V-chip, a device that can block transmission of violent programs into homes.

The legislation, part of the TeleCommunications Act signed into law in February of 1996, has still not been fully implemented, but under pressure from the public and President, network executives have already produced a system that rates programs for their sexual and violent content, enabling parents to screen out unsuitable ones. Even with this system in place, however, parents remain ultimately responsible for supervising their children’s exposure to all media including movies, books, comics, computer and video games.

Says the manager of a popular video store, “I often hear kids telling their parents that a particularly violent game, like ‘Resident Evil,’ in which the devil tries to take over the world, ‘isn’t so bad.’ Often the parent goes along and rents it even though it’s clearly labeled ‘Youth restricted viewing.’ It’s up to parents not to let kids pull the wool over their eyes.”

Violence at Home

Family violence in this country is epidemic, cutting across racial, ethnic, religious and economic lines and permeating every community. In 1994, according to the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect, more than 1 million children were abused, an increase of 27 percent in just four years. Clearly, children are at risk in their own homes. There is both individual and communal responsibility to step in whenever we know, or sense, that abuse is taking place.

Interventions: The curative effects of outside intervention are attested to by Jim Hardeman of Plymouth, Massachusetts, who has publicly described his father as physically abusive. “I used to stay out on the streets all night,” he recalls, “because it was safer than going home.” Still, Hardeman managed to graduate from college and succeed in business. At 54 he’s manager of the Corporate Employee Assistance Program at Polaroid. “Given my background, I should have ended up in jail and probably would have,” he says, “had there not been involved adults–Scout masters, teachers, a next-door neighbor–who told me I was somebody and let me know they cared.”

We’ve been raised to think that what goes on in the home is private, which explains why most of us are reluctant to get involved. What should you do if you know a child is at risk? “Step in,” says Hardeman. “Ask the child, ‘How can I help you achieve your goal?’"

Spousal violence: Abuse doesn’t necessarily have to be directed at the child in order for him to bear the scars of it. Domestic violence is witnessed by some 3 million to 10 million children each year, often with serious, lifelong consequences. “Observing parents hit each other is a more powerful contributor to the probability of a child growing up to be violent than when he’s the victim,” says Richard Gelles, director of the Family Violence Research Program at the University of Rhode Island.

Gelles explains: “Both experiencing and observing violence teaches a child three lessons: 1) Those who love you are also those who can hit you, and those you love are people you can hit; 2) because violence happens in your home it means it’s morally right to hit those you love; 3) if other means of getting your way, dealing with stress or expressing yourself don’t work, violence is O.K.”

These lessons can be very hard for a child to unlearn, as Linda Shakir, 42, of Los Angeles, California, has discovered. After years of being battered by her husband, Shakir finally found the courage to walk out of the marriage, taking her daughter, then 6, and 3-year-old son. Even though that was five and a half years ago, the little girl is still frequently awakened by nightmares. Her brother, a child who is filled with anger, has set fire to his room, taken a knife to his sister, been hospitalized twice for his bouts of rage, and is on medication to control them. Linda says, “When I tell my son. ‘Honey, it’s time to take a shower,’ he talks to me the same way he heard his father talk to me.”

Larger implications: According to findings of the American Psychological Association, “Violence at home, even though it occurs in a private setting, has effects that extend out into the larger society.” Children who grow up with abuse are arrested by the police four times more often than those who grow up in safety.

In March 1996 the American Bar Association’s Commission on Domestic Violence developed a video titled It’s Not Okay: Let’s Talk About Domestic Violence, for use by teachers of children ages 7 through 12 years old, as part of a national education campaign. ABA president Roberta Cooper Ramo explains: “We need to pay attention to the kids, to let them know they are not alone, that domestic violence is not their fault, that it is not right, and that imitating the violent behavior they’ve seen is not O.K. We also need to give them steps they can take to protect themselves, such as calling 911 if they can do so safely, or finding a safe grown-up who can help.”

Most parents are safe grown-ups who don’t abuse their children physically or sexually, but quite a few cause harm without meaning to through verbal or emotional abuse–that is, what they say to a child and the way they say it.

There’s no question that children can be psychologically battered by words. Showing contempt for a child, as in “How many times have I told you not to do that? Are you so dumb that you don’t get it?" is damaging. Blaming, judging, criticizing or teasing a child about a trait such as shyness or plumpness, threatening (“I’m going to send you back to your father!”)–all can leave invisible scars.

“The cumulative effect of emotional abuse is to make a child feel that she doesn’t live in a safe environment, no matter how well she’s provided for,” says Ellen McGrath, Ph. D., executive director of psychology centers in both New York City and Laguna Beach, California. “The second thing it does [like physical violence] is teach the child an abusive reaction to stress.

“There is often a gender difference in the impact of emotional abuse,” says McGrath. “Among boys, it may lead to rebellion, defiance, problems at school, aggressive and self-destructive behavior. In girls, predictable effects include low self-esteem and self-negating statements such as ‘I know I can’t do this.’

“If occasionally you do say things you wish you hadn’t,” says McGrath, “then as soon as you calm down, go to your child and apologize: ‘I lost it. I called you a name, which of course I didn’t mean, but it still isn’t O.K. In our family we don’t call each other names. I’m so sorry.’ You’re providing the child with a model of how to recover, reminding her of your family values and reconnecting in a way that makes her feel safe again. Isn’t that what we want most for our children?

What You Can Do

  1. Explain to your child that guns can kill or maim people and that they never solve problems. If you have a gun in your home, keep it unloaded and locked away from your children.
  2. Talk to the administrators of your child’s school about offering a training program in conflict resolution techniques. Students need to be taught how to solve their disputes through mediation and negotiation, rather than through confrontation.
  3. Support existing after-school programs and help establish new ones where needed. If possible, volunteer to help out. When you’re not at home, make sure your children and their playmates are supervised by a responsible adult.
  4. Restrict the time your child spends in front of the TV, and as much as possible, monitor what he watches. If you know he’ll be seeing a program containing violent scenes, watch with him, so you can talk about it afterward, pointing out that in real life, hitting, kicking and punching hurt.
  5. Patronize only those video stores that offer a family membership application on which you can indicate the kinds of films and games your children are not allowed to rent. Read the descriptions of the films or games, and if the content appears to be unsuitable, say “No” and mean it.
  6. Learn to communicate with your kids without blaming, criticizing or calling them names. For example, instead of yelling at your son for the bad report card he brought home, you can say something like: “It seems that you haven’t been doing very well in school lately. This makes me worry for you. Let’s think together about what we can do to help you solve this problem.”

What Society Can Do

  1. Support more gun-control legislation. Gunfire is the second-leading cause of death among American children ages 10 to 19. A 1995 profile of juvenile gun possession and use across the nation found that 53% of youths obtained a gun from their own home and that 37% had no trouble buying one on the street.
  2. Educate the community about the dangers of drugs and alcohol. According to a 1996 Presidential task force report on violence in the family, parents who abuse alcohol and drugs are more likely to hurt their children. Alcohol and drug prevention and treatment programs can make a difference in the quality and safety of the homes in which children are raised.
  3. Train teachers and school administrators to detect and intervene in family violence or abuse situations. Teach children how to recognize and seek help when they witness or experience family violence.
  4. Promote school-based programs that teach children conflict resolution, problem solving and anger-management skills.
  5. Establish integrated court systems to deal with family issues. The courts need to treat domestic violence as both a crime and a serious family problem, providing consistent, comprehensive care to its victims.
  6. Monitor the media and keep the pressure on. The networks and cable systems must accept responsibility, and decrease the amount of violence they broadcast. Because of societal pressure for the V-chip, parents now have more control over what their children watch.