Can We Raise Caring Children in Violent Times?
|Violence invades childrens 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 arent 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, theyve 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 peoples lives.
Todays 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 childrens 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 its 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 risendramatically. From 1985 to 1994, for example, the rate of murder committed by 14 to 17-year-olds increased 172 percent. Its not just that theres more violence, but that it is much, much more lethal now, says Delbert Elliott, director of the University of Colorados 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. Thats 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 its at, and then we have to teach them alternatives to violent behavior. There will always be a certain amount of conflict, and thats 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 Yorks inner cities to Anchorage, Alaska, starting with kindergarten. Says Kreidler, This isnt just about conflict resolution; its also about transforming the school culture and helping kids to be kinder, more caring, respectful, cooperative. Its 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 dont 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. Its 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 wholl be teenagers before you can say juvenile crime wave, he continues. Unless we do something with these kids now, while theyre still young and impressionable, well 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 Joeys mother looked out her window and saw Billy misbehaving, Fox explains, shed call Billys 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 caregiversusually grandma, a neighbor or sitterchildren 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. Thats also when the peer group emerges as a major influence.
So in an old-fashioned sense, if you dont like the kids that yours hang out with, youve got to do something about it. Says Elliott, Ive 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. Thats extreme, but its 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. Its 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 theyre afraid to direct toward an abusive parent. For the bully, violence may be a cry for help, and for the victim its 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 theyre 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. Its 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 childrens 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 aggressionmore important than the parents child-rearing habits or socioeconomic factors.
Kid shows: Further, we cant feel confident that our youngsters are safe because weve limited their viewing to childrens 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, CDs and TV shows youd 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 childrens 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, isnt so bad. Often the parent goes along and rents it even though its clearly labeled Youth restricted viewing. Its 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 hes 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 adultsScout masters, teachers, a next-door neighborwho told me I was somebody and let me know they cared.
Weve 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 doesnt 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 hes 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 its morally right to hit those you love; 3) if other means of getting your way, dealing with stress or expressing yourself dont 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, its 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 Associations Commission on Domestic Violence developed a video titled Its Not Okay: Lets 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 theyve 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 dont abuse their children physically or sexually, but quite a few cause harm without meaning to through verbal or emotional abusethat is, what they say to a child and the way they say it.
Theres 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 dont get it?" is damaging. Blaming, judging, criticizing or teasing a child about a trait such as shyness or plumpness, threatening (Im 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 doesnt live in a safe environment, no matter how well shes 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 cant do this.
If occasionally you do say things you wish you hadnt, 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 didnt mean, but it still isnt O.K. In our family we dont call each other names. Im so sorry. Youre 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. Isnt that what we want most for our children?
What You Can Do
What Society Can Do