Monday, January 22, 2018

Violent Children

This is a picture of my brother Felix with one of his favorite toys.  In those days, it was common for little boys to play with guns.  They pretended to be Cowboys and Indians or Cops and Robbers.  One summer, the boys in my neighborhood spent several weeks playing out the Civil War with both Union and Confederate armies.  As the Boomer generation, we grew up on stories of WWII.   Boys played with plastic soldiers and drew pictures of planes dropping bombs.  But there were no news stories about real life gun violence.   

Times have changed dramatically.  I'm not even sure if toy guns are sold anymore, except for water pistols.  The type of gun play that exists today is more likely to be paint ball, laser tag, or video and arcade games.  Yet news stories overflow with horrible mass murders, often committed by young people who have access to real guns.  Gun violence in our society is an epidemic.

Adolescent and adult behaviors have their roots in early childhood.  When children are very young, their bodies and brains are growing more rapidly than they ever will again. This is a critical time of life to acquire moral values and learn social behaviors.  Any aggressive behaviors in young children must be firmly addressed.  "Boys will be boys", expressed as rough and tumble play, is normal.  ( See my post on boys:  BOY POWER!)  Aggression is different.  Aggression is an intentional attempt to hurt someone, and cannot be tolerated.

Violent children are the most challenging to teach and to raise.  Most aggressive behaviors in young children are normal and can be managed relatively easily with positive discipline . (More in my post:  Discipline:  Key to Maturity)  Other times, aggressive behavior is a symptom of an underlying developmental issue, such as a learning disability, ADHD,  problems with sensory integration, an emotional disorder, or a medical condition.  Sometimes we find the roots of aggression in a child's environment.  Children suffering from abuse or neglect, children who witness violence at home, children caught in the middle of a highly contentious divorce, often turn to violent behaviors as an outlet for their pain.  And then there are a few children, very few, for whom we cannot find a source of their aggression. 

The examples above point to the dominance of nature, the qualities we are born with, and nurture, the effects of our environment, in determining our behaviors.  The truth is that both play an equally powerful role in deciding who a child will grow up to be.  When we observe aggressive behaviors in a child, we first look for a cause.  We take note of when and how the aggression takes place, seeking clues to both his nature and his environment. Is he bored, frustrated, confused, hurt, anxious....?  How can we modify his environment to help? A three year old was biting his classmates. We kept a log of his behavior and noticed that he bit different children during different activities.  The one constant was the timing; he usually bit about an hour before lunch and again just before dismissal.  We began giving him pretzel rods to chew on and the biting subsided. 

It is not easy to identify the causes of a child's aggression, and even harder to figure out the best way to help.  And what about those children for whom we cannot find a reason  for their behavior?  I've only met one, maybe two, in my career.  They scared me.  These are children who hurt others without provocation and without remorse.  They seem to like seeing others in pain.  They only care about their own desires.  They have a strong need to control their environment.  I just read a book and a magazine article that helped me understand these children better.  The book is Savage Spawn, by Jonathan Kellerman, a clinical professor of pediatrics and psychology, better known for his murder mystery novels.  The article appeared in the January issue of National Geographic, and is titled "The Science of Good and Evil".  I learned that empathy, the ability to experience how another person is feeling, can be measured in the brain by the size of the amygdala, and that psychopaths actually have smaller amygdalas than the rest of us. Fascinating.  That means that some people are genetically predisposed to be colder and more violent than others.

 Differences in a child's brain do not sentence him to a life of psychopathy or anti-social behavior.  All young children are ready and able to learn.  Their brains are still malleable.  Directly teaching appropriate behaviors helps every child learn social responsibility. Those  with a predisposition to violence can be trained in a structured environment that targets specific goals for behavior.  Positive reinforcement works by granting and removing privileges based on reaching these goals. This is a daunting task for teachers and parents who need to remain patient and positive for years.    

There are many curricular activities that teachers can bring into an early childhood classroom to promote compassion and cooperation.  Children can learn at an early age that it's cool to be kind.  They can be taught to identify their own emotions, as well as those of others, and to respond appropriately to those emotions.  At home and at school, adults can highlight the value of giving and doing for others.  We all know that children are our future.  With hard work and cooperation between teachers and parents, we can help make that future a bright one.

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