Breaking The Chains Of Violence Essay, Research Paper
Breaking the Chains of Violence
To return violence for violence does nothing
but intensify the existence of violence and
evil in the universe. Someone must have sense enough and morality enough to cut
off the chains of violence and hate.
-Martin Luther King, Jr.
We live in a society that has seen a tremendous rise in juvenile violence over the past ten years. Juvenile homicides are twice as common today as they were in the mid-1980’s (Begley 35). Forcible rapes by juveniles rose 28% between 1981 and 1990, while aggravated assaults jumped 57% (Leone 61). Dare we “have a dream” that future generations will no longer experience the hate and violence we have in our present society? In order for this to happen, the causes of violent behavior in children must be recognized and steps must be taken to make sure this violence does not continue. Violence is a learned behavior in children, not an inherited one.
Violence is defined as a threatened or actual use of physical force against oneself or an individual or group that either results or is likely to result in injury or death (Krantzler 1). Schoolyard shootings, suicide, and teen violence have become commonplace in America’s society today. On March 24th, 1998, a schoolyard shooting in Jonesburo left four girls and a teacher dead and ten others injured. Two boys, ages eleven and thirteen at the time, are now serving time for the killings. On April 20, 1999, the deadliest school shooting in American history occurred in Littleton, Colorado. Two teenagers ages 17 and 18 killed 15 or 16 people before taking their own lives (Craig). Also alarming are the killings being committed by preschool and elementary age children: a ten-year old who killed a nine-month old baby by kicking and hitting her with shoes and a basketball until she stopped crying; a four-year old who climbed in a crib and stomped an eight-month old baby to death; a ten-year old who killed an eighty-four year old neighbor by beating her with a cane and slashing her throat with a knife (Morse 26). These cases are shocking, yet they are increasing in number. These acts suggest that something is fundamentally askew within our society.
In order to understand how children learn to be violent, it is necessary to have a basic idea about the development of the brain. The brain can anatomically be divided into four basic parts: the brainstem, the midbrain, the limbic brain, and the cortex. These four parts of the brain develop in a hierarchical progression starting with simple and gradually moving to more complex functions. This development begins with the brainstem which controls the basic and most essential functions necessary for survival. These include involuntary functions, like blood pressure, heart rate, and body temperature. The midbrain is next to develop and controls functions such as appetite and sleep. The limbic brain comes after the midbrain and is the seat of emotion and impulse. Finally, the cortex, where logic, planning, and cognitive functions take place, is developed (32).
The newborn brain is just starting to form connecting structures (dendrites and synapses) between the four different areas of the brain that will allow them to become fully integrated. While genetics give the beginning framework of the brain, actual matter is built by sound, sight, smell, touch, and movement from the outside environment. Our present day knowledge of the brain paints a portrait of an organism that is constantly reflecting and adjusting to the environment the individual is experiencing. The experiences of a child will determine the circuits that will be activated (32).
There are some surprising realities when we seek to identify what causes violent behavior from the perspective of brain anatomy. Violent impulses are generated in the lower parts of the brain, mainly the limbic system. Under conditions of extreme threat or rage, the brain is flooded with stress hormones. The limbic brain and midbrain are quickest to take control rather than the cortex, the center of rationality and wisdom, to mobilize the individual. According to Dr. Bruce Perry, our ability to think before we act is related to the ratio between the excitatory activity of the primitive areas of the brain and the moderating efforts of the cortical or higher areas. Any factors which increase the activity or reactivity of the brainstem and limbic system(e.g. chronic stress) or decreases the moderating capacity of the cortical areas (e.g. neglect) will increase an individual’s aggression, impulsiveness, and capacity to display violence. Violent behavior is most likely to occur when a young child’s experiences result in lack of adequate stimulation to the cortex together with overstimulation of the limbic system. According to Dr. Perry, if these experiences are chronic and occur early enough, a state of hyperarrousal or of numbing may become a permanent trait in a child, setting the stage for a host of learning and behavioral problems (33).
Researchers have found that during the first three years of brain development there are critical periods when skills are either developed or lost forever. It has been determined that there are critical periods for developing the ability to trust or feel connected to other people. While it would be nice to believe that given sufficient opportunity we can reverse any damage done to our children, research tells us that the effects of some early experiences cannot be undone (203). The devastating results to both the emotional and cognitive development when a baby is deprived of early sensitive nurturing can be demonstrated by the children arriving from orphanages in Romania. These children were left for months in rows of cribs in the orphanages without a person to engage them in speech, holding, or play. They were all adopted before they were thirty-six months old by American families who lavished on them the best nurturing, educational, and therapeutic interventions available. After five years the children were still showing signs of their early childhood neglect. Language development still lagged far behind normal and the ability to create or maintain attachment to the adoptive parents was still not apparent. Already children were starting to show some abusive behavioral problems (203).
According to David Grossman, an expert on the psychology of killing and a recent retiree from the U.S. Army, killing one’s own kind is unnatural. You have to be taught to kill. Almost any species has a hardwired resistance to killing it’s own kind (34). The military employs several calculated techniques to teach the soldiers how to kill. These training methods militaries use are brutalization and degradation, classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and role modeling. Grossman believes our culture is unknowingly using these same methods to teach our children to kill.
Degradation and brutalization is one of the first methods employed to teach a soldier to kill. In boot camp the soldiers are physically and verbally abused: countless push ups, endless hours at attention or running, while carefully trained professionals are screaming at you. The head is shaved and everyone is dressed alike in order to decrease the individual’s identity. This brutalization is designed to break down the soldiers’ existing norms and to teach them to accept a new set of values. The soldiers are desensitized to violence and accept it as a norm and a survival skill in a brutal world (Grossman 34).
Unfortunately, young children can learn these lessons much quicker because they come with no existing norms or values. As discussed earlier, the experiences of a newborn will actually determine which neuropathways are developed in the brain. Psychiatrist Dr. Dorothy Lewis has spent more that twenty-five years studying the motives of murderers. She believes that the seeds of violence are sewn by childhood abuse (Vaughan 551). One of her most striking realizations after interviewing scores of kids behind bars has been the high rates of child abuse among children who kill. In one study, ninety-six percent of homicidal children have come from chaotic family backgrounds, usually including family violence. Ninety percent have been abused as a child by a family member (Morse 122). Jo Anne Page, executive director to the Fortune Society, an organization that helps ex-offenders reenter mainstream society, states that it is rare for them to see someone who wasn’t savagely abused as a child (Goodwin 18).
Without knowing why, young children may act as brutally as they were treated. Because they have been abused at such an early age, they consider the abusive behavior as the “norm”. This can be reflected in the words of Jeffery, a seventeen year old on deathrow for murder:
I thought it was ordinary for so long, that every kid lived the same kind of life I did. I didn’t think it was anything unusual to see a kid get beat up or to see him come to school with black eyes or bruises, maybe a broken arm or something like that. I didn’t think that was ever- every kid went through it. I look back on it now, and I realize how sad that is. (qtd. in Morse 246)
The famous case of Pavlov’s dogs is an example of classical conditioning. The dogs learned to associate the ringing of the bell with food, and, once conditioned, the dogs would salivate every time they heard the bell. Television, movies, and videos are enforcing violence in our children through classical conditioning. The Journal of American Medical Association published a definitive epidemiological study on the impact of television violence. The research demonstrated what happened in numerous nations after television made its appearance as compared to nations and regions without television. In every nation, region, or city with television, there was an immediate explosion of violence on the playground, and within fifteen years there was a doubling of the murder rate (Grossman 34).
Children watch vivid pictures of human sufferings and death, and they learn to associate it with their favorite soft drinks and candy bar. A five year study by the American Psychological Association found that the average child in this country witnesses eight thousand murders and one hundred thousand other acts of violence on television by seventh grade (Goodwin 45).
The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) contends that the television is a very powerful influence on the values and behaviors of children. A report from this organization of psychiatrists states that hundreds of studies have been conducted over the years on the ways viewing violence on television effects children and teenagers. According to the AACAP, most of the evidence shows that children become immune to the horror of violence, come to accept violence as a way to solve problems, imitate the violence they see, and often start picturing themselves as similar to particular victimizers.After the Jonesboro shooting a high school teacher reported how her students had reacted after she told them about the shootings at the middle school. “They laughed,” she said in dismay. A similar reaction frequently occurs in the movie theaters when there is blood or violence. The young people laugh and continue eating their popcorn and soft drinks (Grossman 25).
The third method the military uses is operant conditioning. This is a very powerful procedure using stimulus-response. Interactive point-and-shoot video games and computer games also employ operant conditioning to increase violence in children. A child puts his quarter in the video machine with the intention to try to shoot as many objects as he can to win points. One study done by The National Coalition on Television Violence charted the effects of a video game played frequently by eight to ten year olds. The game involved shooting interactive laser video weapons at the “enemy” projected on the television screen. The findings revealed a dramatic rise, nearly eighty percent, in playground fighting following the period in which the young people played the video game (Goodwin 42). Many computer games are violence oriented and teach the same skills. Adding to this problem, many children today have easy access to guns. One of the Jonesburo killers had a fair amount of experience with guns, but the other boy had almost no experience shooting a gun. Between them, the two boys fired twenty seven shots at one hundred yards and hit fifteen people. According to Grossman, that is remarkable shooting. He contends that shooting accuracy in children can be contributed to the video games they play (38).
In the military the drill sergeant serves as a role model. He personifies violence and aggressiveness. Along with military heroes, these violent role models have always been used to influence the young soldiers.*** Our youth have plenty of violent role models supplied to them by the movies, television, rock musicians, and the media. In one study, adolescents listed their favorite rock music. One fifth of the favorite songspicked had destructive themes which explicitly advocated and promoted homocide, suicide, or satanic practices (Leone 83).Violent themes in rock music, especially in contemporary heavy metal and punk rock, and their influence on children and adolescents, have been of concern in this country for several years. A number of professionals, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics and the National Education Association, have suggested that such lyrics promote destructive and suicidal behavior in adolescents (84). A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. In order to break the chains of violence we must concentrate on the most vulnerable areas. The children that have been raised in an abusive home are at a much greater risk of exhibiting violent behavior than those that have experienced a loving, secure relationship from birth. And, unfortunately, as we have learned, by school age the pattern has already been set. Intervention must be started at a much earlier age. Some suggestions are: pre-parenting classes should be made mandatory in our high schools, home visitation by trained personnel for all newborns in high risk areas, education for first time parents about the emotional and behavioral development of the infant. Some laws should be passed to monitor the violence children are exposed to through television, video games, the movies, and music. Once the chains of violence are broken, we can hopefully start to rebuild the links with love and security.
Goodwin, William. Teen Violence. San Diego: Lucent Books, Inc.,
Hyde, Margaret. Kids In and Out of Trouble. Dutton, NY:
Cobblehill Books, 1995.
Zimring, Franklin E. American Youth Violence. NY: Oxford UP, 11998.
Krantzler, Nora J. and Kathleen R. Miner. Violence Health Facts.
Santa Cruz, California: ETR Associates, 1996.
Landav, Elaine. Teenage Violence. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Julian
Leone, Bruno. Youth Violence. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, Inc.,
Craig, Richard. “Colorado School Shooters Identified”. Cable
News Network. April 21, 1999. November 12, 1999