What Makes Kids Violent Today ?

MAY 2001

What makes kids violent today?  Is it firearms availability, as we're so often told by the anti-gun lobby? Or are the causes of youth violence more complex?  Dr. Helen Smith, a Knoxville, Tenn., forensic psychologist, has some pointed answers.

Dr. Smith, who has evaluated thousands of disturbed adults and children and who has written a book about her findings, argues that it isn't the weapon, or the Internet or entertainment violence that turns kids into killers, but rather a complex conflict between too little supervision at home, too many rules at school, and a breakdown in the social safeguards that teach kids rules, responsibilities and the consequences of misconduct.

Contrary to Hillary Clinton's assertion, it doesn't "take a village" to raise a child--it takes a concerned, attentive family. Unfortunately, under Clinton's brand of "socialization by the state," the authority and responsibility for raising kids has been usurped by legions of nanny-state bureaucrats imposing pop-psychology, feel-good solutions.

Suddenly, self-esteem in kids was more important than obedience or achievement. Children were urged to get in touch with their "inner feelings" (presumably not by exacting murderous revenge on their tormentors). Parents were warned not to be judgmental, nor to scold their children as "bad." Indeed, parents who physically or even verbally disciplined their children could find themselves disciplined by Child Protective Services.

What's more, many parents are so tired after coming home from work that they often neglect to pay attention to, let alone take time to teach or control their kids. Kids are left to run wild at home--then straitjacketed in layer upon layer of rules, regulations and "zero-tolerance" policies at school.

Caught between such dramatically different worlds, too many children feel ignored, unfairly treated and angry--whether or not they act on that anger. According to a nationwide survey conducted by Dr. Smith, 70 percent of non-violent boys and almost 50 percent of non-violent girls report that they're sometimes angry enough to hit someone.

A kid's world can be deadly serious today. Nothing is treated as innocent anymore. Fun and games are out. Jokes aren't funny. And the give-and-take tussle of play--the cultural currency of childhood socialization since the beginning--has been restrained by "time-outs," reconstructed as conflict resolution or replaced with activities that administrators consider more constructive uses of kids' time.

According to U.S. News and World Report, more than 40 percent of school districts across the United States have eliminated recess or are considering it. A study at the University of Michigan found that "real" free time among children under age 13 dropped from 40 percent of a child's day in 1981 to 25 percent of a child's day in 1997. In a survey conducted by Nickelodeon, half of all 6- to 17-year-olds said they were concerned about that lack of leisure time.

Many educators and psychologists now believe children need time to play and interact with their peers, and that all the walking-on-eggshells lately by school administrators may actually be counterproductive at preventing teen violence.

Though quick to caution readers not to jump to conclusions based on her findings, Dr. Smith does offer several characteristics of violent children that can serve as warning signs for parents. These include: cruelty to animals and smaller children; excessive fascination with violence or death; a penchant for setting fires; threats or talk about hurting or murdering others; and uncontrollable temper tantrums, especially at young ages.

Although school violence is rarer today than in more than a decade--and although your son or daughter is more likely to be struck by lightning than to be killed at school--politicians and interest groups continue to push their own pet solutions.

This, Dr. Smith warns, may constitute an even greater danger: "Despite the pressures to 'do something' that are generated whenever a tragedy receives national publicity, such regulations often serve to make things worse, by tying the hands of school administrators and by distancing teachers--and sometimes parents--from their primary responsibilities. The best protection against school violence is to be found in caring, hands-on teachers and responsible, involved parents. You can't get those by legislating."

In her book, Dr. Smith offers many recommendations for parents and teachers faced with potentially violent young people. She discusses medication, punishment, the relationship between suicidal teens and homicidal ones, and offers many anecdotal accounts of her work with young convicted killers--before and after their crimes.

For a deeper understanding of troubled teens, you can obtain Dr. Helen Smith's book, The Scarred Heart: Understanding and Identifying Kids Who Kill, through the website www.violentkids.com or through your local bookstore. It's a fascinating read.


Political Spin Return                             Top Return
Political Spin Return                 Top Return