by Jennifer Birckmayer, Department of Human Development and Family Studies, New York State College of Human Ecology, Cornell

The escalation of violence in our society worries many thoughtful people. The tragedies in Bosnia, Nigeria, Rwanda, and Haiti are examples of nightmarish events in the international community. Statistics on homicides and other violent crimes now indicate that the United States has become the most violent country among industrialized nations.

We all want to make sense of dramatic, terrifying events and trends. Finding explanations can help us regain a sense of control, giving us a psychological distance and thereby reducing fears for our own safety. Escalating societal violence is not an issue with a single cause, however, or even with a single set of causes. Among the significant contributors are poverty, racism, unemployment, illegal drugs, inadequate parenting practices, and adult models of violent behavior in real life and in the media. Sometimes it's difficult to remember that the problem has multiple causes when prestigious people and organizations lend weight to one view, perhaps unwittingly distorting the total picture.

For example, two Surgeon Generals, the American Medical Association, the American Pediatric Association, the American Academy of Child Psychiatry, and the American Psychological Association are cited by Prothrow-Smith in her book, "Deadly Consequences," as championing the view that violence on TV helps cause aggressive behavior. We need to remind ourselves that not every person who watches violence on TV becomes violent--and we need to understand why this is so. What are the factors or buffers that keep many children and adults from behaving violently under exactly the same circumstances that provoke others to violence?

A panel convened by the National Science Foundation, National Institute of Justice, and Centers for Disease Control concluded that " . . . research suggests that violence arises from the interactions among individuals' psychosocial development, their neurological and hormonal differences, and social processes. Consequently we have no basis for considering any of these 'levels of explanation' more fundamental than the others" (Reiss 1993, 102).

So, if there is no single explanation for violent behavior, is there a single set of recommendations for what we can do to alleviate it? There are many such sets, but the one that seems best comes from a recent symposium, "Violence: Its Causes and Curses,"* sponsored by the Brown University Child and Adolescent Behavior Letter. Twelve national experts suggested that we

-treat violence as a public health issue
-reach kids as early as possible (and train them to get along with people in nonviolent ways)
-teach conflict resolution to everyone
-ban handguns
-ban corporal punishment
-promote responsible children's television programming
-invest money and programs in communities at risk for violence
-start a national day care program that includes parent education
-create more jobs and vocational programs
-coordinate communication among youth, parents, schools, police, and communities
-keep schools small
-find the few habitual, violent offenders who are responsible for most of the violence and separate them from the general public

The actions each of us takes to reduce violence are matters of individual conscience, skills, resources, and opportunities. Some of us can select one area in which to expend our personal energies by, for example, lobbying for responsible children's programming on television; others may contribute in several different ways, perhaps by volunteering to help with conflict resolution programs at a local school, becoming informed about the advantages of small schools, and sharing information with community residents and school board members, or becoming a mentor for a teenaged parent. The contributions each of us can make at the local level are important components of what must become a national effort to reduce violence.

Children learn to be civilized by watching adults behave in civilized ways. But it is not enough (although it's a step in the right direction) for us to demonstrate behaviors that are merely socially acceptable. We must also demonstrate how to be caring, compassionate, and kind to our own children, to our friends' children, to children at risk of becoming violent or of becoming victims, etc.--in other words, to all children.

*The symposium's proceedings are available in print and audiotape. Contact: Newsletter Book Service 1-800-382-0602 for cost and ordering information.


The Brown University Child and Adolescent Behavior Newsletter. 1994. Violence: Its Causes and Cures (Transcript of symposium held on February 28, 1994, at Brown University). Newsletter Book Service, 919 Duke St., Alexandria, VA 22314.

Garbarino, James. 1993. Let's Talk About Living in a World with Violence. Erikson Institute, 420 N. Wabash Avenue, Chicago, IL 60611.

Melso, Gail F., and Alan Fogel. 1988. "The Development of Nurturance in Young Children." Young Children, March.

National Association for the Education of Young Children. 1994. NAEYC Position Statement on Violence in the Lives of Children. 1509 16th St. NW, Washington, DC 20036-1426.

Osofsky, Joy D., and Emily Fenichel, Eds. 1993/1994. Caring for Infants and Toddlers in Violent Environments: Hurt, Healing, and Hope. Zero to Three, Vol. 14, No. 3 (Dec-Jan). 2000 14th St. North, Suite 380, Arlington, VA 22201-2500.

Prothrow-Smith, Deborah. 1991. Deadly Consequences. New York: Harper.

Reiss, Albert J., Jr., and Jeffrey A. Roth, Eds. 1993. Understanding and Preventing Violence. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Cornell Cooperative Extension has many publications and videotapes to help you address child development and nonviolence. "Discipline Is Not a Dirty Word," "Infants and Parents," "Family Matters," and "Teen-Parent Communication" are only a few of the dozens of titles designed to help. Contact the Media Services Resource Center, 8 Cornell Business and Technology Park, Ithaca, NY 14850 for a free list of child development titles.

Source: Cornell Cooperative Extension, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY
Provider: Ag Information Services -- News & Publications, Penn State

August 28, 1994
Document Number: 28302757