Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Aggressive and Violent Toddlers Become Aggressive and Violent Adults

This is the conclusion of a recent New York Times article entitled Terrible Twos Who Stay Terrible.

To understand the violent criminal, says Richard E. Tremblay, imagine a 2-year-old boy doing the things that make the terrible twos terrible — grabbing, kicking, pushing, punching, biting. 
Now imagine him doing all this with the body and resources of an 18-year-old.

You have just pictured both a perfectly normal toddler and a typical violent criminal as Dr. Tremblay, a developmental psychologist at University College Dublin in Ireland, sees them — the toddler as a creature who reflexively uses physical aggression to get what he wants; the criminal as the rare person who has never learned to do otherwise.  
In other words, dangerous criminals don’t turn violent. They just stay that way.

It's an interesting finding, one that has been replicated many times by multiple researchers on multiple continents.

But after reading this article, I am left with many questions:

Toward the end of the article, the author mentions that one way to prevent violent children from continuing to be violent into adulthood is to work with parents. But "[p]rograms that provide comprehensive support, including parent training, do seem to help, though they are difficult to deliver to the deeply troubled families that need them most."

The phrase "deeply troubled families that need them most," refers to low-income or lower-class populations. The first study discussed here studied disadvantaged boys in Quebec. The second study discussed makes no mention of the economic situation of the subjects, but this sentence implies that the larger study similarly drew on disadvantaged boys.

What these studies tell me is that the researchers here (perhaps not other researchers on other continents) are drawing conclusions about lower-class children. In fact, they have deliberately only sampled from low-income areas. This is easily interpreted by mainstream media as "violent children in low income areas will grow up to be violent criminals."

I wonder if this study were conducted solely on upper class children, would the results would bear out the same conclusions? Additionally, would the violence in upper class children be channeled the same way--into physical violence? Or would it suffice to find an influx of white collar crime among them as adults?

Also of note, the researchers excluded girls from their study, because their arc of violent behavior is much lower than that of men. I disagree with this exclusion, particularly because it falls in with the stereotype that women are quite and docile. Much of this docility and self-control comes because of socialization--women are conditioned as girls to sit still, be quiet, calm down, and "behave."

A further thought: if boys were also uniformly conditioned to sit still, be quiet, calm down, and "behave," as opposed to being governed by a "boys will be boys" attitude, would they develop greater self-control? Perhaps what's really needed here is a removal of permission to be violent in our society.

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