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February 1, 1995
Vol. 52
No. 5

Children Learn What They Live

In the current get-tough-on-crime climate, we must advocate more constructive ways to respond to children before they are beyond our reach.

People who are in their mid-40s or beyond may remember a popular 1956 movie, “The Bad Seed.” In this film, a little girl, born evil, inflicts all manner of mayhem on her family and community. In the end, much to the relief of the audience, God intervenes and destroys the evil child with a well-directed lightning bolt. Listening to the description of violent kids these days is almost enough to lead one to believe that the lightning bolt missed— that somehow we are under assault from the progeny of the bad seed.
An alternative to the bad seed theory is an aphorism that has been displayed on the walls of pediatricians' waiting rooms for years: “Children learn what they live.” Children's behavior, in other words, cannot be understood without some consideration of the world into which they have been born—a world that we adults have created.

Spare the Rod

As adults, we need to acknowledge the nature of this world more frequently in our discussions of youth violence. These discussions have been mired in grand oversimplifications and hard-edged absolutes. Complexity and tentativeness seem to have little place either in the body politic or on talk radio.
What are we to do about youth violence? The media focus on retribution and punishment reflects the popular anger over “bad” kids—punish children who misbehave until they act responsibly; try as adults minors who commit violent crimes; and punish bad parents until they start acting responsibly toward their children. According to this logic, sooner or later, both parents and kids will get the message.
Any attempt to suggest that we, as adults, have a collective responsibility for all children is likely to be attacked as soft on crime or excusing unacceptable behavior or at odds with the value of individual responsibility for one's actions.

Our Unkempt Garden

  • Poverty. As Americans continue to express outrage over the lawlessness of the young, they continue to condone the highest rate of childhood poverty in the industrial world.
  • Disintegrating home environments. It should not be surprising that for many youths who are confronted with the need to virtually rear themselves, the only chance for membership in a kind of family, a family that will help protect its members and provide a code to live by, is to join a gang. It is not remarkable that a young teenager named Tamika, who was profiled in a New York Times Magazine article (LeBlanc 1994), should be a “gang girl.” Although she has two parents, her mother is an addict and her father sexually abused her from age 7 to 14. Besides other children, she has only her overworked grandmother to rely on.
  • Child abuse. “It seems an unthinkable crime,” said the author of a recent New York Times article, but “statistics show that in the United States, when young children are slain, the parents are usually their murderers” (Chira 1994). A recent Department of Justice study revealed that “for every violent and sexual offense committed by a youth under 18, there are three such crimes committed by adults against children and teens” (Males 1994, p. 10). Children, in short, are more likely to be the victims than perpetrators of violence, and their attackers are most likely to be adults.
  • Our violent culture. Listen to the news, watch television, go to a movie or a video store, or witness adults talking about “projecting force” and “standing tall” in foreign affairs. Is it any wonder our children romanticize violence and gangs?
  • Our materialistic culture. As adults continue to condemn children for a lack of proper values, they continue to treat children as if they were an economic resource to be exploited. In a culture in which children have been killed because of the clothes they wear or humiliated because of the material possessions they don't have, how do adults explain such manipulation of children as advertising in schools?
  • Pressures to achieve. Even middle-class children are at risk of having their childhood warped by a culture in which adults often cannot seem to love them simply because they are our children. According to David Elkind, many children have “the feeling of being used, of being exploited by parents, of losing the identity and the uniqueness of childhood without just cause...” (1988, 1993). Elkind quotes a family therapist who puts it this way: “People give their kids a lot materially, but expect a lot in return. No one sees his kids as average, and those who don't perform are made to feel like failures.” It should not be surprising that many young people respond to the devaluation and pressure they experience by committing “antisocial” acts.

Classroom Pruning

Despite these facts of life, the bad seed theory is still a popular explanation for misbehavior and violence among our young. Confronted by a profound cultural conflict over how to handle violent children, educators often find it difficult to know what they can and should do. At a minimum, we should make every effort to not let our response be defined entirely by calls for metal detectors and more explicit and harsher discipline codes.
We would do well also to reexamine why we chose education as a career. The values of commitment, service, and caring that brought so many of us to the field should help us focus on the importance and humanity of each of our students, and to speak out on their behalf when so many others only want to punish them. If educators don't take the lead in finding more constructive ways for adults to respond to children, who will?

Chira, S. (November 5, 1994). “Murdered Children: In Most Cases, a Parent Did It.” The New York Times, p. A6.

Elkind, D. (1988). The Hurried Child. New York: Addison-Wesley. Reprinted in Schuster, C., and W. Van Pelt, eds. (1993). Speculations. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, p. 73.

LeBlanc, A. N. (August 14, 1994). “Lyle Manny's Locked Up.” The New York Times Magazine.

Males, M. (March/April 1994). “Bashing Youth: Media Myths About Teenagers.” Extra: 8–11.

Barbara Lindquist has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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