little criminals

Patrick Tolan Associate Professor in the Department of Psychiatry,University of Illinois at Chicago Medical School
He is Director of Research at the Institute of Juvenile Research as well as the principal investigator on several scientific studies on the causes of and best prevention methods for violence and related social problems among children and adolescents. A particular area of expertise is in evaluating prevention programs and issues related to the development of urban children and families.

What are the best predictors of violence in a young child?

The "best" predictors from early childhood (before the age of 10) to later violence are early aggressive behavior by the child, poor parenting from the parents (low involvement and monitoring of the child's behavior; inconsistent and harsh discipline), and difficulty making and keeping friendships or being accepted by other children. However, these best predictors are not that strong and have not shown adequate ability to predict later violence well enough to be relied on. They are more able to be used to predict who might be at-risk than predicting who will actually become violent.

In addition to these predictors of who among a given group of children might become violent, there are also some indications that very poor urban communities relate to risk for violence, but we do not know the processes that underlie this relation. Also, even among those committing lots of antisocial behaviors, violence is not that common. For example, a famous study led to a focus on six to eight percent of the males as responsible for most of the crime (e.g., Wolfgang et al., 1972). However, among that six to eight percent, most were not violent and of those violent most had only one such arrest. A very small number (less than one percent ) of the population showed repeated serious violent offending.

It may be a mistake to concentrate on the idea of identifying individuals at-risk for later violence and instead to focus on situations and the confluence or additive influence of individual and situational factors over development that lead to antisocial behavior, including violence. We also need to recognize that almost everyone is violent at some point in their life, that most violence is not predictable simply from individual characteristics, and that different types of violence may have quite different causes.

The best predictors of not being violent may be a better focus for science and policy--this is more prevalent and may more usefully direct us to action. These are quite logical--adequate parenting, adequate schools, reasonably equal economic opportunities, and families and communities that provide norms for nonviolence (including how police and other authorities deal with problems).

Is there an emerging consensus on these predictors of violence?

There is strong consensus among most researchers about what predictors belong on the list of predictors, but great difference about how well they explain violence (most of the research is actually explaining relative aggression) and which are necessary characteristics for violence to occur. In part this is due to theoretical differences or specific focus of each person's research (e.g., focused on genetics vs. cognition vs. family vs. community). And in part it is due to the recency of data that is adequate to compare the relative validity of different theoretical views.

There is growing consensus that it is a mix of inherited and other biological factors with environmental influences over time that leads to patterns of behavior that include criminal violence. We are just beginning to map how these interactions might occur and to "model" how such behavior can develop. I think there will be great strides made in the next ten years in specifying the developmental paths and necessary predisposition and contextual influences for criminal or repeated violent behavior. I suspect, though, that the majority of violence will not be explained by these models--it is explained by situational characteristics and human frailty.

What do we do? What are the public policy aspects of this issue?

a.) Make access to handguns harder and make guns safer. This will make our violence less lethal. Trace illegal guns to their wholesale/manufacturing source to prosecute those bringing guns into the neighborhoods. We can make guns safer with electronic IDs/locks.

b.) Improve access to prenatal and neonatal health care, particularly for the poorest and the youngest parents. Include parenting classes as a regular part of prenatal care. Train pediatricians and other child medical personnel in asking about child development and parenting practices with referral when skills seem low or violent discipline methods are reported.

c.) Improve the schools serving our most at-risk portions of the population. Financing needs to be rethought so disparities in resources are not so great. Require teachers to take and master basic methods of behavior management as part of their degree programs. Increase opportunities and expectations of parental involvement in schools.

d.) Create/support norms in schools, at home, and work that do not tolerate violence or strong aggression and methods of solving problems. Our research and others suggests that the norms of the classroom, neighborhood, and society can promote or suppress violence among high risk children. Sometimes I think we need to reestablish or bolster civics classes to teach personal responsibilities of compromise and respecting individual differences as the heritage of this society. However, this also requires that the adults also behave according to these values--it is not clear we do that when it is tough to do so!

e.) Create/redevelop sound resources for high-risk kids and families. Develop sound prevention methods and institute them on a large scale. Drug and alcohol problems constitute much of the attention and resources of the criminal justice systems and fill up our jails. Treatment would be more effective and less expensive by any measure. Similarly, it is much cheaper to provide social and mental health services to families involved in violence than it is to continuously "mend" the harm they cause each other and those around them.

We need to not let those prevail who might see political advantage in making this seem a problem of simply just identifying the violent few. The solutions are not exotic, but they are not simplistic either. As Vice President Gore noted, violence prevention is not a luxury; it is the necessity. Prosecution and warehousing young persons in jails are a luxurious indulgence that fools us into believing we are doing something about violence and crime. We cannot afford this political indulgence.

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