When a child is violent, it is often common to relate the cause of such behavior to characteristics of elements outside the family. If there is a lot of unemployment or crime in the neighborhood, it is assumed that these risk factors are the reasons for the child’s behavior. But many children grow up in poor neighborhoods and don’t become violent.
What is most important is the situation within the child’s home. Being neglected and experiencing physical, emotional and/or sexual abuse plays a critical role in the child’s development. Research has shown that a small proportion of children who are most likely to become juvenile delinquents and later adult criminals tend to exhibit antisocial behavior by the age of six or seven, the time they reach first or second grade.1 Their behavior consists of acting out in class, bullying other children, cruelty of animals, lying and stealing.
The question is, “How do we deal with these young children?” Do we punish them or try and rehabilitate them? Young children are not young adults. Their brains are still developing and with the correct treatment, they may learn more appropriate behavior. But the pattern nowadays is to treat them as adults.
In a nurturing environment, it is possible to provide education to help them change their lives. Proper treatment, over time, can help them change the direction of their lives, but that is costly.
Consider, though, the alternative. While it is true that some of these violent children cannot be reformed, many of them can. The costs to intervene early surely would be much less than paying to house them as adults in correctional facilities and then hoping they are rehabilitated once released.
I, for one, would rather we spend our tax dollars on working with young children to understand their behavior and redirect it in a healthy way than to simply keep building more prisons. Not everyone can be saved, but the long-term consequences would be much better.
“Little Criminals,” Fox Butterfield, New York Times, PBS and WGBH/Frontline, 1998