Stop the Violence

By Powers, Mike | Human Ecology Forum, Winter 1995 | Go to article overview
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Stop the Violence

Powers, Mike, Human Ecology Forum

Children have not escaped the violence that plagues our society. Many times they are its victims, and increasingly they are its perpetrators. Family Life Development Center director James Garbarino is trying to find a way to combat the effects of the "socially toxic" environments that foster such violence.

Robert Sandifer never had a chance at a normal life. Abused since birth, he was a short, slight eleven-year-old whose inner rage was masked by a singularly unthreatening outward appearance. On one thin arm he wore a tattoo saying "I love Mommy." He even had an endearing nickname - "Yummy" - given to him because of his love of cookies.

But he also was a fledgling gang member whose potential for violence kept his entire Chicago neighborhood on edge. When he finally erupted last summer, killing a young girl in a random shooting that police said was a gang initiation rite, it seemed to surprise no one who knew him. And when he was found dead a few days later, executed by older gang members, there were at least as many expressions of relief as there were of grief among his mourners.

Why do children like Yummy kill? According to James Garbarino, director of the college's Family Life Development Center, it's because they're being brought up in an increasingly "toxic" social environment, where violence and its aftermath are part of daily life. That, combined with poverty, early traumatic experiences, fear for their own safety, the lack of a stable home life, and the influence of television, is making them mean and dangerous at a very early age.

Garbarino, who earned a Ph.D. degree from the College of Human Ecology in 1973, has been called "the Indiana Jones of child development." He has traveled to some of the world's most strife-torn nations - including Northern Ireland, Cambodia, Croatia, and Kuwait - to study the effects of violence on children. He returned to Cornell last summer after spending nine years as president of the Erikson Institute for Advanced Study in Child Development in Chicago. His time there gave him the opportunity to study children and violence in some of the nation's poorest neighborhoods.

"When you have young, vulnerable kids in a socially toxic environment, they really go down the tubes," Garbarino says. "One cause of childhood violence is declining adult supervision. Another is the violent imagery to which children are exposed at younger and younger ages. For younger kids, it has a traumatic effect. For older kids, it has a corrupting effect."

As an example, Garbarino points to another incident in Chicago in which a five-year-old boy was dropped from the roof of an apartment building by two older boys because he refused to steal candy for them.

"Where did those kids get such an idea?" he asks. "You can almost be sure they saw it done in a movie or on television. And vulnerable kids like those, who come from traumatic backgrounds and who may be in a gang culture, are flooded with these types of images. They want to be tough guys, and to them, that's what a tough guy does - intimidates people. You dangle people off buildings."

Garbarino says the tendency to use violence as a solution or a response is a learned behavior he calls a "cultural script." He says almost all children today learn it, and the most vulnerable act it out.

"Think of kids as little anthropologists studying their culture. This is what they're learning: guns mean power. There are surveys in which a third or more of the kids questioned say that if they needed a gun, they'd know where to get one. This is the context for incidents like kids shooting each other or dropping each other off buildings."

Another part of the problem is that the lines between childhood and adolescence have been blurred. Garbarino points out that ten- and eleven-year-olds are participating in adolescent culture in their music and dress, so it should be no surprise that they're participating in the gun culture as well.

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