Children Need to Unlearn Violent Behavior

Article excerpt

Editor's note: The following is an edited version of Howard Spivak's General Session address. Members may obtain complete copies of his speech by contacting Corrections Today, 8025 Laurel Lakes Court, Laurel, MD 20707-5075; (301) 206-5051.

It really is a pleasure to be here. I often speak to health professionals. I less often get an opportunity to interact with people from other professional areas, and I think, quite frankly, that it is the interdisciplinary dialogues and collaborations where solutions to this serious and growing issue of violence in this country are to be found.

I'd actually like to start with a personal story which I tell on occasion, not because it's earth-shattering but because it illustrates that violence affects all of us in a very personal way. About seven or eight months ago, I got a phone call from my sister-in-law who lives in a very affluent suburb of New York City. She was very distressed about her son, who at the time was almost 17, a junior in high school.

A classmate of his had come to their front door and asked to see my nephew. About 10 minutes later, my nephew walked back into the house all bloodied up. The classmate had two friends hiding in the bushes, and they beat up my nephew because this classmate's girlfriend was my nephew's lab partner and he was under the impression that my nephew was coming on to his girlfriend.

A police officer came to the house and took all of the information down and then turned to my nephew and said, "Well, young man, you have two choices. You can go to your nearest emergency room and document all of your injuries. Then you can come down to the police station and file a formal report and try to press charges, but nothing will happen. But you have another choice. You have friends, don't you?" Then he turned to my brother and said, "That's how we deal with problems, isn't it?"

The next day, my nephew gathered together about a dozen of his friends, who in turn gathered some of their friends, so they ultimately had a group of about 60 teen-age boys who beat the crap out of those three boys. Quite frankly, the only reason somebody wasn't hurt or killed is because nobody pulled a weapon. This episode typifies the kind of violence that young people are growing up with today and the values that we as a society are promoting.

The United States has the fifth highest homicide rate in the world. There are 25,000 homicides in this country every year and that's just the tip of the iceberg. For every one of those homicides, there are over 100 people with violent injuries. Homicide has become the second leading cause of death among teen-agers in this country and the leading cause of death among young black men and women ages 15 to 34. The cost to this country both in human and economic terms is enormous. The violent injuries that occur each year in this country cost approximately $60 billion over the life of the victims.

Violence is learned behavior. We are not born with an innate need to hurt each other. We learn to do that--we learn to value it. We teach it to our children and they learn to value it. They're learning it through child abuse and witnessing adult violence in their homes. Between one-third and one-half of families in the United States today experience some form of violence in their homes.

Children are also learning violence in their communities. If you walk into a high school classroom in any major urban area in this country today and ask the class how many people know somebody who has been murdered, every hand in the room will go up. If you ask how many have lost a relative to homicide, half or more of the hands will go up.

Physical violence is not the only violence young people are experiencing, particularly in our urban communities. Racism and poverty are forms of violence as well. This affects how people think about themselves and how they relate and behave in the larger world.

Children are learning about violence in their schools. …