Rehabilitating Criminals before They Grow Up

Article excerpt

A recent decline in the crime rate among young offenders is largely the result of a shrinking teenage population; over the long term, youth crime shows a steady, disturbing increase.

The number of young criminals arrested in the United States for violent offenses increased by more than 85% between 1970 and 1997, the FBI reports. In 1970, the police arrested 141 young offenders per 100,000 population for violent crimes; by 1997, the arrest numbers rose to 268 per 100,000.

Reducing juvenile crime may depend more on the actions of parents and teachers than law enforcement officers. The best way to prevent misbehaving children from joining the criminal ranks is to teach them how to respect others, according to Gad Czudner, a clinical psychologist who works with troubled children and juvenile offenders.

"I have found that neither punishment nor reward are effective methods for teaching morality. To change problem behavior, the concept of arousing moral feeling-namely, empathy and guilt-is essential," writes Czudner in Small Criminals Among Us.

Czudner identifies seven warning signs of potential criminality among children: self-centeredness, lying, low frustration tolerance, lack of empathy, lack of discipline, stealing, and power and control. By rating a child in terms of each risk trait, parents and teachers can develop a shared understanding of problem areas and work together to correct specific antisocial tendencies before they become criminal habits.

Children as young as five and six are capable of manipulating parents and teachers, creating convincing lies, and using tantrums to gain power. Budding criminals are likely to score consistently high in all seven of Czudner's warning signs. They may assert power and control through acts of cruelty to animals or aggression toward other children. And unlike most youngsters, as they mature their behavior becomes more and more deviant.

Because young children depend heavily on the approval of parents and other adults, Czudner's approach to children's bad behavior calls for parents to forge strong relationships with their children as a foundation for teaching values. He notes that, while some children get high on power, they can also take pleasure in helping others. …