Magazine article Insight on the News

Who Takes the Beating for Juvenile Delinquency?

Magazine article Insight on the News

Who Takes the Beating for Juvenile Delinquency?

Article excerpt

The surge in youth violence has brought calls for draconian measures. But psychologists say inflicting physical punishment further imprints violence. Many experts prefer ToughLove.

The Winter 1995 issue of Policy Review features a dire article warning of a coming juvenile crime wave. But many believe that wave isn't just coming -- it already has washed ashore.

In the movie Rebel Without a Cause, James Dean and his friends sneaked beers and carried knives; today's teens start drinking regularly at an early age (in the seventh grade, according to some surveys) and tote guns. Numerous articles and commentaries pit baby boomers against "Generation Xers," depicting the younger generation as far less morally, socially or politically conscious than the older one.

Adult laments about the aimlessness and amorality of teenagers are nothing new, of course. What seems to be new is the growing intensity of adult mistrust and an accompanying tendency to view young people as members of a kind of inscrutable gang, enamored of violence and determined to push rebellion to new heights.

"Conflict is part and parcel of the adult-teen relationship," notes Robert Barcus, an associate professor of child and adolescent psychotherapy at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. "But these days, the misunderstandings are really huge. Among adults, there's a lot of anger and a lot of fear."

Some of those fears are justified. In the past decade, crime committed by teenagers between the ages of 14 and 17 has soared. According to the FBI's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, aggravated assault by teenagers has risen 80 percent since 1988; robberies increased by more than 50 percent and rapes by almost 30 percent. The number of teenage killers has gone up more than 50 percent in the last few years; the victims primarily are other teens.

Frustrated parents, as well as politicians, look for solutions in everything from school prayer to summer-jobs programs; some call for even tougher measures: curfews, boot camps for nonviolent teen offenders (and for children as young as 8 or 10) and even Singaporean-style caning.

On the home front, this search for new measures sometimes can take frightening turns. In a new book, Beating the Devil Out of Them: Corporal Punishment in American Families, University of New Hampshire sociology professor Murray Straus documents that a surprisingly high number of parents routinely hit, slap and beat their teenage children.

"People think they need to be violent in order to control their children," notes Adah Maurer, founder and director of End Violence Against the Next Generation Inc. in Berkeley, Calif. "But violence is only necessary when children are already accustomed to violence. What they don't seem to realize is that violence gets imprinted. You learn that to get people to do what you want, you have to hit them."

Twenty-three states still condone corporal punishment by public schoolteachers. And while some parents view this as an occasional, nearly harmless necessity, there are few laws or rules that regulate its severity. In Texas, for instance, the law states that a teacher may punish a student with any force "up to but not including deadly force." The Department of Education reports that each year, almost half a million students are hit in school -- and about a third of those are handicapped.

Says Jimmy Dunne, founder and president of People Opposed to Paddling Students, "Hitting your child ought to be as bad as hitting your wife. Nobody says it's okay to slap your wife around as long as you don't beat her senseless, but they do say that about children."

Amid the controversy, thousands of parents find a middle ground in a homespun philosophy that began as a neighborhood support group but now is expanding worldwide. ToughLove, the brainchild of David and Phyllis York -- former family therapists -- this year will open its 600th U. …

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