A new view on youth violence

By Anand Vaishnav, Globe Staff, 8/22/2002

A seven-year study of several hundred Springfield children challenges the notion that youth violence has strong roots in poverty, gender, and race, pointing instead to such factors as excessively violent households and painfully shy behavior.

The study released yesterday by professors at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Brandeis University suggests statistically what people know intuitively: The amount of aggression children witness in their parents - from ''smacking kids on the bottom to beating them up, from people yelling at each other to physical fights'' - is a powerful predictor of how violent the children will become, said author Kurt W. Fischer, a professor of education and human development at Harvard.

That doesn't mean that every sibling spat or parental disagreement will automatically breed thugs. But Fischer, who conducted the study with Brandeis University psychology professor Malcolm W. Watson, said constant violence at home shows up in children later in life.

''Anything beyond an occasional swat on the bottom is a problem,'' said Fischer, who directs the Mind, Brain, and Education program at Harvard. ''We all have tempers, we all can lose it, and we need to figure out what we're going to do when we lose it - so when that circumstance happens, we know how to walk away or do something else other than beating up our kids, grabbing them by the throat, twisting their arms, hitting them.

In a related finding that baffled some specialists, Fischer and Watson also uncovered a much smaller connection between child violence and family income, race, or gender. Previous studies have shown that boys are more violent than girls, that children raised in poor neighborhoods are more likely to exhibit violent tendencies. Fischer said it's a matter of degree: Boys and girls might show the same level of problem behavior, though the kinds of crimes they commit are different.

Howard Spivak, a professor of pediatrics at Tufts University School of Medicine who has studied aggression in children, found it ''perplexing'' that the study found few links between socioeconomic status and youth violence.

''That's not necessarily consistent with the work of many other people,'' said Spivak, director of the Tufts University Center for Children. ''And that depends on what other things they controlled for and how large their subgroups are. ... It certainly raises questions that deserve further study.''

Fischer and Watson also found that alienated children are more likely to bottle up their resentment until it explodes in violence, such as the perpetrators of school shootings.

Through five years of interviews and visits, researchers studied 440 Springfield children ages 7 to 13. There were equal numbers of boys, girls, whites, blacks, and Latinos, and equal numbers of income levels. The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development financed the study.

The research shows the need for better parenting techniques and for closer, earlier monitoring of children, said Edward De Vos, director of the Center for Violence and Injury Prevention at Education Development Center Inc., a Newton-based nonprofit education and health organization.

''The emphasis on family and exposure to violence in the home speaks to where much of the emphasis needs to be ...'' De Vos said. ''It speaks to the importance of early prevention and intervention.''

This story ran on page B2 of the Boston Globe on 8/22/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.