A seven-year study of several hundred children debunks 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 Wednesday by Harvard and Brandeis University professors 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 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 Watson, says 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.
"Many people do that at one point or another, and they really shouldn't," he said. "It damages kids psychologically and physically and makes them more likely to become violent themselves."
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 says it's a matter of degree: Boys and girls may show the same level of problem behavior, although the kinds of crimes they commit are different.
Fischer and Watson also found that children who seem alienated and lonely are more likely to bottle up their resentment until it explodes in violence, such as the rash of high-profile school shootings that have haunted the nation over the past four years.
Through five years of interviews and visits, researchers studied 440 Springfield, Mass., 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.
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