By Henri Parens
The rioting youth in cities in the United Kingdom and in the USA are drawing attention to a problem that has been brewing for some time. Now we are facing youth who are collectively breaking the law and creating havoc in our cities. Yes, youth who commit crimes must be justly punished. This, however, begs two questions: (1) What causes our youth to become noncompliant and commit crimes? And (2) What do we consider to be just punishment?
Children do not come into the world with an inborn need to destroy nor with a tendency to be delinquent or criminal. Their living conditions and the efforts they make to cope with them lead to their developing society-defying behaviors and committing crimes. During the 20th Century, social scientists found a strong correlation between children’s being abused and neglected and their becoming delinquent and criminal. Three major conditions qualify for “abuse and neglect”: (1) the abusive/dysfunctional family constellation; (2) harsh child rearing; and (3) guilt- or helplessness-derived leniency.
- Parents in dysfunctional families suffered traumatizing relationships in childhood and have as parents established poor relationships with their own children. Thus, their children tend to not comply with their expectations, compelling parents to resort to punishment, which commonly escalates as the children continue to resist compliance. Escalating punishment leads to accumulating levels of hostility in these children which will be discharged, not against their own abusive parents, but against the outside world.
- Harsh child rearing is used in communities where the assumption prevails that children have an inborn stubborn willfulness which leads them to insist on having their own way and defy parental expectations. Such communities even hold that to civilize the child, “the child’s will and stubbornness must be crushed!” Social science research has documented that crushing the child’s will—essentially the child’s sense of self—leads to harsh narcissistic injury which generates high levels of hostility in the child toward their authoritarian parents. There is much evidence that the hostility accumulating in the child must find discharge and often does so toward the outside world.
- Today, in our schools and in society there is much noncompliance in our youth. Excessive leniency comes from two major sources: (a) especially in two-parents-working-outside-the-home families, children who feel they come second to their parents’ careers—whether it is true or not—leads to their parents feeling guilty of being neglectful—whether it is true or not—making parents less insistent on reasonable expectations in the face of their children’s resistance. The more some children succeed in getting concessions to expectations the more their resistance becomes entrenched; this then spreads to school and society. And (b) the well-justified but naïve and over-idealized effort to eliminate child abuse by eliminating all forms of physical punishment has led to over-permissiveness and insufficient insistence on compliance with reasonable expectations. Derailment of healthy compliance follows.
What do we consider to be just punishment? Punishment that is too harsh yields the same outcome as child abuse: it generates intense levels of hostility in the punished which will accumulate in the person’s psyche and become externalized somewhere at some time in the future; sometimes selectively, sometimes indiscriminately. Punishment that is too feeble yields the same result as taking away a privilege which is not especially valued by the punished. One is too harsh and the punisher or someone else will pay; the other is too feeble and the punishment has no weight. In our childrearing we need to strategize reasonable means to get our child to comply sufficiently with our reasonable expectations. This can be achieved. Social scientists have good ideas about how this goal can be achieved.
For more information, see Henri Parens’ book Handling Children’s Aggression Constructively: Toward Taming Human Destructiveness, which shows how to prevent the development of disturbed aggressive behaviors in children, giving caregivers and educators the tools they need to handle problems in the making.
Henri Parens, MD, FACPsa, is a professor of psychiatry at Thomas Jefferson University Medical College and a Training and Supervising Analyst (Adult and Child) at Psychoanalytic Center of Philadelphia.