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Article: Where Does Violence Come From?


By Elaine Cassel

Once again, in the wake of seemingly nonsensical violence that took place in a school in an affluent Colorado neighborhood, everyone is asking where violence comes from. Psychology provides many insights into the varied and complex roots of violence. But the best place to begin the search may be in the nursery. To learn more

Once again, in the wake of seemingly nonsensical violence that took place in a school in an affluent Colorado neighborhood, everyone is asking where violence comes from. Psychology provides many insights into the varied and complex roots of violence. But the best place to begin the search may be in the nursery.

Recent school shootings have everyone asking what makes children, mostly boys, from seemingly "good" homes kill their fellow students and teachers in planned attacks. If we read the news stories beyond the first couple of days and find out more about these so-called "good" boys from "nice" homes with "great parents," we will often find clues to their madness. And though there are indeed many contributors to child and adolescent violence, the starting point should be the child's early experiences at home.

Ghosts from the Nursery: Tracing the Roots of Violence, by Robin Karr-Morse and Meredith S. Wiley (Grove/Atlantic, 1999), traces violence from the womb and the first three years of life. Using recent research, they explain how a fetal brain awash in drugs and alcohol, and affected by its mother's stress hormones, may come into the world "wired" differently, perhaps disposed with a difficult temperament.

Whether or not the infant is born with a brain that has been under stress for nine months, the first two years of life are critical to the child's ability to lean how to appropriately express and control its emotions, to abide by parental rules, and to care for others. Karr-Morse and Wiley discuss the most recent research into this most critical of all critical periods of development, particularly the studies of biological and social factors.

The authors also examine the effects of parental physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, as well as physical and emotional neglect. For even children whose prenatal and early childhood experiences are fairly stable may suffer the rest of their lives from the affects of abuse and neglect, especially in the first three years of life. Government statistics consistently report that a majority of male prison inmates, and as many as 75 percent of female inmates, have been abused and neglected in childhood.*

Karr-Morse and Wiley's premise is supported by leading criminologists, who stress that immediate post-natal intervention in the homes of at-risk children and their mothers—most often young (especially teenage) mothers who exposed their infants to harmful prenatal experiences, are dependent on drugs and/or alcohol, lack in education, have no social support, are economically deprived, and are themselves products of abusive and neglected homes—is the only way to stop the cycle of violence.**

Ghosts from the Nursery is a timely reminder that even though popular culture has many negative influences on children and teenagers (guns, violent movies and video games, and musical lyrics spewing hatred and anger, to name a few), nothing is more germane to the development of violence than the first three years of life, for it is during that time that the foundation is laid for the child to reject harmful cultural influences, to live within society's laws, and to care for others.

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*Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, August, 1996, In the wake of childhood maltreatment;Bureau of Justice Statistics, April, 1999, Inmates at mid-year, 1997.

**Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, February, 1999, Costs and benefits of early childhood intervention.


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