What causes children to be violent? Is there anything parents can do to prevent violence in their children's school? These are questions I began asking in 1993 while I was working with other educators on the conflicts which arise out of differences in learning and teaching styles. Increasingly, teachers and administrators were reporting gang fighting, drug use, vigilantism and extortion among students, and intimidating behaviour towards adults. While they were deeply troubled by this violence in the student body generally, they were alarmed with the growing involvement of females in all forms of violence. Girls, who typically have little involvement in violent behaviour and who are most often seen as victims rather than perpetrators of violence, were increasingly participating in aggressive acts. In more than 20 years of front line youth work, I confess that I knew no more about the problem than anyone else. None of us had an overall grasp of the situation, although everyone had in one way or another been touched by it.
I contacted my colleague, Dr. Ted Riecken in the Faculty of Education, to ask for his help in understanding and tackling this growing problem. The result of our collaboration is the Youth Violence Project. We surveyed more than 1,500 hundred Grade 8, 9, and 10 students from a Victoria area school district asking them to describe their experiences with, and perspectives on, violence and anti-social behaviour. The results were shocking. We found that 50.9 per cent of the males and 20.9 per cent of the females had "beaten up another kid at least once or twice in the past year." We also found a statistically significant relationship between the student's values and attitudes and violent behaviour. Violent students devalued reciprocity (honesty, generosity, forgiveness, politeness, concern for others, and respect for others) and endorsed violent behaviour to a significantly greater degree than non-violent students. As well, students who participated in violence said that their teaches weren't interested in them, that family life is not important, that their parents do not understand them. They were less inclined to turn to parents and other adults for help, did not expect to finish high school, were pessimistic about the future, abuse alcohol and drugs and had been victimized either at home or in the community.
I also surveyed violent school girls and found that they share negative notions of self and that women achieve their greatest importance when they command the attention of men. To them, females are devalued and oppressed as a matter of course, and violence is justified because the victim caused the assailant to attack. They beat up other girls, they say, because these girls appear to be threatening their relationships with males, and thus "deserve" to be beaten.
What does all this mean to parents and can this information lead us to find ways to prevent young people from being violent? Ted Rieken and I think that understanding what makes children violent is a first-step. We are currently involved in a project with Kindergarten to Grade 12, their parents, teachers, administrators and local agency workers. Our preliminary findings underline the importance of parents' values and attitudes with respect to children's participation in violence. They also show the positive impact of student-driven anti-violence initiatives, bully-proofing, conflict resolution programming aimed at parents, peer helping programs, particularly at the elementary level, and the positive impact of providing elementary students with the opportunity for guided cooperative play. Finally, these findings show unequivocally how important gender is in understanding violence and its prevention, and the importance of finding ways to support female students to stand firm in their commitment to pro-social values, attitudes and behaviours.
With these findings in mind, there are ways parents can help their children avoid violence. Here are some suggestions: Commit to a violence-free household. Don't shy away from issues of gender equality and stereotyping and be prepared to deal with them. Be a good role model for pro-social behaviour. Teach compassion and tolerance. Help your children discover their own unique identities and accept them. Finally, get involved in your community and become an advocate for prevention programs in your children's schools. It costs $42,000 a year to keep an adult in jail. An effective school-based prevention program costs only $3,000. The cost of jailing one adult could pay for 14 programs. The choice is obvious.
Sibylle Artz is an assistant professor in UVic's School of Child and Youth Care and does research on youth violence. She is the author of Feeling as a Way of Knowing: A Practical Guide to Working with Emotional Experience. Her second book, Beastie Girls, Bangers and Betties, which is about violent school girls, will be published in the spring.