Peace on Earth Begins at Home

How it all Begins

Generally speaking, we humans do not use violence and aggression as a method of interacting with others, unless we are hurt or in a state of fear. Anger is the protection mechanism that keeps us safe. This protection mechanism is something we are born with and it is not the general method of dealing with life, people or situations. It is a learned behaviour when it is used as a way to control and purposely hurt others or to obtain items. Once a person becomes comfortable with using aggression and violence as a way to get what they want it becomes very difficult to change.  For the children who have learned to use aggression and violence in their interactions with others, the teaching of this behaviour has been repetitive, its success was and continues to be frequent, its rewards generous and its consequences few.

Aggression is complex as it originates in a child’s misconceptions of the world around them; they are often taught by their parents that the world is out to persecute them or their families. It is used by those weak or lacking in socially acceptable alternatives which are also passed on from the parent to the child. The child learns these behaviours by watching how the parents interact with others and the world around them. These children are not taught to look at the world in an emotionally mature manner or how to come up with alternatives when dealing with others. This is where repetitively violent people; chronically aggressive teenagers, spouse abusers, child abusers and others who regularly behave aggressively come from – the home and to a certain extent the community.

Violence and aggression often begins with the style of discipline used and is called “coercive parenting”. This type of parenting presents itself through irritability and inconsistency on the part of the adults. The parents often do not show warmth to their children and affection is infrequent. At times, the parent’s supervision of the child is careless or even nonexistent, at other times harsh and severe. Discipline takes the form of threats, reprimands and frequent corporal punishment. In the home, 4% of parents physically abuse their children; such as burn, fracture bones or shake to the point of concussion and 90% make at least occasional (and sometimes frequent) use of corporal punishment; such as a spank, hit, and/or slap (Straus, M.A., Beating the devil out of them: Corporal punishment in American Families).

When a parent hits a child the child ceases the behaviour that caused the punishment. The adult thinks this has then worked and is now more likely to use corporal punishment in response to the child’s next misbehavior. What both the child and the parent have learned is that “might makes right” but that is all they have learned. There has been no education as to why the behaviour should not be undertaken or what to do instead. Another method that teaches children how to be aggressive and violent is through what is called “vicarious learning”. The child learns by seeing others in his family undertaking aggressive behaviour such as the father beating the child’s mother. This has a lasting and permanent impact on the child.

The child responds in a like aggressive manner with temper tantrums, whining, yelling and hitting. These become the child’s preferred and often successful ways for getting what he or she wants. This pattern is often set by the time the child is 2 or 3 years of age. By the time the child is 4 or 5 they start to interact with others in the community. Having learned at home that these behaviours work they use the same tactics with those around them. For example, Steven grabs another boy’s toy in the toy box because he wants it even though it is not his toy to begin with. The parents intervene and then tell their children not to play with Steven because he does not play nice.

Steve’s has not been taught how to interact with others in a positive manner and now his peers, who in some ways could help him, are withdrawn for their own protection. He enters school and there he finds more than enough opportunity to employ, expand and refine his aggressive and violent behaviours. He is already primed for trouble and it doesn’t take him long to find it.

School personnel and Steven’s fellow students now see him as a trouble maker (in school these children are often called “oppositional”). Since his aggression usually brings him attention he works hard to live up to this negative expectation. If he continues to get his way by being violent, the frequency and intensity of his aggressive acts grow. By the time he is a teenager he will be referred to as a “juvenile delinquent”.

The Different Mind

Children who have learned to behave aggressively are also preoccupied with aggressive thoughts. Most people do not choose to act aggressively (and I emphasize it is a choice) because they think it is immoral, antisocial and just plain wrong. Most of the time those who are angry and aggressive think and act differently, their thinking is typically self-centered. “When I get mad, I don’t care who gets hurt”; “If I want something, I don’t care if it’s legal or not”. Their view of the world is – me first.

Not only do they see themselves as the center of the universe they also view others as being out to get them even when such is not the case. They misinterpret neutral behaviour by others; instead they see it as hostility directed towards them. This is why so many aggressive children view being looked at (a neutral act) as a challenge, threat, or a put down (a hostile act). If they are accidentally bumped in a crowded school hallway, they believe it is intentional. They downplay their own aggression and its negative consequences and often call it something other than what it really is; “You have to get even with someone who doesn’t show you respect”.

Two other common distorted ways of thinking in aggressive people are; always assuming the worst and blaming others for what they do. For example with assuming the worst the young person might think; “If I don’t hit him I will look like a loser”. With blaming others the person would think; “It’s her fault, she’s asking for it, I have to smack her to stop her”.

On top of the above distorted thinking there are another two beliefs that are also different. One is called false consensus, the belief that – other people act and think as I do, so there is nothing wrong with me. All they have to do it turn on the T.V. or a video game for proof.

The second is called anchoring and this final thinking mode is common in all aggressive people, it is the resistance to changing one’s thinking, even when new evidence is presented such as finding out that what they were thinking was wrong, like the accidental bump in the hallway was made by a blind student and there was no intent to hurt them.

Thoughts do lead to action. If we are to try and reduce the aggressive behaviour in our school, our community and eventually in society at large, the most important step is to work on changing the thoughts that lead to aggression and violence. This is easier said than done.

Why is it so Hard to Change?

Trying to change a child’s violent and aggressive behaviour has to start by trying to change that child’s thought patterns. Aggressive thoughts and actions are consistently successful and generously supported by the important people in a child’s life. It is extremely difficult to change these thought patterns because the lesson they learned; that aggression and violence works was taught to them during their developing years.

Many of these children grown up with parents who settle their own disputes aggressively; they frequently hit their children as a means of discipline. Young people also play for long periods of time with toys in aggressive games with aggressive peers. They spend thousands of hours playing aggressive video games and viewing televised violence. At school they may join an aggressive gang or hang out with an antisocial peer group. They are surrounded by aggressive experiences that promote rapid and lasting learning – at home, on the street, at school, and in front of the television. These aggressive experiences, arousing and seen in specific “how – to” detail are often carried out by people the youth admire, appear to be painless and, most important, very often succeed.

Aggressive lessons learned well and used successfully will persist if the important people in a youth’s life support such thinking and behaviour. Unfortunately, encouraging the notion that “might makes right” is very common. In one large Canadian secondary school, 80% of the fighters and less than half of the non-fighters said that their families want them to hit if provoked. Many children will, in fact, be severely punished and humiliated if they don’t use force when parents or others think they should.

In some instances using violence is addictive. A large number of people will describe a type of physical “rush” when fighting as it results from the intense flow of adrenaline that accompanies their violent acts.

On top of the promotion of violence and aggression these youth simply do not know what to do instead. So hitting becomes the only means for dealing with a situation, they do not try negotiating, walking away, getting help, making light of the disagreement and other nonviolent solutions because they don’t know how or when to use these techniques.

It is up to all of the adults in a child’s life to teach them alternative ways of dealing with situations. Just punishing only perpetuates the situation for peace on earth really does start at home, be it the house, the school or the community.