The argument whether violent behavior is the result of heredity or up bringing has raged for decades. I contend that it is a combination of these factors that determine whether a child will become violent.
Over the years, behavioral scientists, sociologists, physicians and other experts have debated the cause of violent behavior. Some have argued that violent behavior is bred into children and that it’s an inherited trait like having blue eyes. Others have argued that it’s how the child is reared that has the direct effect of making a violent a child. This is part of the Nature vs. Nurture argument that still continues today.
In the book Ghosts From the Nursery, Robin Karr-Morse and Meredith Wiley discuss the case of Jeffery, a sixteen year old who was charged with the murder of an eighty year old man. This was a child that appeared to be like every other child in his age group, but wasn’t (1997). While it is easy to blame the causes typically associated with violent behavior such as Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder or Conduct Disorder its difficult to ignore the impact an unstable home has on behavior.
Jeffery, like many children, was in special education classes, was diagnosed with ADHD and was prescribed Ritalin. These children typically come from families with a history of psychological problems. The argument in this case is that violent behavior is an inherited trait. An argument is also made that the problematic psychological history is the result of poor parenting skills and the inability to provide a stable home environment or the necessary emotional support for this kind of child. (p.103-108). However, this argument wouldn’t work in cases where the child is raised in an adoptive family.
Studies done observing adopted children, identical and fraternal twins suggest that when given the resources, professional psychiatric support and quality parenting the violent behaviors are not seen in these children which are present in their siblings or peers. The belief is that appropriate medical, psychological and education at the right stages can influence the development of the child to prevent the violent behaviors.
The researchers conducting these studies work under the assumption that there are certain stages of child development that are key to how a child perceives its environment and how it will react to that environment. Children provided the necessary stimulus at the right stage of development will learn the correct, or rather, the expected behaviors necessary for appropriate interaction within its family and/or peer group. Children not provided with the appropriate stimulus at a critical stage will not develop the necessary response to interact within their peer group. This does give validity to the nurture argument.
In her book The Nurture Assumption, Judith Rich Harris discusses, and even ridicules the idea of parenting being the sole determinant of a child’s behavior. Harris believes that there are more factors than parenting involved in how a person turns out. Some of these are peer group influences and socioeconomic factors. Harris even suggests that there are inherent personality traits that individuals are born with that have bearing on the kind of adult a child will become (1998).
An opposing position to this argument is found in Susan Forward’s book Toxic Parents. Forward discusses patient cases where parenting or the lack of parenting had adverse effects on the adult/child. This belief perpetuates the argument that an abused child will become an abuser (1989). However, I don’t find this to be applicable in all cases since not everyone that grows up in a violent or neglectful home grows up to be violent. Even siblings reared in the same environment don’t react the same way and often don’t grow up to become violent adults.
What the nurture argument fails to explain is how children as young as 3 are demonstrating violent tendencies as such a young age. These behaviors can be as simple as temper tantrums or as serious as causing harm to playmates, siblings or pets. The only explanation for this group of children is that there is something inherent in their make-up that accounts for the otherwise unexplained behavior (http://www.aacap.org/publications/factsfam/conduct.htm 2001).
An excellent case is made for the nature argument by drawing parallels with other animal species. Aggressive behaviors are a necessary part of survival for some species as mentioned in the book On Human Nature by Edward O. Wilson (1978). Only in our civilized societies do these aggressive behaviors become unacceptable. It was necessary to be aggressive in primitive cultures to establish one’s self in the hierarchy within a group, to gain the advantage for food or shelter. It was necessary to survival. In very primitive societies this type of behavior occurred regardless of age or familial relationships. Now these behaviors are no longer necessary to survival, and in fact, make it difficult to survive in today’s society.
The very behaviors that helped out ancestors survive are now seen as destructive and detrimental to the family and to society as whole. While aggressive or even violent behaviors may be inherited traits going back as far as we are able to study, it seems that the level of what is acceptable has changed not so much the behaviors. If anything, the affect of nurturing is to control the behaviors that nature has given us.