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Children and violence: an introductory, international and interdisciplinary approach
Children and violence: an introductory, international and interdisciplinary approach

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2.2 Children's violence

There has been a great deal of work done by psychologists on violence and aggression in children, looking at whether this is part of a normal and natural developmental process or whether it is pathological. Cole and Cole define aggression as ‘an act in which someone intentionally hurts another’ (1996, p. 406). They then split this definition to look at instrumental aggression which is committed in order to obtain a specific goal, and hostile aggression which is aimed at hurting another person or showing dominance. They emphasize that intention is important and that discussions of children and violence should distinguish aggression from rough play. One of the earliest studies on this issue was carried out by Nicholas Blurton Jones (1972). He looked at the characteristics of aggression and rough-and-tumble play in an attempt to draw a distinction between violent and non-violent behaviour in children. Based on detailed studies of facial and bodily movements, he claimed that aggression is composed of ‘frown, fixate, hit, push, and take-tug-grab; whereas rough-and-tumble is characterized by laugh-playface, run, jump, hit-at and wrestle’ (quoted in Schaffer, 1996, p. 278).

He also claimed that these behaviours occurred in different contexts. For example, aggression is much more likely to occur when children are competing to play with the same toy, while play-fighting involves cooperating in a shared game. Children taking part in rough-and-tumble tend to play with smiles on their faces and to come back for more, whereas when children perceive aggression they are more likely to stay away from the other child. Blurton Jones also found that children who indulge in rough-and-tumble are no more likely to be violent in other contexts than those who do not.

In situations where children are in conflict, they express aggression in different ways according to their age and gender. Girls are less likely to use physical violence than boys and rely on emotional or psychological violence. Also, children's expressions of aggression become increasingly verbal as they get older. While two year olds will use what physical force they can, by the age of ten children are more likely to tease or humiliate other children. As Durkin suggests, children may have more scope to become aggressive as they get older.

Older individuals have more mechanisms available for acting aggressively. Not only do they have bigger, stronger, and better coordinated bodies, and in some cases access to more dangerous weapons, but they have also increasing competence in nonphysical means of aggression, such as verbal and nonverbal communications, and more sophisticated social understanding (so that, for example, they have a better sense of what will hurt someone else's feelings).

(Durkin, 1995, pp. 397–8)

While this course mainly concentrates on children's differing experiences of violence throughout the world, it is worth briefly noting some of the different hypotheses about why children are violent. Some psychologists and anthropologists have used theories from socio-biology to explain children's violence. These claim that violence is instinctive in humans and part of mankind's adaptive strategies for survival. Furthermore, they claim, boys are more likely to be violent than girls because of the effects of testosterone – their aggression is biologically determined. However, this is problematic, partly because research is inconclusive about the effects of testosterone (Durkin, 1995). Also, not all boys are violent or even aggressive and, in a society where aggression is downplayed, there is little evidence for these ideas. Girls are usually socialized to be less aggressive than boys and physical aggression in girls is viewed differently, and more negatively, than in boys. It is therefore difficult to know if girls are naturally less aggressive than boys or conditioned to be so. Indeed, such ideas do not take cultural conditioning into account and, as this section will go on to show, there are large variations cross-culturally in incidence and type of aggressive behaviour in children.

Other theorists claim that aggression and violence are learned rather than being innate. For example, Albert Bandura put forward a ‘social-learning theory’ of aggression (1977). This, he claimed, showed that children learned to be violent through observation. He pointed to the social factors in their lives and argued against looking at individual predispositions to violence. Bandura considered that violent behaviour is socially transmitted through parents, community and the media. When children see someone they admire or respect being aggressive and getting the results they want, they copy this and become violent themselves.

Most studies on children's violence have been based on children in North America or Europe. The work of anthropologists offers a broader perspective, demonstrating the power of cultural expectations in shaping children's behaviour, and in determining whether children's actions are considered violent. The following quote is from Napoleon Chagnon's Yanamamo: the fierce people (1968), concerning a group of Amerindians in Venezuela whose society is associated with the raiding of neighbouring communities, the killing of rivals, a high level of intra-group violence and physical violence inflicted by men on women.

Despite the fact that children of both sexes spend much of their time with their mothers, the boys alone are treated with considerable indulgence by their fathers from an early age. Thus, the distinction between male and female status develops early in the socialization process, and the boys are quick to learn their favored position with respect to girls. They are encouraged to be ‘fierce’ and are rarely punished by their parents for inflicting blows on them or on the hapless girls in the village. Kaobawä [his father], for example, lets Ariwari beat him on the face and head to express his anger and temper, laughing and commenting on his ferocity. Although Ariwari is only about four years old, he has already learned that the appropriate response to a flash of anger is to strike someone with his hand or with an object, and it is not uncommon for him to give his father a healthy smack in the face whenever something displeases him. He is frequently goaded into hitting his father by teasing, being rewarded by gleeful cheers of assent from his mother and from the other adults in the household.

(Chagnon, 1968, p. 84)

Figure 5
Figure 5 Yanamamo children practising their hunting skills in Roraima, Brazil.

Amongst the Yanamamo, violence is classified as fierceness and is prized and appreciated. Children are therefore encouraged to show violent behaviour, in a way that would be unacceptable in other societies. However, this violence is also highly gender specific; fierceness in girls is not acceptable among the Yanamamo, even in self-defence, and is dealt with severely.

In other societies, a child who lashed out and regularly hit his parents or other children may well be seen as being disturbed or as showing inappropriate levels of violence and aggression. Even within a society, the norms of acceptable behaviour are different for boys and girls, and for younger and older children. Furthermore, different sections of the community, as well as individuals, have differing standards as to what they consider to be violent behaviour. These are also setting-specific, with different behaviours considered to be acceptable or non-acceptable, depending on whether they are occurring in the home, the classroom, the playground or on the football pitch.

Summary of Section 2

  • Violence against children can take the form of emotional, psychological, sexual or physical abuse.

  • Children's violence has to be contextualized by reference to the norms of a particular society, while recognizing that, even within a society, these norms may be contested.

  • Different levels of aggression are often deemed acceptable, according to gender, age and the site of the violence.