The battle for society begins in infancy

By Wallace G. Craig
North Shore News
Feb 15, 2006

FREED at last from the cocoon of childhood, today's adolescents enter high school and begin a four- or five-year odyssey to independence; blissfully ignorant of their inherent immaturity and tendency to whimsical change of mind or conduct.

Fledglings soon blend into a teenage world complete with its own jargon and social mores and a black side of random acts of aggression, violence and pack mentality.

Kid-like gawkiness is rapidly transformed into immature femininity and manliness and through it all is the dilemma that is caused by peer pressure in conflict with parental expectation. It is a time of trial and error in the process of growing up in a culture of permissiveness and self-indulgence.

Yet through it all most youth are able to avoid the dead end of drugs and violence. I am amazed that they are able to step back from this black hole of self-destruction.

In my opinion, credit must be given to parents who have weaned their children away from childhood egocentricity enabling them in crucial moments of adolescence to pause and make rational rather than spontaneous decisions.

Teenagers imbued with a whispering conscience and a willingness to do only what is right are unlikely to engage in anti-social or criminal activity. On the other hand, unfettered egocentricity in childhood can become an anti-social powder keg in adolescence, exploding in deviant prowess with drugs and violence.

What I have said to this point is based on the knowledge and experience of one of the North Shore's finest citizens, the late Thomas P. Millar: twice-wounded RCAF pilot, distinguished child psychiatrist in private practice, and author, in 1983, of The Omnipotent Child - How to Mould, Strengthen and Perfect the Developing Child.

Millar, on the subject of parenting: ". . . egocentricity and morality are at war one with the other. The parent who would train his or her child to live a moral life must understand that while rules are the essential beginning, it is leading the child out of his normal egocentricity that completes the job.

"All children grow older and bigger but they do not all grow up. As a consequence there are many egocentric adults rattling about this troubled society. In these latter times we have seen the emergence of the 'me' generation, a pattern of wholly self-oriented young people. That prince of egocentrics, the psychopath, with his hedonistic amorality, has been multiplying at a geometric rate."

Millar rejected the "love is all it takes" model of rearing children and taught adaptive training techniques that focused on discipline.

Millar believed that the role of parents in extinguishing childhood and adolescent egocentricity has long-term consequences. He said: "Each generation of parents reconstructs society by the way in which it rears its children. If three generations can ruin a society, three generations can build a new one."

Yet we need to be constantly reminded that responsible parenting is often a mind-numbing and exhausting experience, literally beyond the call of duty. How many mothers, especially single mothers, have looked skyward and asked, in exasperation, "Why me?" as they nurture each child-turned-devil through the terrible-twos to kindergarten.

Millar lived on until 2003, no doubt irritated by the continuing presence of so many pushy it's-all-about-me egomaniacs, but gratified by the emergence of today's generation of parents who, as he put it "see their task as guiding the child to his humanity: teaching him to live as part of society not as a guerrilla in an alien environment."

In extreme cases a mother's toil is akin to the fate of Sisyphus of Greek legend, whose punishment in the underworld of spirits was to roll a huge stone up a hill to the top. Since it constantly rolled down again his task was never ending.

In bringing up and educating children most parents make a conscious effort to put an end to childhood physical aggression without realizing how critically important it is that they succeed.

Richard Tremblay, professor and chair of child development, University of Montreal, has published a number of papers on the subject of adolescent violence including, in 2000, The Origins of Youth Violence. Tremblay suggested "that the preschool years are the best window of opportunity to prevent the development of cases of chronic physical aggression. Safe streets could thus start with quality early education."

Tremblay analyzed data on the increase and decrease in physically aggressive and disruptive behaviour during early childhood. He looked at the way two- and three-year-old children interacted "with their newly acquired walking, talking, running, grasping, pushing, kicking and throwing skills," and though he concluded that most interactions with other children were positive, there were frequent conflicts over possession of objects. Tremblay characterized the result of these confrontations: "During these conflicts children learn that they can hurt and be hurt. Most children will quickly learn that a physical attack on a peer will be responded to by a physical attack, and that adults will not tolerate these behaviours. . . . Learning to wait for something you want (delay of gratification) and learning to use language to convince others to satisfy your need may be the most important protective factors against chronic physical aggression."

Tremblay's conclusions are quite disturbing.

"Children who fail to learn alternatives to physical aggression during the preschool years are at very high risk of a huge number of problems. They tend to be hyperactive, inattentive, anxious, and fail to help when others are in need; rejected by the majority of their classmates, they get poor grades, and their behaviour disrupts school activities. They are thus swiftly taken out of their "natural" peer group and placed in special classes, special schools and institutions with other "deviants," the ideal situation to reinforce marginal behaviour. They are among the most delinquent from pre-adolescent onward, are the first to initiate substance use, the first to initiate sexual intercourse, the most at risk of dropping out of school, having a serious accident, being violent offenders, being charged under the Young Offenders Act and being diagnosed as having a psychiatric disorder."

Peter Ash, M.D., a forensic psychiatrist at Emory University, Ga., gave a speech on March 23, 2005, titled Challenges of Adolescence and Violence. One of his observations is quite chilling: "Adolescents do not start with a serious violent offence. They tend to start with things like minor delinquency, vandalism, progress through substance abuse, and then go to aggravated assault, which is generally a precursor to rape and other crimes of that sort. There is a developmental progression."

According to Tremblay "a small proportion of adolescents account for the majority of (adolescent) violent acts and arrests."

I see this evil minority as clear-minded, highly anti-social criminals who will engage in acts of savage cruelty without a flicker of concern for their helpless victims. Judges must deter them.