Violent Kids

Can We Solve the Problem?

This article is derived from Violent Kids: Can We Change the Trend? by Public Agenda, a national nonpartisan, nonprofit public opinion research and education organization. Part of a series on public issues, it was prepared for the National Issues Forums in partnership with the Kettering Foundation. It can be ordered online at or by calling 212-686-6610.


Michael deCourcy Hinds

Every day seems to bring news of a youth suicide or homicide. Whether children turn their anger and frustration inward or outward, youthful violence is, as one affected mother put it, “total sadness.” In a nation growing numb to violence, these killings attract little public notice unless they reach new heights of senselessness, tragedy, or shock. That happened on April 20, 1999, when two disaffected teenagers, carrying an arsenal of guns and bombs, killed a teacher, 12 students, and themselves at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado.

The Columbine massacre, following six other school shootings in 18 months, horrified Americans at the spread of violence. Suddenly no place seemed safe. “If it happened there, it could happen in my own community,” is what people across the country told pollsters. The unprecedented acts of violence in suburbs and rural areas had finally dispelled the notion that juvenile violence was another inner-city problem. It was disturbingly apparent that juvenile violence migrates across geographic, racial, social, and economic boundaries. But lost in the shuffle and shock were government reports that the 1990s actually provided some relief from the long-term upward trend in juvenile crime rates.

Juvenile violence is an issue that fills volumes. It has been probed in relationship to guns, the criminal justice system, economic stresses on families, and personal motives that seem to defy human understanding. This article focuses on three factors that bear on child development: violence in popular culture, experiences that place children at greater risk of violence, and child-rearing practices that may be failing to teach right from wrong. It asks the questions: What happens in the early part of kids’ lives that leads some into violence? What do kids need to avoid violence? How can society give it to them?

To help citizens consider these tough questions, the article uses an “unbundling” process that separates major strands of thinking on the issue into three distinct public policy perspectives, or choices. Each choice offers a different diagnosis of what’s wrong, based on views and priorities voiced by many Americans in studies and surveys. Each choice also provides a direction for public action or a way to approach the problem. These approaches include ideas and proposals that are drawn from across the political spectrum.


How Big a Problem?

There is widespread concern, fanned by intense media coverage, that juvenile crime is a deepening problem in the United States. But the picture is more mixed. On one hand, juvenile crime rates are increasing sharply in rural areas, and offenders are ever more youthful. On the other hand, overall juvenile crime rates are moderating. The rates, rising since the 1960s, leveled off in 1993 and then declined for six years—setting the clock back to 1987 in terms of juvenile crime rates.

Reports from the Justice Department’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency provide more context for the problem:

n American teenagers have “alarmingly high” rates of violence. They are the most violent when compared with youths in other developed nations, a comparison that also holds for adult crime rates. For example, an American teenager is ten times more likely to commit murder than a Canadian teenager.

n Girls are committing more violent crimes. Boys commit about 85 percent of violent crimes, but girls’ participation in crime is increasing. From 1991 to 1995, for example, the number of teenage girls arrested for violent crimes increased 34 percent, or nearly four times the 9 percent increase for teenage boys.

There is ample reason for concern. But some media watchdog groups say the news media have not helped with their excessive, often sensational, coverage of youth crimes. The Berkeley Media
Studies Group reports that most TV news about teenagers in 1998 was crime news, even though less than one-half of 1 percent of juveniles were arrested for a violent crime that year. In a similar vein, a recent study by the Center on Media and Public Affairs found that coverage of youth and adult homicide on three network news programs increased by 721 percent between 1992 and 1996, a period when the rate of homicide actually fell by 20 percent.

In any event, the problem stands: Every day 21 kids, on average, kill someone or commit suicide, leaving many more injured or permanently disabled.


Framework for Deliberation

To promote public deliberation about reducing juvenile violence, this article presents three approaches, or choices. Rather than conforming to the ideas of any one advocate, each choice is constructed of many congruent public policy proposals, with each choice representing a distinct set of American priorities and views. Some elements of the choices may be readily mixed, but not others, as each choice has distinct priorities.


Choice One:
Kids Need a Nonviolent Popular Culture

Looking for fantasy play, Arthur Sawe bumped into what was for him, even at age eight, an unnerving echo of real life. It was in 1998, in the midst of a spate of school shootings, when the Seattle, Washington, fourth-grader bought a magazine popular with kids interested in video games. He recalls opening the magazine and being “amazed” by the images and words of raw violence. One advertisement that caught his eye promised video action that would be “more fun than shooting at your neighbor’s cat…Bang! Meow! Bang! Meow! Come on already! It’s time you moved up the food chain and take aim at something that sounds better when it explodes.” This ad wasn’t breaking new ground, as video game makers have long promoted violence as child’s play, using slogans such as “The most deranged, psychologically brutal, senselessly violent, over-the-top, insane bloodbath ever created,” “Get in touch with your gun-toting, cold-blooded murdering side,” and “Kill your friends guilt-free.”

The magazine ads repulsed young Arthur. But what could he do? He told his mother. She sent the magazine to Mothers Against Violence in America, which in turn sent it to the Seattle Times. The newspaper published an article entitled “At Least Joe Camel Never Enticed School Kids to Kill.” A state representative read the article and convened a group of video industry leaders, retailers, public officials, and parents concerned with violence. As a result, the Washington Retail Association, a trade group, agreed to encourage retailers across the state to voluntarily stop selling violent video games to children under 17. The organization is also promoting bar codes that would automatically remind cashiers to seek proof of age from young buyers.

A year later, in the White House rose garden, Arthur recounted how his concerns had prompted adults to take the first steps to shield children from violence. After Arthur spoke, President Clinton announced that the government would review the advertising and sale of violent movies, video games, and explicitly violent music to children, and determine whether the entertainment industry was violating its own voluntary codes.


Approach: Calling for a Cultural Cleanup

Choice One supporters say Arthur’s story shows the difference a single person, even a child, can make in cleaning up America’s violence-filled popular culture. On a darker note, his story suggests the way the entertainment industry immerses children in an antisocial, amoral culture, making it extremely difficult for even the most dedicated parents to raise healthy children who know right from wrong.

Some observers say violence in popular culture stems from a decline of civility in everyday American life. In her 1998 book, The Argument Culture, Deborah Tannen writes about a “pervasive warlike atmosphere” in politics, talk shows, highways, sports, and other areas. Fights are exciting, and America seems to be getting addicted to the adrenaline surge.

Choice One’s concerns eclipse routine worries that older citizens always have about the next generation, largely because popular culture has never been so saturated with violence or so influential in the lives of children. Kids, on average, watch more than 19 hours of TV a week; most of them own video games and spend, on average, 2 hours a week playing them; and teenagers spend less time in school than they do listening to music, some of which is laden with messages of violence. It’s estimated that a child born today will see, on TV alone, 200,000 acts of violence, including 16,000 murders, before turning 18.

In this view, the violence in American streets, schools, and homes is clearly nourished by the glorification of violence in music lyrics, movies, TV, Internet media, and video games. When it comes to children, the entertainment industry is greedy and shameless, showering young minds with far more senseless, gory violence than is presented even in adult entertainment. Supporters say that these purveyors of popular culture must stop portraying violence as satisfying, acceptable, and often without consequences. This is asking for trouble in any society, and screaming for it in the United States, where FBI statistics (1995) indicate that the most common known reason leading to a homicide is an argument, most often between people who know each other. A third of all violent crimes are committed by people under 21 years of age. In this view, our violence-prone culture has helped America achieve the highest rate of lethal violence in the industrial world.

Skeptics ask: Isn’t this an overreaction? How, for example, are childish video games promoting violence? Well, consider Doom, an ultraviolent game advertised as “bloodier and deadlier than ever,” “addictive and frighteningly realistic.” Its avid fans include some of the teenagers implicated in killing sprees at their schools. Another fan of the game is the U.S. Marine Corps, which gives it to recruits to supplement combat training, according to Lt. Col. David Grossman, a former West Point psychologist whose specialty was promoting aggression and controlling it through military discipline. Violent video games, says Grossman, desensitize players to violence by associating it with pleasure, condition them to “kil#148; reflexively, and reward marksmanship. Training soldiers to kill is one thing, but advertising and selling war games to children is immoral and dangerous, he says. “We are learning to kill, and we are learning to like it,” Grossman wrote in his 1995 book, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society.

Choice One supporters say violence is polluting our cultural environment in a manner somewhat analogous to the way toxins pollute the natural environment. The country was slow to identify the harm because air pollution—like cultural pollution today—built up gradually over many decades, was linked to slow-developing problems, and was produced by profitable industries that buoyed the economy.

Choice One says it’s time to start cleansing the culture children are raised in. Among other things, we should ban the advertising and sale of violent entertainment to children under 17. At the same time, we need to expand healthy alternatives for children, including more public television programs and more after-school programs.

Violence in popular culture doesn’t reflect reality.

TV characters are murdered at 1,000 times the nation’s homicide rate, according to Dr. David Walsh, a psychologist who wrote the 1995 book Selling Out America’s Children: How America Puts Profits Before Values and What Parents Can Do. Advertisers want violence in programs because it stimulates or “jolts” viewers, Dr. Walsh writes. “As the competition for attention increases, there is pressure to increase the ‘jolts per show’ in order to keep the viewer from switching to another channel.” Kids, having shorter attention spans, get more jolts: commercial television for children, including cartoons, was 50 to 60 times more violent than prime-time shows for adults, the American Psychiatric Association reported in 1996.

Choice Two:
Kids at Risk of Violence Need More Help

Looking like an angel with her big blue eyes and auburn hair, six-year-old Beth speaks like a devil in a 1990 HBO documentary, Child of Rage: A Story of Abuse. The program opens with Beth telling her adoptive mother, “I want to kill you. I want to kill you, Mommy.” In videotaped therapy sessions, the child offhandedly recalls crushing baby birds, sticking pins in the family dog, and banging her younger brother’s head on the floor. Beth says if she weren’t locked into her bedroom at night, she would stab her brother and adoptive parents while they slept. Why? Because, she says, she hurts inside.

The adoptive parents—Tim is a Methodist minister and Julia is a homemaker in North Carolina—say they adopted Beth at 19 months and her brother, Jonathan, at 7 months after being unable to have children of their own. They were told the kids were normal and healthy, but early on it became clear that Beth had severe emotional problems.

The origins of her problem were fairly clear, as Tim and Julia later discovered: Beth and Jonathan were the youngest of eight children. Their birth mother was often sick, and died when Beth was just a year old. Their biological father, an alcoholic, let his large family go hungry, and beat and sexually abused some of the children. The state stepped in, rescued the children, and subsequently placed them in adoptive homes.

But, say child development experts, being adopted by loving parents isn’t always enough to undo the psychological damage to very young children who enter life feeling worthless, abandoned, and rejected. Such fearful and angry children may withdraw emotionally, insulating themselves from rejection but also from any healthy relationship. Like Beth, who seemed to have become a zombie, they may act out their infantile feelings in almost inhumanly violent and cold-blooded ways, with no comprehension of right and wrong or concern for the suffering they cause. These are kids who often become suicidal or homicidal.

Luckily Beth got help, and now, after years of therapy, she is an honor student, sings in the church choir, volunteers at a local animal shelter, and plans to go to the University of Colorado in 2000. She’s been through a lot, including another adoption after Tim and Julia tearfully decided that Beth and her brother had to be separated. Her new adoptive mother, Nancy Thomas, has also been Beth’s therapist for eight years. “She’s a great kid, respectful, responsive, and fun to be around,” she said. Ms. Thomas is also the founder of Stop America’s Violent Youth, an educational organization in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, that spreads the message that violent lives often begin with experiences like Beth’s, that many of these harmful situations are preventable, and that these damaged children can be saved.


Approach: More Prevention and Treatment Needed

As Beth’s story suggests, mental health professionals know a lot about the causes and development of violent behavior in children and teenagers. These specialists know how to identify severely traumatized kids and prevent them from damaging themselves and others in an ever-widening circle of life-wrecking violence.

Not all troubled kids, of course, are as vocal as Beth or so visibly violent. Many are depressed and show fewer outward signs of distress before they snap, either by turning their hate inward and killing themselves or by turning it outward and harming others. Adults often forget that growing up can be a lonely and terrifying experience, especially for kids who don’t fit in and suffer daily cruelties in communities and schools. Too often, adults ignore these situations and signs of distress–ranging from self-mutilation to self-isolation– until it’s too late. Choice Two calls for a nationwide campaign to make adults and kids themselves more sensitive and better able to offer an appropriate response.

Children like Beth, however, are at measurably greater risk of developing behavior problems and falling into the cycle of violence. Consider three major determinants that often lead to juvenile violence for lack of adequate prevention and treatment programs:

Choice Two supporters say that scientific evidence clearly indicates that the greater the exposure to violence and the more risk factors a child has, the more likely it is that he or she will develop emotional and behavioral problems leading to violence. In this view, then, America’s violence has its roots in traumatic childhood experiences and not, as argued in Choice One, in the entertainment media’s dramatization of violence. After all, eliminating all violent entertainment would do little to reduce violence in America if our children and teenagers continue to be traumatized by the horrifyingly personal experience of violence in their own families and communities, in this view.

The problem is that there is no systematic way for helping children and families who are either at risk of violence or already traumatized by it, say Choice Two supporters. We need coordinated prevention programs that protect children from predictable harm, thus breaking the cycle of victims growing up to become victimizers. For example, programs must reach children before they are even born. Pregnant women suffering from depression or substance abuse need much more help for themselves and their families, and such help includes home visits by nurses to ensure the children’s well-being. More effort is needed to deter the nation’s shamefully high rates of spousal and child abuse. Even more police are needed on the streets to secure violence-prone communities and calm youthful fears that feed violence. Choice Two also calls for vastly expanding intervention programs that provide treatment and support to families and children who have suffered violence. Child welfare agencies must also have far more resources to rescue children from uncontrollably abusive situations and provide them with all the care they need in loving foster and adoptive homes.

Choice Three:
Kids Need More Moral Discipline

He knew no limits. Several times a week, Bryan would lose his temper and smash things around his family’s home in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. He beat up his stepbrother. He argued with his stepfather and almost came to blows. He fell in with a gang of losers and was developing addictions to cigarettes, drugs, and alcohol. At 16, Bryan had already seen the inside of a jail cell, after crashing the family car into a ditch and being arrested for driving without a license and under the influence of drugs and alcohol.

His parents, who asked that their names not be used in order to protect their privacy, were in despair. Years of searching for solutions had failed, said Bryan’s stepfather, a chiropractor. “We tried going to several counselors; they didn’t work. We tried going to our pastor for guidance; that didn’t work. We tried talking to friends, we tried reasoning with him; nothing worked. He became a juvenile delinquent, and our worst fear was that he would die, kill himself, either by accident or on purpose. Both were possible. He had suicidal tendencies.”

Desperate, Bryan’s stepfather called the local sheriff in the spring of 1999 and found out about Anchor House, a youth ranch for boarding out-of-control teenagers. There was no space for Bryan, but Anchor House had space for Bryan’s stepfather in a 12-week parenting skills workshop affiliated with a national program called the Parent Project. Each week an instructor taught parents how to manage their children, using very clear rules with consistent consequences – rewards for achievement and punishment for misbehavior. In these workshops, parents discussed their homework and helped each other solve problems.

For Bryan’s stepfather, the course was an eye-opener. “It’s all about making choices and the consequences of making choices, and how we as parents have to step in and discipline for the wrong choices.” The course seeks to replace what it calls a “permissive” style of parenting with an “authoritative” one backed by clear expressions of love and caring. The program also stresses the importance of having schools and the community maintain the disciplinary lessons taught at home. Parent Project, after all, was founded in 1987 in California by a teacher, a law enforcement officer, and a counselor.

Bryan responded “immediately,” said his stepfather. “Not a total turnaround, mind you, there have been slips. But we’re seeing a continual progression toward improvement. Now he has a desire to graduate from high school, he’s not doing drugs, he’s making good choices in friends, and he’s making good choices in all aspects of living.”

The Parent Project is working in 28 states. School districts in Idaho, for example, report up to a 90 percent reduction in the number of school expulsions after parents of troubled kids attended Parent Project workshops. In another Idaho study about the program’s impact, juvenile arrests declined by one-third in Minidoka County, a rural area with a population of 21,000, within two years of Parent Project’s arrival in 1997.

Approach: End the Moral Meltdown

Choice Three supporters say that a primary reason good kids go bad is that their parents, teachers, coaches, civic leaders, and others in the community don’t teach them right from wrong with strict discipline. It’s a failure to instill moral values; it’s not violent video games or understaffed child welfare agencies, as the prior choices imply.

Supporters say the prevailing violence in America represents a massive breakdown in respect for authority as well as a lack of individual self-control, self-reliance, and discipline. The central problem, they say, is that far too many kids grow up in permissive homes and unruly schools and communities where they don’t learn the sharp lines between good and bad, right and wrong. They also don’t acquire the character traits needed to cope with life’s stresses in a healthy, nonviolent way. The societal implications of this is underscored by two major studies:

Choice Three supporters say that, as a society, our trendy efforts to raise happy and creative children are backfiring. Instead, we’re spoiling our kids rotten, setting them up for failure, behavior problems, and, in too many cases, lives of violence. “We’ve come to believe kids are really fragile, that they can’t handle responsibility, they can’t handle frustration, they fall apart at challenges, that discipline will hurt their self-esteem,” says psychologist William Damon. But the reverse is true, he writes in his 1996 book, Greater Expectations: Overcoming the Culture of Indulgence in America’s Homes and Schools.

Supporters of this viewpoint say there is just one time-tested way to raise kids: with a loving but absolutely firm hand– in a style called authoritative. Parents, schools, and communities all need to reconsider their roles in socializing children, and the more they work together, the more children will benefit. At home, in the schoolyard, and on the street corner, kids need to learn right from wrong by being given firm rules with certain consequences for misbehavior. Both parents and schools need to instill in children the importance of empathy, self-discipline, honesty, integrity, cooperation, and respect. For example, children must learn that self-esteem isn’t inborn but must be earned by doing something to be proud of, perhaps by becoming an Eagle Scout, volunteering at a food bank, or helping an elderly neighbor. More communities also need to tighten their supervision of teenagers by implementing such controls as daytime curfews to reduce truancy and nighttime curfews to reduce peer pressure to hang out and get into mischief.



Damon, William. Greater Expectations: Overcoming the Culture of Indulgence in Our Homes and Schools. Old Tappan, NJ: The Free Press, 1996.

Degaetano, Gloria, and Lt. Col. David Grossman, Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill: A Call to Action Against TV, Movie and Video Game Violence. New York: Random House, 1999.

Garbarino, James. Lost Boys: Why Our Sons Turn Violent and How We Can Save Them. New York: The Free Press, 1999.

Heide, Kathleen. Young Killers: the Challenge of Juvenile Homicide. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1998.

Karr-Morse, Robin, and Meredith S. Wiley. Ghosts from the Nursery: Tracing the Roots of Violence. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1999.

Kilpatrick, William. Why Johnny Can’t Tell Right from Wrong. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993.

Walsh, David. Selling Out America’s Chilcren: How America Puts Profits Before Values—and What Parents Can Do. Minneapolis: Fairview Press, 1994.

Wilson, James Q., and Richard Herrnstein, Crime & Human Nature: The Definitive Study of the Causes of Crime. New York: The Free Press, 1985.


Websites This is the website for Boys Town USA, a nonprofit organization that offers programs designed to foster moral development among troubled youth. This is the website of the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence based at the University of Colorado in Boulder. This is the website for Mediascope, a national, nonprofit research and policy organization that provides many fact sheets about the impact of media violence on youth. This is the website of the National Council on Child Abuse and Family Violence, a nonprofit organization that provides information about violence and child abuse prevention.


Michael deCourcy Hinds is executive editor for Public Agenda.


Three Public Policy Approaches to Youthful Violence


Choice 1

Kids Need a Nonviolent Popular Culture

Kids are immersed in a violent, antisocial popular culture, making it very difficult for parents to raise moral kids. We need to clean up the popular culture and give kids healthy alternatives.


What Can Be Done?


In This View...


In Other Views...


A Likely Tradeoff?

In demanding less violence in the popular culture, this choice would restrict freedom of speech, setting a precedent for more restrictions.


Choice 2

Kids at Greater Risk of Violence Need More Help

Relatively few children are at risk of developing behavior problems and falling into the cycle of violence. We know how to rescue troubled kids but lack a system to do the job.


What Can Be Done?


In This View...


In Other Views...


A Likely Tradeoff?

In trying to identify troubled kids and those at risk of violence, this choice would inevitably mislabel some children, disrupting their lives and families.

Choice 3

Kids Need More Moral Discipline

Too many children grow up in permissive homes, schools, and communities. These kids aren’t taught right from wrong, and many lack a moral compass to steer them clear of violence.


What Can Be Done?


In This View...


In Other Views...


A Likely Tradeoff?

With its concern about permissive parenting, this choice would make parents criminally liable for the misbehavior of their minor children.