Pathways to Trouble
Excerpt from Chapter 1 of No Disposable Kids
By Larry Brendtro, et al , 2001

Early in the path toward delinquency there is a breakdown in the connections to home, school and family."

Alfred Kazdin

All social learning begins in the family environment. Being reared by caring adults is essential to the development of character and conscience. Good parenting requires providing both affection and discipline. Secure in love and limits, children are prepared to extend their positive relationships to school, peers, and the community. When these bonds are broken, youth are on a pathway to trouble.

A wide variety of pressures on the modem family can disrupt parenting. These include a hurried lifestyle, work pressures, poverty, wealth, divorce, illness, disability, criminality, alcoholism, and abuse. Some children who have difficult temperaments can add stress to their family's lives. Adults who are extremely stressed or who lack parenting skills do not form the secure bonds necessary to teach their children social competence and self-control. Children who experience inconsistent or hostile parenting develop undisciplined behavior marked by power struggles and coercive interactions. Difficult temperaments and family disruptions also interfere with the development of secure attachments. Children with trusting bonds to parents seldom develop a pattern of serious antisocial behavior.

Positive bonds to school foster prosocial growth. Students who are weakly attached to their families are particularly dependent on supportive teachers. School mastery is a powerful antidote to antisocial behavior. However, when youth bring their home problems to school, teachers may not be skilled at managing these challenging children. Inadvertently, they can recreate the conflict and stress of the child's earlier relationships.

Schools depend heavily on punishment and exclusion to manage behavior. Punitive "get tough" or avoidant "kick out" strategies are feel-good responses. In the short term, they lessen immediate adult stress or settle the school environment. However, adults who become counter-aggressive or rejecting further rupture a youth's social bond and thus reinforce antisocial behavior. When students reject discipline, however, it prevents them from bonding to their school.

School failure propels youth toward antisocial peers. Even higher status "good kids" can contribute to creating environments where lower status students become scapegoats. Students in conflict with adults and rejected by positive peers adopt "bad kid" identities. Academic failure is commonplace and self- esteem plummets. To satisfy their powerful need to belong, by grades four or five youth actively recruit friendships with other antisocial students, forming little gangs of rule breakers and bullies. Martin Gold calls this "school-induced delinquency."

As antisocial students disengage academically, they become powerfully dependent on peers who support one another in their hatred of school and teachers. In general, positive peer bonds foster prosocial growth, and bonding to peers is usually a healthy process. Even among youth who are troublemakers, 90 percent affirm positive values and desire positive friends even though the peer group encourages defiance and rebellion. Bonding to delinquent peers can enhance a youth's self-esteem. In contrast, children who are loners, cut off from both adults and peers, show pervasive insecurity and depression.

Children who are weakly bonded to family or school find substitute belonging by joining other alienated peers. This negative subculture indoctrinates them into evermore risky behavior, including sexual precocity, delinquency, and substance abuse. Antisocial friendships often begin at school and move to the street as youth gain more independence from authority. Many are not accountable to responsible adults. Immersed in drug or delinquent subcultures, they learn values and skills from peers and perhaps from exploitative drug-involved or criminal adults.

As youth associate with negative peers, antisocial values, thinking, and behavior are reinforced. Ratcheting up the severity of punishment has little effect on the most troubled youth since they either do not think ahead or believe they will escape detection and in some cases don't care if they are caught.

Troubled youth often are frightening or repugnant to adults unable to understand or manage them. Thus, students who don't readily comply with expectations of those in authority are usually given less rather than more support. Faith communities often actively shun children who could benefit from church youth groups. Untrained adults who are insecure in their ability to work with these youth are highly motivated to get rid of them. Unlike children with other handicaps, troubled kids are blamed for their disability even though they have serious emotional and behavioral problems. They also are given disparaging labels such as disrespectful, disobedient, troublemakers, losers, criminals, predators, or perpetrators. Even psychiatric labels become pejorative: emotionally disturbed, behaviorally disordered, conduct disordered, oppositional defiant disordered, and sociopathic. Viewed this way, positive traits are obscured and these youth evoke little empathy from their elders.

Cultures of Disrespect Communities of civility do not mass-produce disrespectful children. Positive social control comes from social bonds between people who care for one another. A person who disrespects others is often one who has not been treated with dignity. Most violence begins as a private affair in homes where children and adults do not develop respectful relationships. Disrespect can extend to peer groups, school, and the streets. Even schools of privilege often are ruled by cliques of popular kids who lord it over lower status peers. Violence can erupt from this process of exclusion.

In a supreme irony, disrespectful methods may be used in an attempt to teach respect. Hoping to create an orderly environment, a New York school empowered a student court to administer punishments. The court required students who violated rules to wear bright pink t-shirts imprinted with "Student Offender." Said a school official, "Many of these [young people] were fighting, bullying, or verbally abusing other people or causing trouble on the bus. We are trying to say that violence isn't an option." The student editor of the school newspaper called the court "a student hate committee" because it inflicted shame and humiliation. Opponents claimed public shaming legitimized harassment, as students hurled taunts, some of a sexual nature, at classmates dressed in pink. This punishment was deeply humiliating to some students. Others wore the shirts as badges of honor, bolstering their defiance.

Shaming students into submission is a core practice in adult-dominance models of education. An Australian youth told us the phrase they hate most is "You are a no-hoper." Chinese schools are currently attempting to curtail this tradition since ridicule phrases have long been used to intimidate trembling charges. A survey of 20,000 Chinese students and teachers came up with 5,000 demeaning phrases. The worst 40 phrases that are now officially forbidden include these examples:

"Whoever teaches you has the worst luck." "You are a round post with two ears. Get out!" , "If I were you, I would not continue to live. You are hopeless."
Even students who act in outrageous ways desperately desire respect. Many adults find it difficult to act respectfully toward youth whose behavior invites disrespect. In some settings, adults and youth alike treat one another with disrespect and antagonism. This is not just a problem among disadvantaged students:
A 14-year-old freshman at McLean High School in wealthy Fairfax County (VA) said, "I was talking to one of my mends and the teacher said something like 'shut up' and it pissed me off so I said, 'Go to hell, [expletive] you.'" Gisela, a junior at McLean, said, "I explained why I was late to my teacher and she started going off on me about what I needed to do to get, to school on time. I just freaked out and called her b- word. ...I got Saturday detention but I don't regret it. She deserved to be called that."
In a positive community, persons who act disrespectfully suffer serious social consequences. If social bonds are strong, even mild criticism can produce shame and motivate corrective I action. But hostile and disrespectful criticism causes angry pride and defiance. In a respectful group, members confront the behavior while accepting the person. In a climate of disrespect, individuals feel violated. In the language of the street, this is being "dissed," a provocation to violence.

Authority figures enhance their legitimacy by showing respect. The community policing movement best demonstrates this. In the past, many urban police operated with their own street code of zero-tolerance for disrespect. A law enforcement expert notes, "There is no written law against 'contempt of cop,' of course, but it is perhaps the most consistently enforced de facto law in the country. ...Disrespect toward police powerfully increases the odds of being arrested." Troubled kids are only too willing to violate this code. In Boston, police and youth had the same negative views of one another. Once they had opportunities for positive interaction, the past patterns of mutual disrespect declined, as did street crime.

Cultures of disrespect spark aggression. Arnold Goldstein observes that in Western societies, children are surrounded by aggression in home, school, and community. Ninety percent of families in the United States make occasional or frequent use of physical punishment. Schools can become staging grounds for the lessons of "Aggression 101." Finally, the media, radio, movies, video games, and television provide an almost unremitting diet of violence. Research suggests that this nonstop overdosing on violence has three effects: (1) It directly increases aggressive acts; (2) It fosters a victim mentality with increased fearfulness and mistrust; and (3) It desensitizes bystanders who become callous to aggressive acts they observe.

Permissiveness or tolerance for hostile acts further reinforces a climate of disrespect. This contradicts a popular notion in psychology that catharsis -- allowing a person to "vent" hostility -- will drain off aggression. All evidence is to the contrary. Hurting or disrespectful behavior is a recipe for aggression as numerous studies show that violent actions or words, or even viewing violence, all increase aggressive behavior. Of course, positive catharsis -- talking things out, creative expression, exercise, or even altruism -- can reduce stress and aggression.

Both adults and children need to learn to solve problems without resorting to hostility and conflict. An attorney described attempts to discipline his strong-willed 12-year-old son, Ronnie. The father found a CD in Ronnie's dresser drawer and was shocked that it had rap lyrics about raping mothers. He confronted his son, reminding him that the CD player was a gift, and now he was playing music that was disrespectful to his own mother. Instead of showing regret or humility, Ronnie became angry that his father had searched his bedroom. The father also became furious: "Before I knew it, I had hurled the CD player onto the floor, bashing it into smithereens. Ronnie tried to escape by taking off on his bike. I ordered him to stop but he kept going. I wasn't going to tolerate disrespect so I took after him in my SUV: When I saw him with his friends, I drove up and told him we could finish our discussion in front of his friends or back at home." After it was over, the father felt terrible and his son was not speaking to him. "I am a lawyer and I help people resolve conflicts every day. How could I lose it like that? He used to look up to me; he doesn't even want to be around me now."

Most serious school conflicts begin with low-level aggression that escalates out of control. Since it is easier to solve small problems, this suggests a strategy of "catch it low to prevent it high." Goldstein contends that zero-tolerance for aggression is a valid principle. But zero-tolerance has nothing to do with inflicting punishment or giving up on difficult children. Such approaches are likely to increase aggression.

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