Raising a young man to be a violent criminal is something we know all about. Social workers and psychologists have been on the case for a hundred years, although for thousands of years its been no mystery.
You start with an anxious and stressed out mother, who probably as a little girl was hit or abused sexually herself. Alcohol was likely involved in her parents lives and behaviour. She doesn’t bond with her baby very well, or even if she does, she finds the toddler stage impossible. She is lonely, frightened and overwhelmed, at a loss for what to do, and manages the child with hitting, and yelling. Usually she yells unkind things about how useless and bad this child is. Her partner or husband has never seen what good fathering looks like, or good husbanding. He is unsupportive and blaming, he hits the child too, and probably also hits the mother, in the child’s presence or hearing. Or he clears out altogether, perhaps being replaced by a series of equally unsatisfactory men over the years.
School doesn’t engage this child, there are no kind teachers who really connect with him. The books and lessons don’t make sense and seem to be about a completely different world. There is an especial lack of men teachers, or men in any role, who show him warmth or take in interest in his learning. In his teens there are no mentors, no engaging activities, sports or hobbies, no rites of passage, no teaching about what makes a good man, and why it is great to be one. From where he looks, life doesn't offer a lot of promise in the way of a satisfying pathway to doing something that matters.
He spends countless hours on computer games that depict sexual violence, hitting, stabbing and shooting, and crashing cars, and these connect with a deep anger inside him in a way that they might not with another young man. And then he walks out into a culture where drinking to the point of stupidity is seen as perfectly normal, in fact a mark of manhood, like tattoos and trouble with the police.
When he mills about on a Saturday night with a mob of loosely allied friends (young men often don’t have real friends, just associates) the bulk of them manage to restrain themselves from getting into fights which so easily can arise in the sheer chaos of noisy venues, streets full of heedless strangers, and nowhere congenial to rest or relate. They manage somehow to strike up conversations or romantic liaisons with the opposite sex, which is the goal of this stage of life, but often seems quite impossible to the mute and awkward young man for whom intimate conversation was never really learned. They have strategies and they have an inner resource of calm that this young man does not, so out of the ten thousand who are on the street and drunk that night, he is the one who lashes out and kills an innocent bystander.
We know all this. So raising a boy to be the opposite - safe and caring - is not rocket science. In one of the most important ever studies by a psychologist in the 20th century, James Prescott researched dozens of cultures and found that the degree of violence was directly linked to the amount of affection shown to children. Having our skin needs met in childhood and adolescence means we don’t have the urge to hit or harm others. Receiving empathy and caring from mum and dad teaches us to show the same to others. (It helps to have the right genes. A gene called MAOA-L makes some children have twice as much trouble as others in holding back emotional impulses. But this gene is in 40% of the population, so clearly most of us have learned to overcome its effects.) Its clear though that parent-blaming isn’t helpful - if we don’t also give support - because some kids are more high need than others, and not everyone has a great family background to fall back on. Parent help in the early weeks and months especially is critical to getting families off to a good start - mums relaxed, dads engaged, support networks activated.
Experiencing the calm or at least safe management of conflict - growing up in a family where nobody hits anyone, and people talk things over to reach a compromise, wires up a child’s brain not to panic or hit out just because there is a disagreement.
What we learned in the 1990’s and I wrote about in Manhood, and Raising Boys, is that family alone is not enough to raise a boy. By the age of fourteen, they need other men, since 14 is the testosterone peak which urges a boy to look more widely - in fact to start to grow up. But thats only the beginning of the third phase - learning to be a man. Mum and dad need the help of uncles, teachers, coaches, leaders, friends of the family who fill out the gaps in a young man’s development, support and challenge him and expect him to be the best he can be. A mother on her own can raise a fine son, if she has this kind of help from the men around her. He has to be taught, and shown how. To treat women well. To respect others. To walk away from violence. To have a point and a purpose to his life beyond their own gratification. By being valued, boys learn to value others, and grow up happy, kind and strong. We so badly need that.
Steve Biddulph is an Adjunct Professor of Psychology and author of Raising Girls, as well as Raising Boys, and the New Manhood, all published by Finch.