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BREAKING THE CYCLE


Dr. Myriam Miedzian on Violence
reprinted from Sesame Street Parents; July-August 1994

Myriam Miedzian, Ph.D., is a founding board member of Prepare Tomorrow's Parents She is a social philosopher, professor and the author of Boys Will Be Boys; Breaking the Link Between Masculinity and Violence (Anchor Books).


The United States is suffering through an epidemic of violence. Our government's response to this crisis is to build more prisons and hire more police officers. But what about prevention? Isn't there anything we can do to stop today's toddler from becoming tomorrow's rapist or murderer?

Yes, there is. One step we can take is to introduce child-rearing classes into schools.

Social science research reveals that huge numbers of children today grow up in family situations that predispose them to violent behavior later in life. These youngsters are battered, experience weak bonding with caregivers, lack parental supervision, or have parents who fail to reinforce prosocial behavior.

Boys are at much higher risk of growing up to be violent than girls are: About 90 percent of violent crimes are committed by males. The risk is further increased if a boy grows up without an involved, nonviolent, responsible father. And although most single mothers succeed, often heroically, in raising decent sons, their task is extremely difficult. The 1991 FBI Uniform Crime Reports cites studies suggesting that as many as 70 percent of juvenile offenders grow up in single-parent homes.

Mandatory child-rearing classes can help solve these problems. By making both boys and girls aware of the importance and complexity of child-rearing, classes could bring down teenage pregnancy rates, reduce the number of deadbeat dads, and promote caring, responsible mothering and fathering.

Some people object, claiming that child-rearing cannot be taught. But in light of our nation's high rates of child abuse, neglect, and abandonment, this myth urgently needs to be examined. After all, one of our society's deep-seated assumptions is that teaching a skill in school is the best way for a child to learn it. Isn't it strange that the most important and difficult task that so many people fact -- raising children -- goes untaught?

Critics also question whether boys will have any interest in child-rearing classes. It is true that by the time they reach first grade, many boys have decided that babies are "girls' stuff." Yet when I sat in on child-rearing classes I found that boys from a variety of school settings, including inner city and suburban, were every bit as interested as the girls in learning about and interacting with babies and toddlers.

I visited one elementary-school program that is built around monthly class visits from mature parents and their child. The child's development is watched over time and noted on a chart. By keeping workbooks, students sharpen their powers of observations, psychological insight, and sensitivity.

As students talk with the parents, they gain a deeper appreciation of child-rearing. They might hear a baby's parents explain, "We haven't slept through he night since she was born because she has to be fed every three hours," or "We haven't gone out since he was born because we can't afford a baby-sitter."

One goal of this program is to teach non-violent ways to discipline children, thereby discouraging child battering. Teachers provide students with information about the psychological and physical needs of children at various ages.

As a result, girls and boys begin to see raising a child as a demanding, important responsibility. They become strongly inclined to delay parenthood until they are financially and emotionally ready. Because girls as young as age 12 are getting pregnant, it is important that these classes be introduced no later than fifth grade, then repeated as child development classes in high school.

The startup cost of such a program is less than $100 per student, a tiny amount compared with the cost of supporting a teenager and her children, putting an abused child in foster care, or imprisoning a violent criminal.

I urge parents, educators, and legislators concerned with child abuse and violent crime to work for the introduction of mandatory child-rearing classes in all our schools.


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