We can raise children who will not be violent

In the week that South Africa’s crime statistics were released, I was at a conference about global violence reduction conference. It was eerie to be listening to presentations about achievable violence reduction while watching the release of the 2014 SA crime statistics on Twitter. With murder and robbery both up, the downward trend in violent crime that we enjoyed for a few years, is over. 

The conference’s overwhelming message was that it is possible to achieve the goal of reducing violence by 50% in the next 30 years. Evidence from other countries (including high-violence societies) made it clear that a concerted effort from political leadership is what is needed, and it must cut across all sectors of government. 

Economic development and the reduction of inequality in society will go a long way to reducing violence, by providing people – particularly young people – with hope for the future, in the form of being able to make a living wage. 

Political leadership that holds to the rule of law and government departments – including the police and the courts – that enforce it will also reduce criminal offences of all kinds. Correctional services that provide rehabilitation opportunities, rather than just punishment, help to prevent re-offending. We also need to reduce access to alcohol and to guns.

All of those are immediate approaches to violence reduction that could be implemented quickly. But we also need to take a longer-term approach — and that means paying attention to how we raise our children. Education is key: functioning, safe schools that provide an education leading to employment are critical for preventing youth violence (as well as a other social ills such as risky sexual behaviour and substance abuse). Good life skills teaching – learning respect for others and ways of avoiding conflict – should be an integral part of the school curriculum.

We also need to find ways of shifting norms so that the human rights of women and children (and in particular the right to be safe from violence) become an essential part of how we conduct both our private and public lives.

If we are to raise children who are not biologically and psychologically programmed to be aggressive, we need to focus on four areas: 

• Nutrition for pregnant women and for children: poor nutrition during pregnancy and childhood compromises brain development and increases the likelihood of both poor school achievement and aggression.

• Helping mothers and newborns attach to each other, to develop a strong, positive, psychological bond, which gives young children a sense of what a good relationship is like and helps them to avoid aggressive interactions in the future. 

• Cognitive stimulation for young children, again to promote brain development.

•  Support for parents to manage child behaviour, to reduce both child maltreatment and children’s aggression.

Child maltreatment is a particular problem in South Africa. Recent work from the Medical Research Council and UCT’s Division of Forensic Medicine and Toxicology showed that more 450 South African children died in 2009 as a result of fatal child abuse. Yet fatal child abuse is only the tip of the iceberg: many more children suffer abuse than those who die of it. 

Non-fatal child abuse also has serious consequences: abused children are far more likely to develop serious health problems, to do poorly at school, to struggle to hold a good job when they leave school, to be abusive to their own children, and to get involved in violence and crime. Interrupting the cycle of child abuse is vital.

I am part of research teams working on child maltreatment prevention in South Africa. We need good data to understand the extent and nature of child abuse in the country so we can focus our resources. We are carrying out a national study of child maltreatment, which will provide the country’s first-ever data on the subject. We are testing three parenting programmes for parents to find non-violent ways to manage their children’s behaviour. The programmes are together called Parenting for Lifelong Health. Together, these projects should assist in dropping rates of child maltreatment across South Africa, and reducing crime and violence in the next generation.

The conference began and ended, most aptly, with these words from Nelson Mandela, from his foreword to the World Report on Violence and Health: “Violence can be prevented. Violent cultures can be turned around … We owe our children – the most vulnerable members in any society – a life free from violence and fear.” 

We need to work together to attain his vision.  It is possible.

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