Development, Socialization, and Learning

In Chapter 2, we will discuss the development of violent behavior patterns in significant detail. For now we merely point out that, from a developmental standpoint, the cognitive and physical abilities associated with hurting another person are different than those for other antisocial behaviors such as stealing. Children are able to be violent at very young ages—they can bite and slap in infancy— but they are not normally strong enough to hurt someone to such an extent that the police would be consulted until around puberty. The development of these behaviors, whether they persist or extinguish, can occur independently of the development of other forms of antisocial behavior. Actual measures of violent behavior for young children show a high frequency of violent acts in early life that diminishes substantially to near-zero after the preschool years (Tremblay & Nagin, 2005), likely because it is not difficult to make young children understand that hurting others is wrong. Maughan and colleagues conclude that the overlap between aggressive and nonaggressive antisocial trajectories in childhood is “quite limited” (Maughan, Pickles, Rowe, Costello, & Angold, 2000). Although children in the “low” conduct problem classifications in their study tended to be low in both forms of antisocial behavior, only 12.6% of boys with persistent aggressive conduct problems also were categorized in the stable, high-level trajectory of nonaggressive conduct problems (that figure was higher, 43.3%, among the girls).

This finding is in keeping with the idea that socialization surrounding “stealing” can be quite independent of socialization surrounding hurting other people. Although toddlers may take each others’ toys, their understanding of what is “wrong” about it is likely to evolve in a sophisticated manner over time. For us to feel that “culpable” stealing is occurring, a higher level of cognitive abilities must be attained because, although a child can pick up something and carry it off, for us to assign blame, he must comprehend that what he is taking does not belong to him, and that taking others’ belongings without permission is wrong. Again, the type of stealing the child will commit is unlikely to come to the attention of police and be counted as criminal until around puberty when, as a society, we start demanding that children be accountable for their actions.

Increases in recorded criminality that occur after age 10 or so are thought to be associated with actual increases in deviance related to normal adolescent development. At this point, it may be the case that violence and theft are partially due to the same developmental cause, and we see the onset of acts such as shoplifting and gang fighting during these years. But the documented coincidence of the onset of delinquency is likely to be exaggerated partly due to our measurement of behavior (arrests, for example) and the abrupt change in expectations about the behavior of children transitioning into adolescence.

Learning theory allows for an infinite number of distinct learned activities. Human learning is also characterized by generalization of some learned concepts. When we learn that it is wrong to steal candy from a store, we suspect that it may also be wrong to steal candy from our sister. When we teach children not to steal from a store, we teach them “stealing” is wrong (Trasler, 1965), and children are able to apply this quite neatly across situations. A separate line of learning would apply to using force against others. When we teach an infant not to bite, we are teaching them not to hurt other people. They soon learn that biting, hitting, and pushing are in the same category, and they readily generalize this to “don’t hit anybody with a bat,” “don’t kick people” and so on without having to be taught the same lesson for each possible violent act. There is no reason to believe that “don’t take someone else’s things” generalizes to “don’t hurt people” and “don’t sell drugs.”

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