Parenting: 'See Jane Hit'

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James Garbarino, Ph.D.
Author and Psychologist
Friday, March 10, 2006; 10:00 AM

Communities, schools and parents have worked hard in recent years to stem juvenile violence among boys. But recent trends have shown that girls are more and more frequently the perpetrators of violent behavior.

James Gabarino, author of "See Jane Hit: Why Girls Are Growing More Violent and What We Can Do About It," was online Friday, March 10 to answer questions about girls and violence.

Garbarino, author of "Lost Boys," holds the Maude C. Clarke Chair in Humanistic Psychology at Loyola University Chicago, and from 1985 to 1994 was president of the Erikson Institute for Advanced Study in Child Development.

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James Gabarino: Good morning. Thank you all for joining in this discussion. I can provide brief answers and responses here, but of course if you want to go further, my book "See Jane Hit" discusses these issues in more detail, and references and sources and more specific information.

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Fairfax, Va.: Have you been able to isolate a major cause for the increase in violence among girls? Is it fair to say that a root cause can most often be traced to a lack of active, interested daily parenting? Active parenting means, of course, daily, active interest and involvement in all aspects of raising your children.

James Gabarino: Is there a "major cause for the major cause for the increase in violence in girls"? The place to begin is with the recognition that there are two social and psychological processes that seem to control the expression of aggression in children, whether they be boys or girls. The first is the ideas that kids have about agression. Psychologists might call the "cognitive structuring." These are the messages, the images, the scenarios and the values that are represented to kids by adults and other children. The second process is the actual experiences kids have behaving in ways that are agressive or peaceful. The change in agression in girls, I believe, is due to changes in both these areas.

To start with, the ideas that girls have been receiving about aggression have changed dramatically. Whereas in the past, culture told them "girls don't hit," today the message is, "girls kick ass." You see evidence in cartoons, movies and on television.

For example, in the third Harry Potter movie, it is Hermione, the young girl, who physically puts down the bully Malfoi by punching him in the nose. Her friends in the picture and the audience in the theater cheer this act of aggression and Hermione herself says, "That felt good."

Notice that Hermione's physical aggression is not anti-social at all. It is if anything heroic. This kind of image tells girls they don't have to choose between "good" and being "aggressive." Girls today are increasingly awash in these kinds of images.

On the behavioral side, girls have more and more opportunities to "get physical." These include participation in sports, martial arts, and other intense physically challenging activities. Note that a generation ago, for every one girl participating in high school sports, there were 32 boys, and now the numbers are almost equal. Participation in sports for girls is a wonderful thing, for example the Women's Sports Foundation reports in their study of successful executive women, 82 percent say their participation in sports contributed to their success.

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James Gabarino: But the first law of human ecology is that you can never do just one thing. So there are always side effects and unanticipated consequences. We know that for boys, participation in sports is a positive thing, but we also know that it can and does increase the risk of aggression on the field and off unless coaches approach their task as one of character education.

So to return to the question of what is the main cause, I think it lies with the cultural changes in the messages being given to girls and their increasing opportunities to express aggression in day-to-day life.

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Washington, D.C.: When I had young sons in preschool, I was really struck by how well the boys in the 3-4 age group played together (or at least, by themselves), while the girls often formed cliques and teased and picked on each other, sometimes to the point of making their target cry. Is this something innate or is it a learned behavior?

James Gabarino: I think the starting point in responding to this question is the fact that in infancy and very early childhood, boys and girls are equally aggressive and almost all children have the capacity for being physically aggressive. By 17 months of age, 90 percent of boys and over 80 percent of girls are engaged in physical aggression. Traditionally in the past, girls gave up this physical aggression much more quickly and completely than boys, in large part because they received a consistant message from everyone that "girls don't hit." This does not mean they gave up aggressive impulses and fantasies but rather they found other outlets and ways of expressing their aggressions, through words and the manipulation of relationships.

Boys, on the other hand, were told a different message about aggression. Namely that it was a normal, even desirable aspect of being a boy. This is changing. Girls are given greater permission to act out their aggression, and boys are being encouraged mroe to "use their words." The nature of traditional boys' activities has provided a training ground for learning the rules of aggression within a peer group, and as a result fantasy aggressive play for boys can and does teach them something useful about real life aggression.

The activites of girls have provided less opportunity to learn "the ropes" of physical aggression, and this may have ramifications in later childhood and adolescence. I don't think most of this behavior is in any way innate. Rather, it is learned, and therefore can change as conditions change. The biological differences between little boys and little girls are significant, but they are not the big story.

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Arlington, Va.: Are there socioeconomic patterns in girl vs. girl violence? How prevalent is this problem in middle-class or affluent areas?

James Gabarino: I think we're seeing a shift in aggressive behavior among girls from every walk of life, in every group. However, it is clear in research on violence and aggression in the lives of boys that the more social risk factors a boy carries with him, the more likely it is he will have a problem with violence and aggression. Thus, any child who has to deal with being abused, being poor, experience racism, or in some other way being at a social disadvantage is more likely to have problems with violence and aggression. For example, the Search Institute has studied the role of what they call "developmental assets." These are the postive influences at work in the family, in school, in the community and in a child's values and beliefs. They have identified 40 of these develpmental assets. They report that among kids of 31-40 of these assets, only 6 percent were engaged in significant aggression. But among kids with 0-10 of these assets, the figure was 61 percent. I think this speaks to the question that aggression occurs among all groups, but that the most socially disadvantaged group the problem is magnified.

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Upton, MA: In "Lost Boys" you talk about the loss of 'future orientation' that many boys in violent environments experience. You suggest that this loss of future orientation can be overcome by infusing their lives with 'meaningfulness' or 'purposefulness', and you emphasize spiritual or religious practice as an effective means for accomplishing this. Does this hold true for girls in similar situations? Do you see any differences between violent boys and girls that might call for a different approach with girls?

James Gabarino: I think the problem of "meaninglessness" is central to the issue of violence of both girls and boys, particularly the most severe violence. When you feel that you live in a benevolent, meaningful universe in which love abounds, it naturally waters the seeds of peacefulness, and this supplants violence and aggression and starves it of the rage, the fear, the resentment and the hopelessness that it needs to feed upon. There may well be differences still in what robs girls vs. boys of a sense of meaningfulness, but I think the overall similarities are greater than the differences, and that is increasingly true. Let's be clear that I'm talking about spirituality and not just religion, because it is possible to pursue a meaningful, spiritual path outside of religion, and sometimes being inside religion does not foster a spiritual life.

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Rockville, Md.: Dear Dr. Garbarino,Girls are raised in the same culture in which boys are raised and ours is a culture soaked with violent images and stories. Children's programming on channels like Fox Family and Cartoon Network make violence look like fun. Why would girls be immune to the messages of the media? One small solution is to boycott the violent trash that t.v. programmers offer our male and female children. Alas, in our tv-loving culture, that is unlikely and we will suffer the consequences you describe.

James Gabarino: Television is perhaps the single biggest purveyor of cultural imagery with respect to violence. Research on the effects of TV violence on children's aggressive behavior began in 1960. At that time the research showed a clear effect of watching violent TV in increasing aggression, but only for boys. Girls were immune to this effect. By the 1980s, the immunity of girls had disappeared, and they were showing the same contaminating effects as boys. Now, for both girls and boys, the effect of TV violence on aggressive behavior is stronger than the effect of smoking on lung cancer, so it is a major public health issue.

What can parents do about it? The first step is to reduce the "dosage" of violence. The second is to cultivate values and behaviors that teach peacefulness in chlidren as an antidote to the violent messages they do receive.

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Nashville, Tenn.: What are some mechanisms for socializing girls to express their violence in socially acceptable ways?

James Gabarino: Teaching girls to deal with their aggressive impulses in socially acceptable ways begins in early childhood. For example, fathers who wrestle with their sons have played a vital role in teaching those boys how to deal with physical aggression in socially appropriate ways. This kind of play between parents and children teaches them how to avoid hurting people, how to stay within playful limits, and what to do when you make a mistake and cross the line. This may be one reason why "fatherless" boys tend to have greater problems with violence in adolescence. In the past, parents didn't need to teach these lessons to their daughters, because the culture was so unanimous inteaching that "girls don't hit." Now with the culture changing, there is a need for parents to wrestle with their daughters, to teach them the same positive lessons they have long been teaching their sons.

I was an aggressive little boy, and through the efforts of my parents, my teachers and my coaches learned to handle aggression in ways that kept me out of trouble. Were I an aggressive little girl today, I would need the same lessons.

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Arlington, Va.: Do you think that single-sex schools or classes make a difference (positively or negatively) on violence between and among girls?

James Gabarino: This question of single-sex schools and classes is a puzzling one because I think there are both advantages and disadvantages to be had. In general, one of the benefits of the same-sex class or school is to take off the board competition for recognition by the other gender, and this can allow both boys and girls to focus on developmental issues without that distraction. On the other hand, both boys and girls eventually need to learn how to succeed socially in a mixed-gender situation. As a result, I think providing children with a combination of some single-sex experiences and mixed-sex experiences is probably the wisest course of action.

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Bronx, NY: The research seems to swing back and forth on this one: Does spanking a child lead to later adult violence, or not?Secondly, what is the real truth to "spare the rod, spoil the child?" At what age does other discipline take it's place? Doesn't an understanding consequence of a spanking make a child (girl or boy) feel they are loved? Last one: At what age does spanking become secondary to other discipline techniques which may be more effective?

Thank you, Family of four: 30, 32, 4 and 7 years old

James Gabarino: In general, I think it is clear that hitting children increases the risk of them hitting people in the future. Remember that what controls the expression of aggression in children is the combination of the ideas and the experiences -- the cognitive structuring and behavior rehearsal that I spoke of earlier. So all other things being equal ( which of course they rarely are) hitting children sends the message that people who love you hit you because they care about you, and this is obviously an unhealthy message to go through life with.

On the other hand, there are worse thing for children than being spanked. These included being ignored, being belittled, being rejected, being molested. I think this is one reason why the research on the effects of spanking is so complicated. There are loving parents who are psychologically supportive but who do use physical punishment. When these parents succeed, it is despite that physical punishment. The more a parent can discipline their child without teaching them the lesson "people who care for you hit you," the better off they will be.

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Anonymous: I have 2 kids, a boy almost 4 and a girl almost 2. I've noticed that my daughter has been more aggressive than my son was at that age. She is the one who is always ready to pinch, slap, bite. and he's the softer one- in fact he can't get himself to hit her back at all. I've seen him control his rage. He never hits back. Any reason why I would find such different behaviour in the same household?

James Gabarino: One way in which children differ is in their temperament. Some are "easy," some are "difficult." These temperamental differences include how "rough and tumble" a child is, and while in general boys start out a little more rough and tumble than girls on average, these averages differences do not preclude individual girls from being more rough and tumble than individual boys, even within the same family. This temperamental difference may be contributing to the difference to what you are observing. The good news about temperament is that once you recognize and understand it you can tailor your parenting accordingly. That may mean putting more time and attention into socializing aggressive impulses in your daughter and teaching assertiveness to your son.

In the course of writing "See Jane Hit" I came accross a lot of cases where girls' experience of being physically aggressive was especially evident inside their families. In today's world we can't assume that sisters will automatically be less aggressive than brothers.

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Lexington, S.C.: How can you question American culture regarding representations of girls participating in violent behavior when our visual culture is riddled with representations of grossly violent acts comitted by males? Violence against women still remains to be acknowledged much less prosecuted and each and every time a child comes to school with a gun it is a boy. Why are we still not creating the dialogue that needs to be produced, that being our cultures love relationship with violence and our need to buy into an illusion that gender roles are "natural?" I personally think the thesis of your book only hurts all children by rendering them prisioners to their genders instead of pointing out the general themes in our culture that perpetuate violent behavior in individuals.

James Gabarino: Actually I think in "See Jane Hit" I tackle head on the "socially toxic" forces at work in American culture and society. My goal is in part to chronicle how and why the vulnerability of children to these influences arises and can change historically as conditions change. As I pointed out earlier, research from the early 1960s documented that for the most part girls were immune to the contaminated effects of TV violence, but that this immunity ended by the 1980s. It is certainly true that males continue to have a bigger problem with violence than females, and my book "Lost Boys" speaks to these issues directly. But it is incumbant upon us to look at the whole picture, and that now includes increasing issues of violence and aggression affecting girls. For example, just last week, in Minnesota, a 13-year-old girl was arrested for planning a school shooting. I fear more of this kind of think in the future.

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James Gabarino: My thanks to everyone who has engaged these issues. When I was asked once in a seminar "Who do you point the finger of blame at for the problem of violence?" I replied, "One finger won't do it. You need two hands worth of fingers." Almost every problem has multiple causes, not the least of which is our own individual imperfection as human beings. I hope my two books, "See Jane Hit" and "Lost Boys," contribute to a deeper and more complete understanding of violence in human experience.

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