Duke University put research to the notion that a negative environment shapes children into violent teens.  Does that study augment the argument for — Infant Criminals, Bad Seeds and Guilty Ovum — or does it press the idea to the curb?  It is possible some children are predestined to form a criminal mind no matter how they were raised?

Duke’s argument — “Testing an Idealized Dynamic Cascade Model of the Development of Serious Violence in Adolescence” — picks these points:

The researchers tracked 754 children from preschool through adulthood and documented that children who have social and academic problems in elementary school are more likely to have parents who withdraw from them over time. That opens the door for them to make friends with adolescents exhibiting deviant behaviors and, ultimately, leads them to engage in serious and sometimes costly acts of violence.

The developmental path toward violent outcomes was largely the same for boys and girls, said Kenneth A. Dodge, the lead author of the study and director of the Center for Child and Family Policy at Duke University.

Dodge and his colleagues in the Conduct Problems Prevention Research Group also found that the cascade could be traced back to children born with biological risks or born into economically disadvantaged environments, both of which make consistent parenting a challenge. They determined biological risk by assessing the temperaments of the children in infancy, based on mothers’ reports; those at risk were irritable, easily startled and difficult to calm. These children are more likely to exhibit minor social and cognitive problems upon entering school. From there, the behavior problems begin to “cascade,” he said.

The Duke article also contends early intervention and conditioning can alleviate — or entirely stop — the bad behavior, thus saving the teens from their violent childhood environment.

Does Duke’s research strike you as probable, or impossible, when it comes to creating violent teens?

Before you answer, consider the case of “T” — a five-year-old monster from Washington state — recently abandoned in Omaha by his adoptive mother under Nebraska’s ill-written Safe Haven Law:

The boy has been placed in psychiatric hospitals three times and released with medication and outpatient therapy.

He has reactive attachment disorder, a lack of emotional attachment that results in disturbed and inappropriate behavior; disruptive behavior disorder, a consistent pattern of breaking rules; and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

“It’s like a disruptive 13-year-old in a 5-year-old’s body,” Cowburn [his mother] said. “Most mothers wake up to, ‘Mommy, I’m hungry.’ I have to hear, ‘If you don’t get up, I’ll slit your dog’s throat.’ This is like a horrible nightmare that never ends.” …

In April 2007, the boy cut the family cat and came at Cowburn with a knife. …

On Christmas, T pushed Cowburn’s 90-pound mother, who fell. She fractured her hip and pelvis and spent seven weeks in a nursing home recovering.

The boy has broken Cowburn’s nose, cut her forehead with a snow brush and left deep bruises from biting her calf. He has put a kitten inside an oven and blinded the family’s parrot. …

The boy has poured brownie mix onto the carpet, smothered it with water and salad dressing and ground it into the fibers with his feet. He kicks holes in walls.

He urinated on the neighbor’s dog and threw canned food off the balcony.

“It’s like a horror movie every day,” Cowburn said. …

He was kicked out of kindergarten this fall for physical aggression, including choking a girl.

Is “T” a product of his environment?  Or is he merely a dangerous outlier

Or was T born into his monster behavior from his birth mother’s bi-polar, schizophrenic, drug-addled womb — and his predestiny is to live a conscience-less, disassociated, life apart from the love and humanity that raised him?


  1. I (most likely naively) believe that there is hope yet for young T.
    It most likely involves constant interaction from waking til bed with all kinds of reinforcement both for positive and negative behaviour.
    How did the words “slit throat” enter T’s vocabulary? No baby is born knowing to say that. That is all environment.

  2. David,
    The research seems to suggest that the “Cascading Effect” of childhood experiences when paired with a temperament that is susceptible to such factors may make it more probable that the child might develop into a violent teen.
    It’s hard to tell about “T” with just this evidence though. He could be a sad child and his precociousness could be making it worse for him and those around him.

  3. Doesn’t the Duke study suggest a universal theory of teen violence, Dananjay? Or is there a separate strata of misbehavior that skews even younger with the likes of T and the Kindergarten Killers and the four-year-old that took a gun and shot herself in the head:
    The younger set can’t all be outliers.
    I think it’s a mistake to blame environment when physiology plays such a stronger role in determining what we ultimately become.

  4. I am stating that the phrase he used had to be heard somewhere before he could know to use it – whether it was directly from his mother or from a source that his mother allowed him to access. 🙂

  5. David,
    The four-year-old who shot herself seems to be an accident.
    I think the Duke study contends that teen violence is a product of the environment and adds that some youngsters may be temperamentally more prone to be affected by it than others. But does it indicate however, if it is the degree or the probability of the adverse effect that the environment can have on their development?

  6. I think bad parenting skills – and/or total lack of them have a lot to answer for. TV and videos are the universal panacea for a moments peace and quiet ( while the parents get drunk or worse) – later bed times and no routine for children also means they witness and hear much that is inappropriate for those under the age of 10.
    Not enough parenting skills are taught – babies and children are all to often treated as commodities to be dumped, parked and abandoned wherever their parents see fit. Babies are put in nurseries from the age of six weeks!
    Tony Blair advocates pre birth Intervention – here is the original report from the BBC
    This was my blog in response

  7. Gordon —
    If he didn’t hear it from his mother — and I doubt he did based on the reporting — why was he triggered to use that threat while others kids his age exposed to the same outside stimulus, did not?

  8. Dananjay —
    Is it natural for four-year-olds to hold guns to their heads and fire them? I doubt anyone in her family modeled that behavior for her. So where did the learning come from? Environmental? Or pre-programmed so no learning was necessary?
    What I would’ve liked to see, Dananjay, is the reverse of their Duke argument included: Kids exposed to violence as they grew up, yet they stayed good as teens into adulthood and they did turn turn out in bad ways. I think that’s the more common case than what Duke is trying to prove with their limited test. I would prefer a 3,000 child study instead of a 754 child study. I don’t think the pool was large enough to create proper polling.

  9. Your comment is intriguing, Nicola — especially the idea of “pre-birth” invention — which I calculate to include aborting fetuses from problem mothers.
    If, as T’s birth mother was — a drug-addict, bi-polar, schizophrenic — should he have been allowed to even be born?
    Should we take pre-birth intervention to it’s next, necessary, logical step of sterilizing men and women who are unwilling to care for themselves because of “bad biology” and “corrupted genes?”
    If the parents are broken, won’t the children arrive shattered — and why should society have to bear the sharp shards of such procreation?

  10. David,
    It’s possible that the child found the gun in the handbag and picked it up just as any four-year-old may pick up a shiny object. From there to holding it in a way that aims it at its head and handling it in a way that triggers the firearm is a tragic accident that was started by a negligent and callous act of bringing a gun into the house.

  11. Interesting argument, Dananjay, but I will argue that the natural, pre-programmed, DNA-level instinct of a human being (even for a four-year-old!) with a gun is to point it at someone else and not at your own head — unless there is something broken in the mind — then suicide, instead of the evolutionary want to kill, is the inner need the action fulfills.

  12. Yes, David. It’s possible that a wider pool may throw up different conclusions.
    It’ll be interesting to know how the Duke study defines environment and what constitutes adverse experiences. Are many small adverse experiences different from one, big adverse experience? And then of course, the definition of a big adverse experience changes with every year of development during childhood.
    In that case, studying individual cases may prove to be more illuminating than a dull median?

  13. That may be so, David, although I’d reason that the child didn’t know what it was doing.

  14. It seems like a simplistic study, Dananjay, and I agree I would appreciate more information and sharper analysis — because we know not all children become violent teens when exposed to repetitive “negative incidents” in childhood.
    I think there must be some sort of pre-programmed brain condition that is then triggered by the negative exposures and the evidence of the firing of that trigger appears propagated in the body as “irritability, easily startled and difficult to calm” clues the Duke study observes.

  15. True, David.
    And those clues are definitely a good handle to continue further investigations into this issue.
    But if we accept that premise wouldn’t we also have to give credence to the logic and quantitative method by which the study reached its conclusion?

  16. Hi Dananjay —
    Yes, if we accepted the premise, then we’d be required to agree with the Duke conclusions.
    I don’t accept the premise of the study and I discount Duke’s findings.
    The problem with this sort of “research via Press Release” is the information gets passed around verbatim as fact and it slowly becomes a popular truth. As scholars — as citizens of a cogent community — our first requirement to each other is to be skeptical and cynical. We must believe nothing and question everything until every inch of the matter is either proven, quantified or destroyed.

  17. Dananjay —
    It’s pretty hard to aim a gun the wrong way. It’s weighted and designed to balance the right way. It doesn’t make sense to a young mind to push away a trigger. You pull triggers toward you. Small hands could not easily pull a trigger the way it was designed and create a self-inflicted gunshot wound unless there was a predisposition to do so.

  18. Mr Blair got a lot of flak for those comments. There was considerable furore over them.
    I would like to think that he was talking prevention is better than the cure and that he was talking about eradicating the conditions and social inequalities that allowed these conditions to develop.
    However his pre-birth comment does suggest that he is talking about not allowing the children to be born in the first place – hopefully by contraception and good parenting lessons – which were all the rage with NuLabour – but never really took off.
    However it was perceived by the wider nation that he meant abortion and sterilization which of course bought him into direct conflict with the Catholic Church.

  19. I also agree that you need a bigger sample and more socio-economic data and data on medical factors such as dyslexia, ADD, ADHD and Aspergers syndrome.

  20. I have to confess, Nicola, that I like Blair’s provocative ideas. I think he is a forward-thinker because medicine and morality are leading us directly down that path: Pre-determining births and adult worthiness.
    Now, how such a bright and prescient man could be so overwhelmingly fooled by Bush and his phony war is beyond me — it can’t be leftover WWII gratitude, can it?

  21. Right, Nicola! Knowing more about the kids is important and I’m sure your SuperGenius PhD daughter would agree 754 children isn’t much of a sample when you’re making such wide-ranging determinations about future behavior based on past experience.

  22. I’m not so sure about killing babies because you THINK they’ll do wrong. Maybe the environment will better them.

  23. There you are, Anne! You’re right that the environment could change a killer infant into a reasonable person — but what are the chances of someone really being able to conquer their DNA?

  24. Super Genius daughter agrees that is not a large enough sample.
    For such a far reaching study – it has a very narrow sample.
    As for Bush and Blair – the answer is of course power and OIL. I actually think Blair bit off more than he could chew.
    Have studies shown that there is such a thing as criminal DNA ? Or is that still being determined by the powers that be that take your DNA for being in the wrong part of town on a Saturday night – under the guise of everyone – including children who is arrested now has to give a DNA sample.
    My son was wrongly accused of fathering a child – our Child Support Agency came after him with extreme financial demands – the only way he could prove to them he was not the father ( and the mother was a lying ***** ) was to take a DNA test – which he did and which proved he was not guilty.
    He asked then for the results to be destroyed – oh no – they will now be kept on/in the system for eternity.
    Here is a very timely article about the number of children on the UK Data base.

  25. I appreciate your SuperGenius daughter’s weighing in on the matter, Nicola! I agree with her! What bravado for Duke to claim such majestic determinations with such a small sample size.
    I find it disappointing that Blair’s legacy is so tightly woven to Bush’s.
    Did you see the refusal of the world leaders to shake Bush’s hand:

    Finally! We get some of the world shaming of him that was owed him at least 6 years ago.
    DNA is the new fingerprint. The Panopticonics will no longer not take DNA from anyone suspected of anything — even if later proven innocent. They want your blood and they’ll bloody well have it!
    Did your son have to pay for the DNA test? I’m actually thrilled he was able to exonerate himself from the clutches of a terrible person. What would he have done 20 years ago to prove his innocence against the false charges of paternity?
    Love that article from the Daily Mail! We need to bring light to these “gatherings of us” against our united will!

  26. Hi David,
    I think these kids have a serious disorder which is genetic, or else this sort of disorientation is impossible.
    This can’t be environmental alone.
    I feel for them.

  27. I think you’re right, Katha. The behavior is hard-coded in them. I’d love to see a DNA comparison between them just to see if any similar genetic markers were present.

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