Nurturing Resilience

Raising children to be competent and caring.

8th Graders Who Kill

Are they little kids looking for excitement or adult criminals?

Kahton Anderson, an 8th grader in Brooklyn, says he thought boys from another crew of delinquents were going to shoot him. Anticipating danger, he pulled out his .357 revolver and shot first, killing 39-year-old Angel Rojas in the crossfire. Kahton is just 14 but already there are suggestions he be tried as an adult.

The odd bit of the story is that Kahton was doing mostly okay at school, and didn’t live in one of the housing projects where the bulk of the violence is taking place. It was as if he went looking for it. This is the difficult part to explain. He played basketball. He had most of his basic needs met, including a new gaming system and trendy sneakers. How could this little boy in a man’s body do something so horrific?

When I research resilience among kids like Kahton, there are patterns we see. Kahton apparently had the intellectual capacity to succeed at school, a prosocial activity like basketball to occupy his time, and financial stability at home. All these things should have buffered him from the violence in the wider community and prevented him from becoming involved with a street crew. So what drew him to leave his relatively safe zone in life and look for trouble? Was what he found more exciting? A bit higher status? More risk?

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Kids like Kahton leave the impression that violence is mostly a game. They want to feel powerful. They want attention. They want drama in their lives. The back and forth excitement of living on the edge of the law satisfies those needs. These are the kids who like being the bad boys. Only today, with easy access to guns and a culture that celebrates the gangsta’, the consequences to being bad are much more dangerous, to our young people and the innocent bystanders who get in their way.

Not all bad kids have to come from bad homes. Sometimes kids are just playing at being bad to make their lives feel richer. Add in an understanding of brain development and the way children perceive consequences, and we have an unhealthy, dangerous situation.

So what’s the solution?

1) We shouldn’t completely pathologize this pattern of seeking intense stimulation. Every generation of young people, boys and girls, have done the same. I recall following police cars to see how close to trouble my friends and I could get in the suburbs. I remember friends of mine making “death stars” and “nanchucks” in shop class and then having vicious fights behind the school. I remember us all hyped on hormones and wanting to feel there was danger all around us. Only, we didn’t have guns and we had enough structure around us to keep that craziness in check.

2) We can understand that all children (and a 14-year-old is a child) want to look in the mirror and see themselves as powerful. In one study I did, kids like Kahton said they preferred labels like “fighter” “stud” “drug dealer” to the tidier ones that schools gave them, like “good student” (but never the best), or “fun to be with”. For some youth, being bad is so much more powerful than being good.

3) If being bad is for some kids a way of feeling excited about life, what can we do as families, schools, and communities to help young people feel that way? Where is the socially desirable opportunities for risk-taking and status? Where is the responsibility for self and others that makes young people feel more adult-like? A crew is an excellent substitute for socially acceptable ways of feeling one belongs and is needed by others. A kid like Kahton (at least as I imagine him to be) will respond if given the chance to become a leader. Kids like Kahton will avoid the street violence that draws so many others if they understand their families are relying on them to succeed and pull their family out of poverty. When they are given the message they are needed by their families, some, but not all, make better choices.

4) We can also continue to help these kids find appreciative audiences for more socially desirable pathways to resilience. Sadly, when kids misbehave, they often find a large audience that applauds them. Online communities make matters that much worse. I’m intrigued that many remote Artic communities now use Facebook to document their hunts. Just think about that. Young men, and sometimes women, out hunting, chronicling their success in a way that their entire community can see regardless if they are there when the hunter returns from the land. I know that might seem like an odd example to bring up, but it teaches us something about the way young people think. They want to be acknowledged by their families and communities. Bored, under stimulated youth, will find the dumbest, and most dangerous ways to cope in situations where no one is taking notice of them.

5) We can also think about the problem of guns. I know, not the topic any one wants to tackle head on. But let’s face it, just as the problem of child soldiers in Africa is largely one of small arms that children can use with lethal force, so too is the supply of guns one of the reasons children become armed and dangerous. Admittedly, Kahton could have had a knife on him (or a death star, for that matter), but the result may have been less lethal. My point is not to open a debate that is very divisive, but instead to say that kids take advantage of whatever expressions of power we adults provide for them. In a different context, a fist, a knife, or maybe just a threat would have been enough to feel sufficiently powerful without the violence escalating to murder.

Michael Ungar, Ph.D., is a family therapist, a researcher at Dalhousie University, and the author of The We Generation: Raising Socially Responsible Kids.

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