Humans are at their most aggressive not when they’re in their twenties, nor when they’re teenagers. In fact, the most violent people on earth are two or three years old, according to psychologist Mark Tomlinson. “They kick, bite, push, hit, scratch. If you count those up, they are way more aggressive than adolescents,” Tomlinson, a professor at Stellenbosch University, said.
The difference, of course, is the damage an adolescent can do compared to a toddler. “Adolescents take risks, they are strong, they often have access to weapons. And so one act of violence can result in injury or even the death of somebody,” Tomlinson said.
But if toddler violence has few consequences in the short term, Tomlinson said it can still contribute to more serious acts later in life if children aren’t socialised to control aggressive impulses. After the age of three, aggressive acts should sharply decrease among children. If they don’t, Tomlinson said, there’s a high chance those children will become violent in their teens and twenties.
That’s why he’s spearheading a child development intervention in a disadvantaged community in South Africa that uses picture books to help young children develop the skills and resilience needed to avoid resorting to violence when they get older. Tomlinson’s team of researchers are hoping that encouraging parents and caregivers to sit down and share a book with toddlers can have much wider effects which have nothing to do with reading – including preventing violence.
The power of sharing books
The benefits of reading to young children have been well documented in education policy in terms of improving literacy. But this intervention is not about reading at all – instead it’s about the benefits that come from a caregiver and a child sitting and sharing an experience.
“When people hear the words ‘book sharing’, they immediately think of literacy, and that the intervention is about improving literacy or requires caregivers to be able to read,” Tomlinson said. “But that is not the case. It is about interaction between caregivers and children, about joint attention, sensitivity. For young children, the book does not even have to have words”
Tomlinson and his colleagues ran a trial with 140 families in the South African township of Khayelitsha, on the outskirts of Western Cape. The program is part of the World Health Organisation’s Parenting for Lifelong Health program, which promotes a range of strategies to prevent violence in disadvantaged communities.
Families in the township were either allocated to a book-sharing program or put in a control group. The program group were trained in how to share books with their children over the course of eight weeks.
The caregivers are given books and shown how best to share them with a child — how to sit together to read, how to encourage the child to take part, and how to find a good time in the day to set aside for books.
The fact that some of the books used in the intervention don’t have words allows adults to come up with their own stories alongside the child. These interactions help with parent-child bonding and teach toddlers about empathy, two qualities that have been identified as protective factors against child violence.
Tomlinson said that’s particularly important for children who grow up in disadvantaged communities. “When there’s too much toxic stress in their environments as a result of chronic poverty, they may struggle to empathise as much as they would otherwise,” he said.
The intervention is designed to help parents and caregivers too. Research from the University of Philadelphia has shown that harsh parenting — in which caregivers are aggressive, physically or emotionally abusive or excessively negative — is a strong predictor of later violence among children.
Marguerite Marlow, another researcher on the project, said the intervention helps caregivers develop the skills needed to provide a positive environment for children.
“It’s a training program for parents on how to engage with their children in a sensitive and responsive way,” Marlow said. “How to respond to their children’s needs and to be focused on what the child is interested in.”
Researchers will need to wait more than a decade to find out whether the violence prevention aspect has been successful But Tomlinson takes encouragement from results from a previous trial in Khayelitsha that showed substantial improvement in attention and language development among children whose parents had participated in the book sharing program.
Tomlinson said these kinds of results can have a cascading effect throughout a child’s life: more developed language skills and a stronger ability to pay attention will mean they do better at school, which makes them less likely to drop out, which makes them less likely to get involved in violent crime, for example.
At the heart of it all is the attachment to the people who look after them, whether they’re parents, grandparents or another caregiver.
“We know that children who are securely attached to their caregivers are more likely to be empathic with others, are more likely to have good, solid, healthy friendships as they grow, and are more likely to have a whole series of benefits because of that secure attachment,” he said. All of these qualities are likely to help a child live a violence-free life.
(Picture Credit: Unsplash)