Instilling this kind of hypervigilance for hostility in children can lead them into chronic aggressive behavior, including violence toward others. Results of a study from a project under Duke’s Center for Child and Family Policy show the importance of this balancing act, and the dangers of tipping the scale too far toward teaching children the “reality” of people with bad intentions. Instilling this kind of hypervigilance for hostility in children can lead them into chronic aggressive behavior, including violence toward others.
Our findings are based on four years of studying parenting styles in 12 distinct cultural groups from around the world, including African-American, European-American and Hispanic communities in Durham, N.C. This research in our Parenting Across Cultures project involved 1,299 children who were eight years old at the start of the study. Researchers measured children’s levels of aggressive behavior by collecting the observations of the children themselves and their mothers. Children also were asked to respond to hypothetical situations that might involve someone acting hostilely toward them — such as someone bumping them from behind and causing them to step into a puddle of water.
A consistent pattern emerged across the cultures: When children infer that they are being threatened by others and believe that others are acting with hostile intent toward them, they are likely to react with aggression. In fact, those children are five times more likely to react aggressively than children who accepted the act as non-aggressive. More importantly, by following up with the children, we found that the severity of aggressive behavior by the hypervigilant children increases over time.
Cultures differ in their tendency to socialize their children this way — to make them hypersensitive to hostility from others. In our study, the cultures that emphasized the need to be on the lookout for hostile acts had the highest rate of aggressive child behavior, while cultures that emphasize accepting the possibility that something like a bump in the back is unintentional and non-hostile have the lowest rates of such behavior.
Not surprisingly, this escalation of aggressive behavior is most clearly seen for children in cultures where conditions are difficult, especially where there is strife and conflict between groups. In fact, we see a group dynamic at play when children are socialized this way. We believe this is a factor in the seeming intractability of longstanding conflicts such as that between Israelis and Arabs and the racial divide in the United States.
The implications for individual children are most important here. There are valuable lessons in this for educators. Consider that child in your school who seems to be a constant source of trouble. He or she has a hair-trigger temper for fellow students and teachers alike; easily takes offense; is ready to be disruptive or even to fight at the slightest provocation. You may feel you’re dealing with someone who is simply a bad kid or even a bully. You may see no alternative other than to isolate that student from others through alternative classrooms or suspension.
But what if this is not simply a bad kid or a bully? What if this is a child who has been conditioned to expect hostile acts from others? For him or her, someone’s innocent mistake may indeed be a provocation, and an aggressive or even violent reaction may seem appropriate and justified.
Isolation or suspension won’t change such a child. The Center for Child and Family policy does extensive research on schools’ use of punitive polices like these. The evidence shows that rather than improving students’ behavior, such punishments are more likely to result in negative effects such as higher drop-out rates and lower academic performance.
And, of course, these students eventually will be back among their peers with their hypervigilance for hostility intact. We have to bring the internal scales these children use to weigh the meanings of what other people do or say to a better, more benign balance. This is work that cannot be done in school alone. It has to involve parents to help socialize children to think differently about their interactions with others. This approach typifies the kinds of positive behavioral interventions and supports we recommend that schools adopt.
We must create in our communities a culture that places tolerance and acceptance above suspicion. This will enhance children’s ability to self-regulate their behavior, to reflect and not simply react. We’ve found that self-regulation is tremendously important in children’s development. It is a key to individual success and the ability to interact positively with others. Research shows the level of self-regulation children show as early as their kindergarten years can be a good predictor of how well they will do socially and economically as adults.
Socializing children to be hypervigilant to hostility works against self-regulation. It makes children liable for the consequences of instinctive, instantaneous overreactions. A moment of pause and consideration can be enough to prevent the perception of every clumsy gesture or misspoken word as a hostile act. Parents should model this behavior in the home, and teachers should reinforce it by creating this culture of tolerance and acceptance in their classrooms.
What we need for all children — but especially for the children I’ve spoken about here — is a new wrinkle on the Golden Rule. Not only should we teach our children to do unto others as we would have them to do unto ourselves. We also need to teach them to think about others as we would have them think about us. By teaching our children to give others the benefit of the doubt, we help them grow up to be less aggressive, less anxious and more competent adults.