Violence is destructive – that is the politically correct position of modern educational systems. The position has merit – child violence on other children is disturbing. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has highlighted youth violence as a major dilemma in schools and neighborhoods. But this has not always been the position of polite society. Mark Twain used youth violence as a humorous anecdote necessary to the maturing process of young boys. In The Adventures of Tom Sawyer two boys (one is Tom) confront each other on the street; they taunt, tease, dare, and then scuffle. Tom is victorious when the other boy cries ’nuff!’ Not one sociologist at the time raised a stink about Twain’s portrayal of youth violence. So what is going on?
In the Twain anecdote young Tom is walking down the street and meets a new boy. Twain writes, “He had a citified air about him that ate into Tom’s vitals.” The boys exchange taunts, then scuffle. After the scuffle, “The new boy went off brushing the dust from his clothes, sobbing, snuffling, and occasionally looking back and shaking his head and threatening what he would do to Tom the ‘next time he caught him out.'” The defeated child is no longer mentioned. We are left to presume he does not go to counseling, take anti-depressants, or grow up to be a serial killer. Twain’s assumption is that this was just a life lesson for each of the boys. Both boys learned something and they are better for it – or so Twain would have us believe.
An event of this sort today would elicit a much greater response from parents, educators, politicians, social scientists, and Pastors on the left and right. Twain put the focus on the victor – Tom continues his adventures. Today the focus would be on the boy ‘… brushing dust from his clothes, sobbing, snuffling…’ Our hearts would go out to the defeated youth, the victim of harsh childhood violence. Was Twain wrong? Are we Wrong?
The CDC reports:
Youth violence includes various behaviors. Some violent acts—such as bullying, slapping, or hitting—can cause more emotional harm than physical harm.
Why is youth violence a problem? The CDC has some interesting statistics:
Youth violence is widespread in the United States (U.S.). It is the second leading cause of death for young people between the ages of 10 and 24.1
- 5,958 young people age 10 to 24 were murdered—an average of 16 each day—in 2006.1
- Over 631,000 violence-related injuries in young people age 10 to 24 were treated in U.S. emergency rooms in 2007.1
- In a 2007 nationwide survey, 36% of high school students reported being in a physical fight during the past 12 months.2
- Nearly 6% of high school students in 2007 reported taking a gun, knife, or club to school in the 30 days before the survey.2
- An estimated 30% of kids between 6th and 10th grade report being involved in bullying.
Clearly – we live in a different culture than young Tom Sawyer of St. Petersburg, Missouri, in the 1850’s. Twain does not mention that the defeated youth grew into adolescence with a defeated self-esteem and ultimately committed suicide. We don’t believe that Mark Twain was condoning violence – he was just reporting on the nature of young boys. But there it is – that is the problem – Is youth violence a natural phenomenon, or is youth violence a product of stress, dysfunctional family life, frustration, or even an indicator of violence in the child’s home?
The CDC has some thoughts on causation:
A number of factors can increase the risk of a youth engaging in violence. However, the presence of these factors does not always mean that a young person will become an offender.
Risk factors for youth violence include:
- Prior history of violence
- Drug, alcohol, or tobacco use
- Association with delinquent peers
- Poor family functioning
- Poor grades in school
- Poverty in the community
Note: This is a partial list of risk factors. For more information, see www.cdc.gov/injury. www.cdc.
This writer’s personal experience includes most of the above risk factors. And I was a violent youth – but I had five brothers who were not violent. Well, maybe one of them, but not to the degree that I managed. In elementary and secondary education four of my brothers were never in a fight, one brother had two fights, and I had about 35 serious knock-down fist fights. It seemed like I was often encountering someone that ‘ate at my vitals.’
As I reflect back I wish someone had intervened in my life at a much younger age. The lessons of violence in my youth did not serve me well as an adult – not to mention the lessons learned by my 35 opponents. (As an aside, I lost about 17 of the fights. But none of them ever wanted to fight me again). My macho mental attitude continues to interfere with reasoned maturity. My youth experience with violence gave a mature voice to my role as a parent. I told my children to avoid fighting – but this created some confusion for them because my behavior was animated with the vigor of unbridled anger.
What are we to make of these changing attitudes toward youth violence? My notion is that society is maturing – we are becoming more civilized. This is a difficult process as we are all aware of the ‘fight or flight’ condition inherent in our very being. This primitive response to danger is real and ‘flight’ does not always present itself as a reasonable option.
Again, the CDC has some ideas about preventing youth violence:
The ultimate goal is to stop youth violence before it starts. Several prevention strategies have been identified.
- Parent- and family-based programs improve family relations. Parents receive training on child development. They also learn skills for talking with their kids and solving problems in nonviolent ways.
- Social-development strategies teach children how to handle tough social situations. They learn how to resolve problems without using violence.
- Mentoring programs pair an adult with a young person. The adult serves as a positive role model and helps guide the young person’s behavior.
- Changes can be made to the physical and social environment. These changes address the social and economic causes of violence.
The CDC makes an assumption that all youth violence is the result of some dysfunction in a family, peer, or education system. They are mostly correct. We are trying to engineer a society where ‘fight or flight’ is never invoked. If we never put a person in a position of threat of harm – then there will be no need for drastic action. We do not mean to discount the work of the CDC. We think the CDC is suggesting that in aberrant life circumstances some children perceive threat when there is none – and invoke the primitive option of ‘fight or flight’.
In the world of today we think in terms of assertiveness. To fight is to invoke the the negative act of aggression. Flight suggests passiveness – which is not considered an effective communications style. I talk with my grandchildren about being assertive and they look at each other as if I am completely nuts or something. It seems that youth sometimes have difficulty sorting the difference between their primitive nature and legitimate feelings of hurt or fear.
We have to acknowledge changes in society that makes youth violence a much more pressing concern. Note the number of murders, the percent of physical fights, the use of guns, knives, and clubs – this is not the world of Tom Sawyer where someone is allowed to cry, ’nuff.’ We would also note the number of suicides in our youth. Even in my youthful violence of the 1950’s and 1960’s guns were never used. Back in those days I only faced two clubs and one knife. Fighting today is not just a taunt, a tease, and a scuffle – violence today has real life or death consequences.
Mark Twain was a literary giant for many reasons. He was a great writer, but he was also courageous – Twain introduced the concept of realism in literature. For several hundred years literature was swamped by romanticism – the good guy always won the battle and the girl. Twain (Samuel Clemens) broke the established mold of literature and several generations of literary greats have been spawned. Twain may well have been the stimulus for the courage of modern art. Twain did not condone youth violence – he merely presented a fact of youthful nature.
Twain’s story was about the victor. Today we recognize the story of the defeated.