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The Social Causes of Crime - Overview

My work with criminally insane psychopaths in Ontario's maximum security mental hospital led two colleagues and myself to establish the Canadian Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children in 1975, in order to increase public awareness of the long-term consequences of emotional abuse in the earliest years.

Our forensic experience made it clear that individuals who commit crimes can do so in large part because they lack the capacity to be affected by how their victims feel. They know how they feel, but that knowledge (cognitive awareness) does not affect them in the same way it affects normal people.

The capacity to be affected by how others feel is developed in the earliest years - before the age of about three. What is more significant is that this capacity cannot be learned or taught or put into a person after that age with any known method of treatment.

This capacity to be affected by how others feel is developed most strongly when infants and toddlers are empathically cared for by the same few people all the time - people who are willing and able to meet the child's emotional needs.

Until this century, the emphasis in child rearing has been to socialize children in the sense of teaching them how to behave properly; to know (cognitive awareness) right from wrong. It has not been understood until recent years that socialization is ineffective when a person has not developed the capacity to be affected by how others feel.

How do we ensure that this capacity is developed? Raising the status of empathic parenting of children under three, increasing support services for parents with children under three, increasing the emphasis on trust, empathy and affection in the adult world, and vastly improving preparation for parenting for boys and girls - before they are physically able to conceive children.

All of this seems straightforward and achievable, but there is a catch. Adults who themselves suffered from unempathic care when they were very young, and this is almost everyone (most so those who deny it), must keep the pain of that experience out of conscious awareness. They do this by various psychological tricks or defense mechanisms such as rationalization ("let him cry, he has to learn it's a tough world"), role reversal or displacement ("that baby is deliberately trying to control me"), and idealization ("my parents were tough on me and it was good for me").

Whatever mechanisms are used, the unfortunate result is the same. These adult victims strongly believe and insist that unempathic care of children is not harmful, but quite the opposite - virtuous and responsible childcare. This dynamic greatly complicates recognition of the need for, and implementation of, those steps necessary to ensure that the next generation of children do not suffer the same damage.

The solution to this dilemma is to increase public awareness of this unconscious intergenerational cycle, and to work as steadily and quickly as politically feasible toward the goal of raising every member of the next generation with a well-developed capacity to be affected by the way others feel.

Elliott Barker, M.D., D. Psych, F.R.C.P. (C), is the Director of the Canadian Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and the former editor of the journal Empathic Parenting.

Presented with permission of the author.

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