Teen Behavior is Rooted in Early Childhood

The Poplar Plaza attack committed by a group of teenagers on September 6 was a tragic reminder of what can happen when kids take a wrong turn toward violence and other antisocial behavior. Although the public discussion of the incident has included many suggestions for addressing the problem, fewer proposals have been aimed at preventing it.

If we want well-adjusted teens, we need to invest in well-adjusted babies! Tweet this!

The assault has understandably generated strong reactions, particularly since it was captured on video and has been circulating since. But it’s important to remember that this is just one extreme example of a much larger problem.

Too many of our community’s children are not benefiting from the type of early experiences that promote social and emotional development and help children stay on the right path. And many of these children never wind up on video, never even commit a crime. They simply fall far short of their potential because they were not given a fair chance.

Social and emotional development begins in infancy.

Curiosity, motivation, self-control and other social and emotional skills are crucial for well-being and success. They are important predictors of academic performance, behavioral adjustment and social competence.

Social and emotional development begins in early infancy, and the lessons babies learn at this stage form the foundation for outcomes in childhood, during adolescence and throughout life.

Self-control is one of the most widely studied examples among this group of skills. Although it begins developing at birth, emerging self-control generally appears in the toddler years. It includes delaying gratification, controlling impulses when necessary, and managing emotions in appropriate ways.

Low self-control in early childhood can lead to problems in adolescence.

Early self-control has been linked to income, educational attainment, and social adjustment in adulthood. A recent large-scale study linked self-control in early childhood to a broad spectrum of adolescent behaviors and long-term adult outcomes.

As adults, children with low self-control tended to have poorer health, lower economic status, and higher rates of criminal activity compared to children with higher self-control.

When they looked at the subjects’ behavior during adolescence, researchers saw that children with low self-control were more likely to make bad choices as teenagers (like taking up smoking or engaging in risky sexual behaviors), and that these choices essentially trapped them in unhealthy lifestyles. In other words, the choices they made as teens had their roots in the early years.

If we want well-adjusted teens, we need to invest in well-adjusted babies.

Overwhelming evidence shows that success in life depends on fundamental skills developed in the first years. Intervening later (with afterschool programs, tuition assistance, or job training programs, for instance) is less effective and more expensive. Although both types of investment are important, public dollars are more efficiently spent when meaningful investments are made in early childhood care and education.

We were all greatly disturbed by the events of September 6. But are we disturbed enough about the events of the day before and the day after, when too many young children were neglected by stressed or depressed parents who were treated the same way as children? When too many spent yet another day in low quality child care. These events won’t make it to video, but until we make a real investment in preventing them, they will certainly be going viral.