The Social and Emotional Roots of Violent Crime

The recent mayoral race in Memphis highlighted a popular concern among many of our citizens: Memphis’ violence problem.

In debates and interviews, the candidates used language that defined the issue as a tactical problem; how to deal with unruly teenagers and violent adults. What voters didn’t hear was much talk about the link between criminal behavior and early social and emotional development.

Violence is a symptom. Nourishing the early lives of young children is the cure! Tweet this!

Over the last few decades, researchers have established a direct link between early childhood experiences and social and emotional well-being in adulthood. Career criminal isn’t a path people take a sudden leap into. It’s the result of a life shaped since birth by toxic experiences. Such experiences may have a direct negative effect on the development of the neural pathways that are being formed during the earliest years.

Memphis’ violence problem isn’t unsolvable, as long as we understand that violence and crime are the symptoms of a broader problem: many children miss out on the social and emotional nourishment that leads to success later in life.

For families with children, everyday life is often dominated by packed schedules, running and rushing, stress, and conflicts. Families that live in poverty are burdened by extra layers of stress, like underemployment, poor nutrition, financial strain, and transportation problems.

Persistent hardships like these drain parents’ emotional resources and make effective parenting difficult. Kids in these families are especially likely to miss out on nurturing social and emotional enrichment.

This limits their chance to develop a sense of who they are, what their feelings mean, and how to get along with others.

These early deficits in social-emotional development are carried with them as they grow up, stifling their opportunities to excel in school, preventing them from falling in with a supportive peer group, and increasing the chances that they will make self-destructive life decisions.

Memphis’ violence problem is a complex issue, and there are no easy answers. However, a key part of solving the problem is ensuring that our community’s children develop the social-emotional skills they need.

Everyone has a role to play. Community leaders and policymakers can create and support programs that promote social and emotional development during children’s earliest years, especially for at-risk children.

Parents and caregivers can create an environment that promotes emotional and social development. If that sounds sterile and technical, the truth is much more fun and natural. It’s as simple as family meals together with TV’s and phones turned off, at least a few times a week. Sharing a book with your child every night at bedtime. Taking a walk together and asking him about his day. Coloring together and talking about what’s being drawn.

Planning for regular family time, and making it a consistent part of the daily schedule, brings families together, strengthening and maintaining the emotional bonds among them. When this is a regular feature of family life, young children internalize the lessons. Treating others with empathy and understanding becomes a habit. It becomes the rule.

To solve our great city’s violence problem, it’s time to flip our priorities. Violence is a symptom. Enriching the lives of our community’s young children is the cure.