Why Kids Today are So Violent — It isn’t the Video Games

I’m going to be controversial today. I’m going to talk about something taboo to say in the US. I think kids today lack empathy. Not all kids, but a real percentage of them, maybe as many as 20%. And I think that those 20% of kids are being bullies and sometimes even murderers at school. If you have read the news, this part shouldn’t be shocking. 

We have an epidemic of kids dying directly and indirectly from bullying. All those deaths are not happening because kids are happy and well-adjusted. When they happen, we focus on the victims and don’t talk about why in the world the perpetrators lack empathy, human decency, or something else most of us have. 

The Culprit: Too Much Daycare

Here is what I think might be to blame: Daycare.  Now, I don’t mean a few hours a week after school. I mean I think, and the little research that has been done on it shows, that when kids enter daycare full time at a matter of weeks old, they do not develop emotionally the way they should. 

In the U.S. babies often need to start full-time daycare younger than you can legally separate a puppy from its mother. Puppies are not supposed to be separated before 8 weeks old, but we put human infants in daycare at far younger than that. The best most working mothers can hope for is 12 weeks of Family and Medical leave, unless they have made significant plans and have significant savings to draw on. 

Biologically, babies are made to spend the first year or two of their lives in the arms of their mother and near her. If their mother wasn’t available, they would have been cared for by close family members. Our current time is the only time in human history where we have created a situation where infants are routinely separated from their mothers for huge blocks of time before they have formed an appropriate attachment to her and hit basic milestones. 

Mothers Are Not To Blame

Now, before I go further, I want to be clear that I do not blame the mothers who have to work to feed their families. This is not about personal choice. The majority of mothers going back to work when their babies are so tiny have no choice. They have bills to pay. We live in a country that doesn’t provide for long maternity leaves. In other parts of the developed world, mothers and fathers both have options to take off much more time than in America. Some countries offer a year or more of maternity and/or paternity time off.   The current cost of living crisis means that it just isn’t practical for many parents to take a few years off work when their children are born, which was doable for parents in the 70s and 80s. 

The Research

There is some research that daycare is detrimental, though it could be studied further.  The NICHD did a study in the 90’s, in which they expected to find that daycare had minimal effect on children, but that isn’t what they found. They found there is a direct correlation between how much time a child spends in daycare in their first 5 years of life, and in their social skills being worse, among other negative outcomes. They measured it in many ways and controlled for every variable possible. But the truth is daycare harms children’s development. 

Why would daycare harm child development? The reason is that babies are made to bond with a limited number of caregivers. Their little brains, want to form just a couple of secure bonds and have a single caregiver meet most of their needs. That in turn results in the infant’s brain learning what to expect from this caregiver. Day in and day out, seeing the same person go through different moods, and activities teaches the infant brain what to expect. This bond is the basis for all other relationships for their entire lives. The amount written on the need for a good psychological bond between mother (or caregiver) and infant is extensive in the field of psychiatry. 

When a baby goes to daycare, this bond is disrupted. That doesn’t mean that babies don’t have a bond with their parents, but they now have many more people to try to learn to navigate. The baby’s brain isn’t ready for so many people so early. Each person responds differently to their cries, their needs, and even details like how they are fed or changed vary.  Their brains get overloaded and instead of learning more, they shut down, and learn less. The research showed that the more childcare providers a baby has, the more poorly their social skills later in life, and the more likely they are to have “behavior problems.” 

In 2001, Jay Belsky of Birkbeck College in London did a research project on kids in daycare that found that 17% of kids who were in daycare more than 30 hours a week were more likely to have violent outbursts, get into fights, and be combative, as they grow.  The prior NICHD study found that these issues can continue into adulthood, so the problem of too much time in daycare has lifelong impacts that don’t end by age 5 or 10. 

Brain Development Is Key

What is happening that causes these changes? This may be attributed to the fact that babies in daycare experience a lot of stress. They have to wait for caregivers to address their needs because the daycare workers have several babies to take care of. They spend less time in the arms of an adult, and less time being held and comforted contributes to increased cortisol levels. If the baby is stressed like this, day after day, it can result in biological changes. Their brain is now wired for more fight or flight responses and less rational and reasoning. In addition to that, they don’t have firm connections to their caregivers, because there are so many, and they lack the basic skills to help them bond with other humans.  As they grow, that natural response of fight or flight leads to actual fights and less connection to both peers and adults in their lives. This cycle of lack of connection gets worse and worse and these children become bullies and lack friends. 

It Wasn’t Always This Way

Much of Gen X, grew up with parents who were able to afford an extended maternity leave. It wasn’t unusual for mothers to take 5 or more years off from the working world and go back to work when their kids started school.  For the oldest Millennials, mothers started back to work when they started preschool.

As our economy has forced us to rely on two incomes to survive, mothers have had to go back to work earlier and earlier. They need to work longer hours and rely on childcare centers. Unlike generations before us who often were able to leave their kids with grandparents or other relatives, today’s babies are spending huge amounts of time in the care of non-family workers.  I believe this change is part of why older generations did not struggle with the massive issues of bullying and school shootings that are happening today. 

What we need in our society, is to make changes so our babies can have years at home with mothers who are not struggling financially. These aren’t small changes. They are huge changes that won’t be easy to make. 

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About the Author

nimble_asset_Laura-in-floral-shirt-with-treesLaura Sowdon, OTR/L is an occupational therapist, writer, speaker, educator, and creator of the Five Senses Literature Lessons homeschool curriculum. She has worked as an occupational therapist with children in public and private schools, as well as private practice. Laura has taught and managed homeschool co-ops as well as homeschooling her own three children. Laura is dedicated to the idea of educating children at a pace that aligns with brain and physical development milestones and respects neurodiversity in all its forms.

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