Pediatricians Join to Educate Adults to Prevent Violence By And Against Children

By Lois Baker

Release Date: September 29, 1995 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- We've all heard statistics like this: Every 75 minutes a child in the United States is starved, beaten, shot or killed in some violent manner. Sometimes a child does the beating, the shooting, the killing.

A group of Buffalo pediatricians think they have some common-sense suggestions for averting these tragedies, and they are taking their ideas to the streets of Western New York beginning in October -- Child Health Month -- in a physicians' public-health crusade to prevent violence by and against children.

Their message is that children are not born violent. The six-year-old in Modesto, Calif., who recently stabbed her 7-year-old playmate during an argument over Barbie dolls was merely mimicking behavior she sees in her own small world.

"Violent behavior is learned," says Emily Friedan, M.D., chief of the Division of Community Pediatrics in the University at Buffalo Department of Pediatrics. "It can be prevented from the very beginning, and prevention must start with the adults who fill children's lives."

The physicians will fan out into Western New York communities beginning in October, making house calls at churches, PTA meetings and other parents organizations, to hammer home this message. Friedan and pediatricians from The Children's Hospital of Buffalo and the Western New York pediatric community developed their own illustrated lecture, a 14-minute video, plus posters and a variety of self-help pamphlets.

Their campaign targets four specific circumstances that increase the risk of childhood violence -- parents' violent behavior, violence on television, bullying and firearms -- and suggests common-sense ways to avoid them.

"Rather than lament the problem of childhood violence, we wanted to do something very positive," Friedan said. "We wanted to bring solutions to people. We wanted to show parents what they can do in the home that day, so they don't feel powerless."

On parental behavior, their advice is straightforward: Be kind to each other and your child will learn kindness. Don't discipline with physical punishment. Doing so teaches children that the people who love them are the ones most likely to hurt them, that physical force is justified "for a good reason" and that violence is an acceptable way of solving problems.

Aside from parental behavior, the major influence on children in the home is television. The pediatricians quote recent studies showing that children see more violent acts during children's programming (20-25 violent acts per hour) than during prime time shows (8-12 violent acts per hour). Their statistics show that children who watch an average amount of television will have witnessed 100,000 violent acts before they become teen-agers.

"Studies have shown again and again that all forms of violent programming -- realistic shows as well as cartoons -- may have harmful effects on young children," Friedan says. "Heavy television exposure to violence is associated with subsequent aggressive or violent behavior."

The pediatricians advise parents to limit television-watching to two hours a day, or less; keep television out of the child's room; refrain from watching violent adult programs when children are present; monitor other media such as music, video games and VCR movies, and complain to their local television stations and elected officials about the quality of children's programs.

To prevent children from being targets of aggression, the pediatricians recommend these approaches: Explain that a bully's behavior reflects his own problems, and has nothing to do with your child; teach your child that fighting back gives a bully what he wants and can be dangerous, and use role-playing to help your child learn how to react assertively without being aggressive or threatening.

On the subject of gunshot injuries, most of which occur accidentally as a result of an easily accessible handgun in the home, the pediatricians have this advice: Get rid of the gun.

"A firearm kept in the home is 43 times more likely to kill family members or friends than an intruder," Friedan states.

If guns are in the home, they should be empty and locked up away from children or teen-agers at all times, the pediatricians stress. In addition, children should be taught never to touch a gun and to call 911 immediately if they find one. If an adolescent shows signs of depression or impulsive behavior, firearms should be removed from the house. Depressed teens commit suicide with guns more than any other method, Friedan says.

The pediatricians eventually will set up their video and materials in Western New York malls, in their offices and any other location that offers the chance to get their message to adults.

"We want to encourage parents to develop a belief system of nonviolence," she said. "If violence is already a part of their lives, we will encourage them to change. For people currently at risk of being harmed or harming others, we will provide a list of places they can go for help."