Crime Prevention

Nursery Crimes

The following article was published in the January 2001 edition of the magazine "Relational Justice"

Author George Hosking argues that healthy relationships between parents and babies are key to reducing violence


Violence in the U.K. is growing rapidly. A rising proportion of crimes are violent crimes, up from 1.3% in 1950 to 5.6% in 1997. Every week three to four children in Britain die at their parents’ hands. There are many causes of violence but the deepest roots lie in the family and begin early. This is of great relevance to Relational Justice. Putting relationships at the heart of justice forces us to consider the different ways in which dysfunctional families create antisocial tendency and how the breakdown of relationships in wider society translates this antisocial tendency into actual offending behaviour.1 In this article, I consider specifically how a breakdown in the relationship between parents and babies can ‘hardwire’ antisocial and aggressive children who later turn to crime and abusive behaviour. The evidence is crucial to informing a relational policy agenda. If it is true that a major cause of violence is early life experience in the family and that a principal method of instilling violence is parental discipline, it follows that a priority for corrective action should be to improve parenting skills, especially for parents of the very young.

There are many causes of violence including; a disrupted upbringing, situational stress, economic inequality, extreme poverty, unemployment, social isolation, overcrowding, poor housing, a culture of violence, genetics triggered by environment, diet, alcohol, the availability of firearms and a lack of moral or spiritual teaching. Amongst these factors one predictor of future violence stands out and that is harsh family discipline. A plethora of studies indicate that harsh or explosive discipline leads to violence and criminality in children2 and that discipline styles typically run in families over many generations.3

Pathways to Crime

The early years are of critical importance to the child’s later social development. Pathways to crime are often laid down by ages two or three. The result can be aggressive personalities for life because studies consistently show that aggression and violence are stable character traits. The earlier aggression is established, the worse the long-term outcome tends to be. Male aggressive behaviour is highly stable as early as age two. In boys, the stability of aggression increases from middle childhood to adolescence. Children who are hard to manage at age 3 show a strong continuity of behavioural problems at ages 6, 9 and 13. Indeed, serious antisocial behaviour is highly resistant to change in school-age children and adolescents.4

Although antisocial tendency is a stable construct, its social expression varies with age. At age two the antisocial child typically displays poor temperament and low empathy; at age eight conduct disorder and cruelty to animals, gravitating to shoplifting at age twelve. The antisocial offender typically commits burglary at age 15; robbery and violence at age 20 with a pattern of spouse abuse, child abuse and alcoholism occurring in the 20s and 30s.5 Farrington and West’s seminal Cambridge Study in Delinquent Development, a prospective study of South London males from ages 8 – 32, found that adult offending could be predicted in childhood. "Antisocial children grow up to become antisocial adults who go on to raise antisocial children." 6 Aggressive behaviour at age 8 predicts, at age 30: criminal behaviour, arrests, convictions, traffic offences (especially drunk driving), spouse abuse and punitiveness to own children.7

This overall picture is confirmed by the Dunedin study which followed a cohort of children born in 1972 through until age 21. At the age of three, nurses were able to identify an ‘at risk’ group of males and these were compared with the rest of the group at age 21. Compared to the lower risk group it was found that the ‘at risk’ group had more than twice as many people with two or more criminal convictions and three times as many people with antisocial personality. Moreover, over half (55%) of the at-risk group had committed violent offences compared to nearly a fifth (18%) of the others, whose crimes were much milder. Those of the ‘at risk’ group included robbery, rape and homicide. Furthermore, nearly half of the at-risk group (47%) abused their partners, compared to nearly a tenth (9.5%) of the others. The authors conclude: "Immature mothers with no strong parenting skills, and violent partners, have already borne the next generation of ‘at risk’ children."8

Sculpting the Infant Brain

Understanding the infant brain reveals why. Recent neurological research suggests that an infant’s brain may be permanently altered if the child is brought up in an environment where it experiences intense stress, emotional neglect, chronic parental depression and abuse. At birth there are 100 billion neurons (brain cells) and 50 trillion synapses (connections). By age three, remarkably, the number of synapses increases to 1,000 trillion. This is too large a number to be specified by genes alone and it is thought that the new synapses are formed by experience.9 Flexibility in sculpting the infant brain has enormous survival value and enables the infant to adapt to its environment.10 Certainly, infants are very sensitive to environmental experience. They have an innate drive to learn and they actively seek out human faces within half an hour of birth. Synapses are also ‘hard-wired’ or protected by repeated use, which implies very rapid learning via early life experience. It also makes the learned behaviour resistant to change.

Significantly, there are critical windows of time during which learning takes place and the brain hones particular skills or functions. The size of the window is different depending on the skill. In babies, synapse formation in the visual cortex peaks at three months and is finished at age two whilst an infant’s auditory map is formed by twelve months. If the chance to practice a skill is missed during the window, a child may either never learn it, or its learning may be impaired.11 The window for emotional development may occur from eight to 18 months and is shaped by a mother’s interaction style. The wrong style can have disastrous results.

Emotional Deficit

In primates, neuro-endocrine systems are ‘tuned’ by caregiver-infant interaction. Such systems emerge as a result of ‘give and take’ between mother and child. Babies become socially dysfunctional if mothers are unresponsive to their needs.12 Human babies thrive on warm, responsive, early care. Premature babies who are touched and held on a regular basis gain weight more quickly, make greater gains in head circumference and show greater overall improvement. Infants that receive early care experience fewer behavioural problems at elementary school. They also have higher ‘emotional intelligence’, that is a higher emotional self-awareness and the ability to identify their feelings. Their interaction with others tends to be positive, healthy, mutually productive and crucially, non-violent. Emotional development begins at home in the process of ‘attunement’ with the parent. Attunement is where the parent and child are emotionally functioning in tune with each other and where the child learns from the parent that its emotional needs for love, acceptance and security are met and reciprocated. Alan Schore, following a ten-year immersion in thousands of scientific papers in neurobiology, psychology and infant development, concludes: "The child’s first relationship, the one with the mother, acts as a template… [it] permanently moulds the individual’s capacity to enter into all later emotional relationships. "13

By contrast, failure to meet the baby’s needs for love, belonging, empathy, acceptance and security results in emotional deficits and ‘mis-tuned’ babies.14 Maternal depression impedes brain development15 whilst maternal hostility and abuse at three and a half years of age predict aggression in elementary school.16 Infants of severely depressed mothers show reduced left lobe activity (associated with being happy, joyful or interested) and increased right lobe activity (associated with negative feelings).17 These emotional deficits become harder to overcome once the crucial ‘window’ has passed.

Studies have found that low maternal responsiveness at 10-12 months predicts aggression, non-compliance and temper tantrums at eighteen months, lower compliance, attention getting and hitting at two years; problems with other children at three years and fighting and stealing at six years.18 Interestingly, low maternal responsiveness at eighteen months did not seem to have this effect.19 This is consistent with the hypothesis that there are ‘windows’ for emotional development and that the timing of the deprivation is important.

Incubated in Terror

In this way, it seems as though the seeds of violence may be sown during nine months’ gestation and the first two years of life. Babies who do not receive the positive stimuli that make them feel securely cared for and safe in attaching themselves to their mother or primary carer effectively end up with a skewed control-panel in their brains. Babies brought up in violent families are incubated in terror and their brains may be permanently damaged. The brains of abused children are significantly smaller than those of non-abused children. The limbic system (which governs emotions) is 20-30% smaller and tends to have fewer synapses. Similarly, the hippocampus (responsible for memory) is also smaller in abused children. There is also increased activity in the locus coeruleus (responsible for hair-trigger alert), as one might expect in violent families.20

This has significant implications for the level of violent crime in society. A baby that is healthily attached to its carer can regulate its emotions as it grows older because the cortex, the part of the brain that exercises rational thought and control, has developed properly. But in the case of the child whose life has been badly impacted, the cortex is underdeveloped. The damaged child lacks an ‘emotional guardian’. The result is unlocked violence in many people that emerges as domestic violence and child abuse in later life.

The Need for Early Intervention

How do we alter the disposition of children whose lives are being primed in the nursery for future violent behaviour? A key step in achieving this goal is to improve parenting, especially among the very young in ‘at risk’ families. Parent training can reverse the damage and very early intervention can prevent it. Early intervention in parent-child interaction is the most effective: for example, in the first year of the first child when parental behaviour has not yet been established. Craig Ramey of the University of Alabama sums up the research literature: "The results are clear: to make a difference, you have to intervene early."21 Changes in parental discipline can lead to significant reductions in antisocial behaviour. Studies have found reduced conflict and child irritability when mothers are trained to respond appropriately to infant cues22 whilst others report dramatic reductions in child neglect, abuse, pregnancies and maternal arrests following home visits for ‘at risk’ mothers.23 Parent training is highly cost-effective according to a study by the Rand corporation24 whilst Browne and Herbert conclude: "parent training programmes are our main hope… in families with highly aggressive children."25 Something can be done to prevent the lifelong damage inflicted in babyhood. My hope is that the framework of Relational Justice will help us to take collective responsibility for caring about the circumstances that predispose children to delinquency.


Biographical Note

George Hosking is an economist, psychologist and clinical criminologist. He works for Worldwide Alternatives to ViolencE (WAVE) which is dedicated to understanding and preventing the root causes of violence.


Stand-out Quotes:

"There are many causes of violence but the deepest roots lie in the family and begin early."

"Synapses are ‘hard-wired’ by repeated use, which implies very rapid learning via early life experience."

"There is unlocked violence in many people which comes out as domestic violence and child abuse in later life."

"Negative stimuli effectively gives babies a skewed control-panel in the brain."

"Mistuned babies are more likely to display aggression and temper tantrums, start fights with other children, kill and be cruel to animals and have behaviour problems."

"The damaged child lacks an ‘emotional guardian.’"



1 For a review of the literature from a Relational Justice perspective see J. Burnside. 1993. The Relational Causes of Crime. Cambridge: Relationships Foundation.

2 See, for example, D. P. Farrington. 1991. ‘Childhood aggression and adult violence: early precursors and later-life outcomes." In D. J. Pepler and K. H. Rubin (eds.). The development and treatment of childhood aggression. Erlbaum: Hillsdale, NJ. 5-29.

3 Buchanan, A. 1996. Cycles of Child Maltreatment: Facts, Fallacies and Interventions. Wiley: Chichester.

4 Ibid.

5 R. Loeber and D. P. Farrington. 1997. ‘Strategies and yields of longitudinal studies on antisocial behaviour.��� In D. M. Stoff et al. (eds.) Handbook of Antisocial Behaviour. Wiley: New York.

6 Farrington 1991, op. cit.

7 R. R. Huesmann et al. 1984. ‘The stability of aggression over time and generations.’ Developmental Psychology 20:1120-1134.

8 A. Caspi et al 1996. ‘Behavioural observations at age 3 years predict adult psychiatric disorders.’ Archives of General Psychiatry 53: 1033-1039. American Medical Association.

9 R. Shore. 1997. Rethinking the brain: new insights into early development. The Families and Work Institute: New York.

10 Shore, op. cit.

11 Shore, op. cit.

12 G. W. Kraemer. 1992. ‘A psychobiological theory of attachment.’ Behavioural and brain sciences. 15(3): 511.

13 A. N. Schore. 2000. ‘Attachment and the regulation of the right brain.’ Attachment and Human Development 2(1).

14 M. R. Gunnar. 1996. ‘Quality of care and the buffering of stress physiology.’ University of Minnesota Institute of Child Development.

15 Shore, op. cit.

16 D. S. Shaw and E. B. Winslow. 1997. ‘Precursors and correlates of antisocial behaviour from infancy to preschool.’ In D. M. Stoff et al., op. cit.

17 Dawson et al. Cited in Shore, op. cit.

18 Shaw and Winslow, op. cit.

19 J. Martin. 1981. ‘A longitudinal study of the consequences of early mother-infant interaction: a microanalytic approach.’ Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development. 46.

20 Shaw and Winslow, op. cit.

21 C. T. Ramey and S. Landesman Ramey. 1992. Cited in Shore, op. cit.

22 D. C. van den Boom. 1995. ‘Do first-year intervention effects endure?’ Child Development 66: 1798-1816.

23 D. L. Olds et al. 1997. ‘Long-term effects of home visitation on maternal life course and child abuse and neglect.’ Journal of the American Medical Association 278: 637-643.

24 P. W. Greenwood et al. 1996. Diverting Children From A Life of Crime: Measuring costs and benefits. Rand: California.

25 K. D. Browne and M. Herbert. 1997. Preventing Family Violence. Wiley: Chichester.

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