I have often been asked whether it is possible to identify early in life the precursors of criminal behavior. Everyone is for prevention just as they are for motherhood and the flag. We try to identify early signs of learning disabilities, physical handicaps, psychological problems, and so forth. So why not try to identify budding criminals before they become a one man or one woman walking crime wave?
Contrary to an article that appeared many years ago, I cannot predict whether a toddler will become a criminal. However, it is possible to identify patterns that expand and identify over time. We cannot say with certainty that these are harbingers of criminal behavior. But why wait to find out?
Take lying as an example. Little kids lie. Adults lie. A child knocks over a glass of milk and claims that the cat did it.
Nothing unusual here. However, I submit there is a difference between a youngster (or an adult) who tells an occasional lie to save embarrassment or to protect someone from harm and the individual who lies increasingly as a way of life. Most children learn that lying is something that is "bad". They learn to value honesty for several reasons. It is rewarded; lying is punished. They don't like it when others lie to them. They internalize eventually a sense of what is the right thing to do -- telling the truth becomes an integral part of conscience development. The child who later becomes antisocial increasingly lies. The lies of omission and lies of commission increase. He lies to cover up wrongdoing, and he lies to get out of a jam into which he has gotten himself. He may lie for the sake of lying, even when there appears to be no purpose. Lying becomes exciting, a way to preserve a view of himself as special because he can pull the wool over the eyes of others and, to his way of thinking, make fools of them.
The point is that we don't want to overreact to a young child telling a fib. However, we certainly would be concerned if lying increasingly became a pattern over time.
There are other thinking patterns that we all share to some degree. However, when we see these expanding and intensifying in a child, this spells trouble. So we cannot predict with great accuracy who will become a criminal. But we should do our best to recognize at an early age thinking patterns that give rise to injury to others.
Early identification of thought processes and consequent behavior that lead to antisocial behavior is the subject of my book "Before It's Too Late." In the next Concept of the Month, I shall discuss several additional patterns.
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