Journal Issue: Children, Youth, and Gun Violence Volume 12 Number 2 Summer/Fall 2002
Working with Children (1/3)
Although the appropriate target of interventions designed to protect young children is the parent, the focus may change in later years when the child is less likely to be supervised. Like programs for parents, however, approaches directed toward children have not met with great success. Many factors contribute to the difficulty of convincing children to change their behavior and make it unlikely that counseling children to stay away from firearms will succeed.
Challenges in Working with Children
General injury and violence prevention research may help explain why behavioral programs targeted at children are rarely successful. Gender differences between boys and girls, cognitive immaturity among children, and an inability to apply lessons learned in a classroom all play roles in undermining the receptiveness of children to behavioral programs.
Multiple studies indicate that boys are at greater risk than girls for both injury and violence. Differences between the sexes in injury rates begin to emerge around age three and increase thereafter.26 Researchers have concluded that boys seem "especially drawn to the items that could result in injury,"45 and are more likely to incur most types of outdoor play injuries, including falls, drownings, burns, and bicycle accidents than are girls.46 A study of the behavior of children around firearms also revealed that boys also are more likely than girls to play with a gun.47
The reasons why boys are at greater risk for injury present some obstacles to developing programs to prevent firearm injury. Compared to girls, boys tend to be more confident in their abilities and less fearful of injury.48 Furthermore, boys rate potentially dangerous situations differently than do girls.49 When appraising dangerous situations, girls ask themselves, "Will I get hurt?" Boys ask themselves, "How badly will I get hurt?"50 Boys are more likely than girls to believe that they will not get hurt when engaging in risky behaviors, more likely to rate the potential injury severity as low, and more likely to attribute actual injury outcomes to bad luck than to their own behaviors.51 These differing thought processes lead girls, but not boys, to avoid situations in which they have received a minor injury; boys are more likely than girls to repeat behaviors that have previously led to injury.52 Interestingly, although parents accurately consider their boys to be at greater risk for injury than their girls,46 they nonetheless give their boys more independence, supervise them less closely,17,46 and even encourage their risk-taking behavior.46
The cognitive immaturity of children presents another challenge for designing effective behavioral programs to reduce gun-related injuries. Young children up through elementary school have difficulty making probability judgments (such as, "How likely is it that I will get hurt?"), and even more difficulty thinking carefully in ambiguous or uncertain situations.17 They are less able than older children to identify hazardous situations, and when they do, they react slowly and have difficulty thinking of ways to keep themselves safe.48 Children need to be able to make causal connections to determine if a situation or object is safe or unsafe (such as "fire causes burns"). Although preschool children can sometimes identify safe and unsafe situations, they have difficulty identifying the factors that may prevent an effect from occurring.51–53
For all of these reasons, injury prevention is a difficult concept for preschool and elementary school-age children. Safety education programs for young children should therefore include activities that help them develop an ability to understand causal relationships and preventative actions.52 Though its effectiveness has not been evaluated, a good example of this type of activity can be found at the Web site of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence (http://www.bradycenter.org/clarence/). As part of its STOP 2 program for physician-led counseling, the Brady Center has created an interactive storyboard in which children help "Clarence" make decisions about guns. Through the use of this program, children can make decisions (including poor ones) and observe the consequences.
Older children are more adept at quickly identifying hazardous situations and understanding the concept of prevention. However, older children also are at risk for engaging in dangerous behaviors for a number of reasons. They have decreased perceptions of vulnerability to injury, for example.48 Even when adolescents clearly recognize certain activities as dangerous (such as drinking and driving), they underestimate the danger to themselves personally and fail to take precautions.54 Therefore, children who handle a firearm once without incident may perceive the activity as safe and themselves as invulnerable to injury. Older children also are likely to experience peer pressure to act unafraid and to behave recklessly,17 factors which place them at risk for injury.
Inability to Apply Lessons Learned
A final obstacle to working with children is their inability to hypothesize about situations that they have never experienced or that they have experienced only in an artificial setting.51 According to researchers at the University of Delaware, "The child who is competent at risk appraisal in a laboratory assessment may not behave competently on the street, on a playground, or in an empty house."17 Moreover, curiosity is often strong enough to overcome a child's ability to think clearly or to draw on already-acquired coping strategies,17 even when the child has previously demonstrated safe behavior in similar situations.