Think. Discuss. Act. Troubled Youth

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Review: Lost Boys

Youth Violence

James Garbarino (1999), Lost Boys: Why Our Sons Turn Violent and How We Can Save Them. New York: The Free Press


James Garbarino is an internationally-renowned expert in child development, currently a professor at Loyola University in Chicago. His specialization is the effects of trauma and violence on developing children: he is the sort of person who gets called into warzones to consult with the government on how to provide psychological services in refugee camps. His best-known book, Lost Boys: Why Our Sons Turn Violent and How We Can Save Them, is an exploration of the origins of violence among young men, focusing on the American context of suburban school shootings and urban gang homicides.

Garbarino describes how the origin of violence is cyclical: violence comes from violence, and stimulates more. Ordinarily, young children naturally develop strong attachments to their caregivers, which broaden into constructive relationships with the wider world as the children grow up. However, children whose caregivers are absent, neglectful or abusive never have a chance to develop these initial ties.

Children develop through relational interactions. Garbarino gives the example of a baby’s smile. When an infant smiles at you, you return the smile and infant smiles even broader. These sorts of interactions begin to communicate that you care about the child and that the child can trust you. However, studies have found that if a child smiles and there is never anyone who will smile in response, the child will soon give up on smiling.

Garbarino says that children from neglectful or abusive backgrounds grow up with the understanding that the world is against them. Children who commit violence tend to have very low self-esteem, and a very pessimistic outlook about the future: they often say that life isn’t really worth living, that nothing is very important. They tend to perform poorly in school and in social settings, compounding their low sense of self-worth. They tend to be hypersensitive to negative social cues, quick to take offense and perceive an insult, and oblivious to positive social cues.

Young people who have experienced abuse also learn to be violent through simple imitation. They learn from their abusers that violence is the expected and normal response to a stressful situation.

It might be hard for an adult to imagine how an innocent child can turn into a teenager willing to commit murder, but Garbarino says it’s easy to predict if you know what to look for: “hurt little boys become aggressive big boys” (p. 63).

Violence typically emerges in adolescence, which is a confusing and stressful time for everyone. As Garbarino puts it,

“The confusion lost boys display is to some degree normal; it is the nature of the issues they face that is abnormal. It is one thing to be a fifteen-year-old confused about cheating on a math exam and quite another to be confused about killing someone who threatens you with violence. I can recall the first from my adolescence, but I had no experience with the latter. This is not a demonstration of my moral and developmental superiority but, rather, of the relative social health of my childhood environment” (p. 136).

The public often imagines that violent youth are inhuman monsters, without any sense of morality at all, but Garbarino argues that this is factually inaccurate. The vast majority of violent youth have a highly-developed sense of morality.

Garbarino describes a concept called “the moral circle”. Just about everyone, he says, will say that violence is allowable under certain circumstances: an enemy in wartime, someone who threatens our safety, or perhaps the animals we eat for food. These could be said to be “outside of our moral circle”, meaning that we think it’s moral to use violence against them. Most people’s moral circles, though, include just about everyone in the world. But violent youth, says Garbarino, tend to have very small moral circles. An average person might go their whole lives without meeting someone outside their moral circle, but a gang member might meet such enemies on a regular basis. A youth who feels that the whole world hates him might find that everyone he meets is outside of his moral circle.

However, these young people’s moral circles still function just like everyone else’s. For example, violent youth still tend to look down on people who have smaller moral circles than theirs, just like we do. They may argue that their victims got what they deserved, but will readily condemn the killing of “innocent” people. Even gang members, for example, still think it’s a terrible tragedy when a stray bullet kills an innocent bystander.

Violent youth with small moral circles will justify their violent actions using many of the same arguments that nations use to justify a military act. For example, they will say that they were acting in self-defense, or that they acted in order to pre-empt an attack that they knew was inevitable. Given that they feel they can’t trust the wider world, such youth often feel they have to take matters into their own hands: Garbarino calls this “juvenile vigilantism” (p.109).

When youth have extremely low self-esteem, when respect is in short supply, they are liable to feel that the smallest insult is a huge offense. The most common rationale for violence is that justice must be done, and a youth who grew up under abuse and neglect may feel (in the heat of the moment, at least) that murder is a reasonable response to an insult. The public might respond that this is an extremely unconstructive way to respond to an insult, that it doesn’t solve the problem and creates a much bigger problem. Garbarino, however, argues that to send these young people to jail or to death row—to do violence to them in return—is equally unconstructive. So what should we do instead?

Once we can see that violence is a very common human response to abuse and extreme trauma, Garbarino says, we will have a very different approach to violence prevention. Many observers advocate a “boot camp” response to violent youth, arguing that what they really need is discipline. Garbarino says that the last thing they need is one more person to yell at them. He describes the ideal rehabilitation as a sort of monastic seclusion, emphasizing “contemplation, reflection, service, cooperation, meditation, and peace, instead of confrontation, dominance, and power assertion” (p. 233).

Of course, not all youth who experience abuse and neglect wind up engaging in violence. There are a number of “protective factors” that mitigate the traumatic influence. The most important factor is to have some kind of adult support, whether a parent or a mentor.

Some youth simply learn to cope with the stress. Garbarino insists that this is a skill that can be taught. Young people can learn to understand the effects of their actions, to avoid “mistakes in assessing cause and consequences” (p. 73) and to “think about complex realities and make sense of the world” (p. 165). Young people can learn to take control of their lives, to pursue tangible goals, to feel that their self-worth is defined by their actions and not by the things that happen to them.

Garbarino concludes the book with a series of policy recommendations, as well as an account of the sort of programs that have found to be effective in reducing violence. The most effective programs, he says, whether they target preschoolers or convicts, provide a peaceful and stable environment, with caring and reliable adults who teach the skills required to adapt to a difficult world.

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

  1. How well do the people you know understand the causes of violence? Do you think that most people find it hard to understand the motivations of a violent young person?
  2. Do you think that Garbarino’s account is overly charitable? Why or why not?
  3. Garbarino argues that the solution to violence is to offer a peaceful alternative. Do you think violent youth are likely to accept that alternative, if offered it? What do you think would motivate them to do otherwise?


  1. Youth violence is typically motivated by childhood abuse and neglect.
  2. Violent youth are typically very capable of moral reasoning, but they feel that the whole world is against them.
  3. The most effective response to youth violence is a peaceful, supportive environment.

Peter Bass
© 2019 CYS

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