Dictionaries remind us that the word “vandalism” comes from fear of the wanton destruction wreaked by the barbarian Vandals during the dark ages. The word refers to malicious or ignorant destruction or damage to public or private property, especially that which is beautiful, artistic, or holy.
Throwing eggs or tomatoes at houses, damaging mail boxes, leaving names or signs by cutting into glass windows or doorways, and spray painting may be forms of milder vandalism. Vandalism becomes more serious when it is disrespectful of the dead and their families in the defacement of tombstones, when it risks injury such as throwing stones off highway bridges, or when it is an expression of hate crimes against synagogues, temples, or churches.
In 1997 Boston youth developed a twisted version of the basketball game, H-O-R-S-E. Participants in the original game pick up a letter every time they miss a basket. According to Ric Kahn (The Boston Globe, [1997, April 22], p. B4), kids in some neighborhoods of the city in Roxbury thought up a more exciting and dangerous variation by throwing rocks at moving car windows. It’s called “Break the Window.” One person takes a shot with a rock at a moving car or window, then another one takes a shot. Extra points are awarded if you hit a cab or a cop car…truck or bus. It’s what some kids do to pass the time.
How would you confront children playing this game? How would they explain themselves? One 10-year-old participant named David, sitting on a swing in Madison Park Village near a site where a woman was recently seriously injured, said, ” ‘It’s a game…it’s fun.’ ” When he was a year younger, David bragged, he had hit a woman riding in a blue car. Did he worry about her; did he think he had done wrong? ” ‘It wasn’t my problem,’ ” the young fourth-grader shrugged. His mother found out about it and forbid him from watching television for a month. The game started when his friends dared, then threatened him, into playing the game: ” ‘It’s do or die. If you don’t do it, they beat you down.’ “
In 1996 Siobhan Fegan left violence in Derry, Ireland to find employment in Boston. Early on April 20, 1997, Fegan and her roommate Martine Goldrick, were returning from an Irish pub to their apartment in South Boston when a rock was thrown. Smashing the rear window of their cab, the driver and Martine thought it was a gun shot. Fegan slumped unconscious, blood pouring from her head. The driver rushed to Beth Israel Hospital where Fegan was placed in intensive care.
Lee, a 12-year-old who has played, explained “Break the Window” as a violent game of tag. Kids try to get drivers to chase them as they vanish in the neighborhood. John, a 15-year-old, hinted that the violent game is a rite a passage among 10-16 year-olds and cited peer pressure as forcing him into the activity when he was 10.
There appear to be varied motives behind vandalism. Kids who are bored are more likely to engage in more vandalism than those who are busy with school work, sports, service projects, scouting, and happy family life. That is not to say, however, that a young person might not have a fulfilling life and still engage in senseless vandalism.
Childhood and youth is a time to test rules and one’s ability, and to risk getting caught. Vandalism may be also the product of peer pressure; friends try to convince others to try something they either fear doing alone or think will be more fun in a group. Vandalism may be a way to express creativity and skill not being appreciated by adult society.
Vandalism is often a form of negative, acting-out behavior. Personal or collective anger against family, adult authority figures, society at large, or some religious or ethnic group are attacked to express inner frustration or rage. From the neglected and overprotected to the disadvantaged, from the pampered to the unloved, a young person may blow off steam through petty or serious strikes against individuals, families, ethnic or religious groups, a city or a country. Angry kids may enjoy seeing adults get angry.
Rules, laws, and punishments are necessary, but are not the most effective deterrents to serious vandalism. Through relationships with groups and individual young people, youth workers can hear the frustrations, provide rites of passage and excitement with instruction and better means to find adventure, and release the unbounding energies of childhood and adolescence.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
In what kind of violence or vandalism have you or your friends ever engaged? What motives led to such behavior?
Precisely how do children see vandalism differently than adults?
What impresses you most about this article? What most confuses you? With whom and how would you like to discuss this article? What issues would you raise, and how could the discussion be most effective?
How would you handle vandalism in your own children? What policies would you suggest against vandalism in your town or city?
What might youth leaders do to prevent or to deal with vandalism in young people you know?
Vandalism implies a lack of self-respect and fulfillment. It also demonstrates lack of respect for community property or even human life. Adults must take responsibility for missing opportunities to infuse these values and characteristics in the younger generation.
To the extent that vandalism implies a lack of opportunity, we ought to create chances for children and young people to find excitement, to test their skills and creativity, to feel a real part of the community, and to serve the common good.