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CNN Sunday Morning

Interview With Michael Popkin

Aired August 25, 2002 - 08:49   ET


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: As the new school year begins, teachers and classmates are once again coping with aggressive children. As we all know, that aggression can sometimes explode into violence. But we've also seen some shocking behavior from very shy children. Well, a new study by Harvard and Brandyce (ph) University researchers finds inhibited children are more likely to be violent than their outgoing peers. The study also found some reliable ways to predict violent behavior.
Joining me to talk about these findings is Michael Popkin. He is a parenting specialist and author of the soon to be released book, "Getting Through to Your Kids." Thanks for being with us, Michael.

MICHAEL POPKIN, PARENTING SPECIALIST: You're welcome. Good to be here. And the book's out, by the way.

COOPER: OK, it's been released. What -- basically what does this study say, this Harvard study?

POPKIN: Well, they've looked at what leads -- or how you might predict aggressiveness in kids. They've found a couple things, that one we kind of believed all along, which is that parents that use harsh physical punishments are more likely to have kids that become aggressive. That's something we have known, that parents need to learn ways to discipline and be the leader in the family that isn't overly harsh. I'm not talking about a little pat on the rear ends...


COOPER: And other studies have shown that in the past. But what's the new thing that came out of this one?

POPKIN: What's more unique about this is that they looked at temperament, personality types. And what they found was that kids that tended to be more inhibited personalities, which you might characterize as extreme fearfulness, these are kids that are very anxious about going to school, they tend to be more loners, more isolated, that these kids tend to end up being more aggressive than other personality types. It's the only personality type that they really found could be a predictor of aggressiveness.

COOPER: Well, how do you distinguish between a child who may just be a little bit shy and a child who is inhibited?

POPKIN: That's a good question, because they're not talking about just normal shyness. And we don't want parents to run out and think every time a child is inhibited that means they're going to be aggressive. This is just one predictor, but it's not an exact prediction.

We're talking about kids that, again, are -- the kid that becomes a loner, that's really afraid to go to school, that really doesn't develop the social skills to get along with other kids. And I think very often these kids end up getting picked on. I think that's probably part of the reason they become more aggressive, is they're easy marks for the kids that tend to be more bullies and more aggressive.

COOPER: So really, this study doesn't tell us whether being inhibited is a cause or an effect of violence?

POPKIN: Right. Yeah. It probably goes both ways. There's always the chicken and the egg thing. Kids that tend to be inhibited may get picked on, and they may start feeling like the world's against me, everybody's against me, I'm not going to take it anymore, I'm going to get even, and some of these kids will get even by just, you know, verbally lashing out or physically fighting, in extreme cases. But again, this study can't predict the extreme cases, but you have the kids who do the kind of school shootings that we've all been so horrified of in the past.

COOPER: What's a little bit scary about this study, though, if it's true that inhibited kids can be more prone to violence, is that those are the kids who kind of fly under the radar. It's very easy to pay attention to the kids who are loud and seemingly aggressive...

POPKIN: Right.

COOPER: But the kids who are being quiet often don't get paid attention to.

POPKIN: Right, and I think we're doing a better job now in schools of trying to identify those kids and being more aware of it, because we've seen some of the results of that.

And parents can do that too. If you have got a kid that you know is seemingly more afraid and more fearful, you need to reopen up the lines of communication with that child, really talk to them about what's going on in school, to listen to their feelings, try to validate those feelings, help them see where their thinking is a little distorted, and also give them an opportunity to develop those social skills -- bring friends over, bring other kids over. If you need to get help from a professional psychologist or a counselor to help teach them those social skill and help them learn how to get along, do it. But we're socially embedded people, and we need to learn how to get along, and it's really tough on kids who don't.

COOPER: So the solution is not just grabbing your kid and forcing him to go to a party?

POPKIN: No, that won't work. He'll sit in the corner and be afraid. You may start off by inviting one kid over, and try to help them make friends with one kid in the neighborhood, or a group of -- a small group of kids. And there are, again, social skills groups that sometimes a school counselor will offer in a school, sometimes an outside counselor or psychologist can, but for kids that are extremely inhibited, you know, take those steps that you need to to get them to become more social.

COOPER: Another thing that I found interesting about the study is that it basically said that gender doesn't matter, socioeconomic differences doesn't matter, race, ethnicity doesn't matter in terms of predicting who's going to be violent.

POPKIN: Well, aggressive. They use the term aggressive, and they define "aggressive" including things like insulting other kids, as well as fighting, and hitting, and more violence. So I think when you talk about things such as gender, we know that at the extreme levels of violence, it tends to be still more male-dominated. But if you get just verbal aggressiveness, and some of that kind of aggressiveness, then I think girls are probably as aggressive as boys.

And then it was interesting that race and ethnicity, they don't predict. Socioeconomic doesn't predict. You know, rich kids can be aggressive as well as poor kids.

COOPER: So the bottom line for parents who are listening to this, hearing about this study for the first time, is what? What should they take away?

POPKIN: Well, I think, the first thing, again, is find discipline methods that aren't physically aggressive yourself. You know, there are a lot of other good alternatives to even spanking. You know, spanking is not going to cause aggressiveness, but there are all kinds of good parenting programs and books and other things that can teach you better ways to discipline that does not -- is not as likely to lead to aggressiveness, and then be on the lookout for your kid's temperament style, too. If they tend to be inhibited and fearful, intervene and take some action, open up those lines of communication where you talk to your kids enough to know what's going on with them.

COOPER: All right, Michael Popkin. Thanks. I know it's your daughter's 16th birthday?

POPKIN: Yes, yeah. Happy birthday, Megan. Have a great 16th birthday.

COOPER: Thanks a lot, Michael.

POPKIN: You're welcome, thank you.