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Shantell Thomas stood in front of her son's strawberry-flavored birthday cake, jaw clenched, knuckles white from the ferocious grip she had on the 10-inch carving knife.
A dozen rowdy youngsters behind her pushed toward the cake, jostling Thomas and knocking Styrofoam cups off the table. Jabari, the 1-year-old birthday boy, sat on his aunt's lap nearby and wailed.
Thomas wheeled around and raised the knife. "Back the fff up," she yelled, catching herself before a curse could slip out. "Or I'm 'bout to cut some necks off."
It had been a stressful night for the 18-year-old mother of two, who organized a party for a dozen and then saw 40 show up. Her mom didn't make it, and she was left to run Pin the Tail on the Donkey on her own.
Her outburst was the default reaction for a teenager raised in a home where violence was the accepted way of dealing with frustration. And her struggle represents the challenge of teaching a teenager how to manage the stress of motherhood and break the intergenerational cycle of violence.
Thomas is working to alter her aggressive tendencies, and at the party, help came in the form of Cynthia Brown, her counselor in a parenting program.
"Shantell," said Brown, "maybe we can think about a better way to say that?"
Thomas dropped the knife to hip level and relaxed her shoulders. "OK, OK, back up, everyone," she said, her voice still tense. "Back up!"
Research shows that children raised in violent homes are more likely to be violent themselves, perpetuating a pattern of aggression that has gripped Chicago in recent months. But a growing body of science suggests there are critical stages when interventions can interrupt the cycle. And new findings in brain development, human behavior and economics suggest that early childhood is the most critical and cost-effective time.
If Jabari is to learn alternatives to aggressive behavior, it must be imprinted onto his brain now. To do that, you must start with his mom.