What Makes Children Kill?
By Elizabeth Kastor
Children spew out their fury all the time, and adults ignore it or plumb it for meaning or punish it as an act of disrespect, depending on their philosophies of child rearing. They do not, however, think the murderous fantasy will become reality.
But Tuesday, in a schoolyard in Arkansas, it did. Two boys, 11 and 13, now face murder charges, and four little girls and one teacher are dead. Once again, a crack has shot through Americans' collective fantasy of childhood. As forensic psychologists notice a new trend in what they call "juvenile mass murders," children are no longer only to be protected, they are also to be feared.
How does a child do such a thing, become such a thing? What gives birth to a callousness, a deficit of humanity so profound some will call it evil?
"My son talked to me about this case last night," said Charles P. Ewing, a professor of law and psychology at the State University of New York in Buffalo and the author of "Kids Who Kill." His 11-year-old son asked him, "Why? How could this be?" and Ewing believes the boy was expressing not only fear of threats from outside, but from within as well.
"I think he's wondering, 'Could this ever happen to me?' " said Ewing. " 'Could I ever get the idea to do something like this?' "
Children, we like to think, are innocents. We call them tykes, reminisce about our own youths and attempt to ignore the strength of their passions, the many ways they can suffer, the darkness of certain corners within them.
It is so much easier to think the kids are doing okay than to look at them -- and what we are doing to them or not doing for them -- honestly.
Children who kill are "monsters," inexplicable. After years of teenage crime, we have lost patience with adolescents. One Washington-area boy told a reporter he expected violence in high school, but not middle school. We are still shocked by an 11-year-old murderer, but for how long?
Right now, no one -- probably including the boys themselves -- understands what went wrong with 13-year-old Mitchell Johnson and 11-year-old Andrew Golden. Mitchell was known as a bully, but every school has one. Andrew learned to shoot from his father, but countless kids do the same and never hurt anyone.
"You could have a hundred kids and you could put a gun next to each of them, and all of them might be mad at somebody," but not pick up the gun, said Stanton Samenow, an Alexandria psychologist who works with teenagers and adults in the criminal justice system and wrote "Before It's Too Late: Why Some Kids Get Into Trouble and What Parents Can Do About It."
The 100 kids who don't touch the gun would be protected, Samenow said, by an individual and mysterious mixture of morality, fear of consequences, personal responsibility and the ability to control aggressive impulses.
Such internal structures do not disappear overnight just because a girl has rejected a boy (as Mitchell is reported to have told friends happened to him). But neither are they constructed easily.
"The truth is it takes a tremendous amount of work to socialize a small human being," said Shawn Johnston, a forensic psychologist in Sacramento who has conducted more than 6,000 evaluations of adult and juvenile criminals for 15 Northern California counties. "To cultivate a sense of empathy for other human beings, to cultivate a sense of personal responsibility is terribly hard."
To Johnston, the explanation -- and the moral -- of the Arkansas shooting is that, as a culture, America is failing to put in the hard work.
"This is the price we are paying as a society for the number of fathers who have bailed out on their children," he said. "The extent to which fathers have abandoned socializing the young male animal is just mind-boggling.
"There is no question TV violence contributes to this. There's no question the easy availability of guns contributes to this. But the bottom line is the fundamental failure to socialize boys at risk. And the research is absolutely clear that the one human being the most capable of curbing the antisocial aggression of a boy is his biological father." (Mitchell Johnson rarely saw his father, who was divorced from his mother.)
The annual number of murders committed by children under 18 peaked at 3,000 within the past two years, and has begun to drop, according to Ewing, but "while the number has gone down, the nature seems to be getting worse," he said. "We've graduated into the era of juvenile mass murder. You're seeing more violent killings, cases where kids are desecrating victims, more senseless killings, more killings that involve mutilation, that involve sexual acting out towards victims. I think what we're seeing is kids are catching up to adult murderers."
About one-fifth of the kids who kill murder their parents, according to Ewing, and almost all of them have been abused by those parents. A very small number of juvenile murderers are what most people think of as "crazy," disconnected from reality.
Another segment of young murderers doesn't care about right and wrong. "They're antisocial personalities in the making," Ewing said.
And then, a large number of killers "just seem to fall into homicide," he said. With a group of other kids, they get in over their heads, egging each other on, unable to stand back or withdraw. "Kids have almost a synergistic effect when they talk about this kind of thing," he said. "It becomes almost a one-upsmanship thing. That's why I'm so concerned about the accessibility of guns.
"This case, I think, is unprecedented because you have apparent premeditation and deliberation, and youngsters going to great lengths to set up a situation where they could literally target human beings. These are rare cases. Most juvenile homicides are much more spontaneous."
Ewing also sees the violence as a symptom of a larger ill. "To oversimplify it grossly, parents are not doing the jobs they used to do in terms of transmitting values to kids. The slack is being picked up by the entertainment world, whether it's television or movies or rap music or video games."
Samenow has seen children and teenagers who could easily end up committing murders as cruel as the one in Arkansas, or who already have. The Arkansas shooting reminds him of a particular constellation of traits he has observed all too often: The child who seeks to control every situation, who believes life should accommodate his personal desires, who sees other people as objects who exist only to serve his wants and needs, rather than humans who suffer and feel as he does.
What exact combination of chemistry and environment shapes such a creature is not clear. Perhaps some fundamental human attachment has failed to occur early on, or quirks of genetics provoked a taste for thrills and danger. Some studies have shown that violent criminals require a higher level of stimulation to achieve a sense of thrill, of excitement, and the hunger for that leads them into ever-riskier behavior, Johnston said.
"I myself have seen youngsters who, for lack of a better term, I would call incipient sociopaths," Samenow said. "In my great-grandfather's day, everyone would have agreed, 'This boy was born to hang.' Such human beings just exist. We're just fooling ourselves if we don't admit that."
Never, said Ewing, should people ignore a child's statement that he is going to kill someone. But even those who respond often find they have nowhere to turn. "I've had parents call me and say, 'My child is talking about killing me, what should I do?' I give them referrals and they say, 'Been there, done that, called there, six-month waiting list, no appointments available.' Even if you could identify these kids in advance and say, 'Here's a kid heading for trouble,' the system seems to say, 'Let's wait till they get into real trouble, and then we'll throw a million dollars at them."
When his own 11-year-old said he was afraid, Ewing reassured him, told him once again that if he ever sees someone with a gun he should seek adult help, that there are people who will take care of him. But Ewing also repeated the things he has told his children for years, "about how you can think anything you want, thinking is free and no one can get into your head and tell you want to think, but acting on it is a different story."
His son, he believes, understands that.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company