Still working...

Children are Children – Serial Killers were children too

Young Boys Playing Dice by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo: (1675) (Public Domain)

Serial killers were not spawned by aliens, they are not an alien species, nor are they comic book superheroes, or superhumans or AI created monsters in video games – they are ordinary people, they were born and raised by parents – regular people – your neighbours, your family, someone on the School Parents’ Committee…

A word on childhood – an ‘unhappy childhood’ is often cited as an excuse for committing a crime.  Let’s face it, not all children grow up in a meadow of flowers, with frolicking kittens and meteor showers of fairy dust…Some parents are honestly just too busy working to pay attention to their children, especially single Mom’s and I really have so much sympathy for them, but some parents do abuse their children – horribly. 

Are these parents to blame? In a sense … Yes, for they certainly contributed and should not be exonerated BUT, as a child does not have control over his or her circumstances and is powerless against the abuse, once they grow up and become a young adult, they DO have a choice.  A person can either be a blaming passive victim of his / her past, or they can become an autonomous responsible adult – Any adult can decide to say : I am a success, despite my parents”, or“I am a failure because my parents….” Despite or Because. We all come to crossroads in our life and as adults we have choices, and the choices we make have long-term consequences that ripple through many lives. Hurtful acts towards children, negligence, not guiding them to learn consideration, not teaching them extension of gratification of needs, not teaching them to have compassion, indulging their whims and tantrums, may plant the seeds of narcissism or worse, it may become the pieces in the puzzle of the dynamics of a serial killer who one day kills innocent people or the innocent children of other people.  And then they want to hide behind the “because I had a bad childhood” choice and expect leniency when they have deprived others of their choice to live.

Narcissism is currently a big topic in the forum of psychological discussions and research and quite a buzz-word in lay-psychology too.  Selfish, inconsiderate behaviour, with no concern for the pain and discomfort it causes to others – the seeds of these lie either in parents over-indulging their children and playing to their whims, or neglecting their children to such an extent that the child grows up thinking there is a scarcity of resources and he/she needs to ‘look out for number one first’ in order to survive.

How are we raising our children?

I have interviewed and interrogated many serial killers in the course of my job – and what always struck me, was not all of them were abused as children – but they were all neglected – When I asked them what was the most hurtful event they could remember from their childhoods, they did not answer the obvious abuse they had suffered – some were locked in cupboards, burnt with cigarettes on their genitals, raped by deacons, forced to eat dog food – they all answered the most hurtful thing was that their parents had told them they were useless – what are we telling our children?

I am rather concerned sometimes when I observe parents indulging their children, not just by giving them everything they want immediately, but also turning a blind eye to their misbehaving in public places throwing tantrums or just screaming to the annoyance of other people. They often say “Children are just children” – Exactly – they are children, that is why parents have the responsibility to teach them and guide them so they can one day negotiate social complexities. Not teaching a child to be considerate to others, is not doing them any favours.  When they grow up and selfishly demand attention or their needs to be gratified immediately or they do not consider their neighbours,  they are going to wonder why they are not popular with colleagues or friends and they are going to have all sorts of interrelationship difficulties. So a little discipline and good manners when they are still small, even at toddler age,  will go far in guiding children to become considerate happy  adults… and find life partners.

What are we telling our children and what are we teaching our children? True – ‘Children are Children’ so parents can use an incident of misbehaviour as a golden opportunity to guide them. Or are we indulging their tantrums and manipulations? Encouraging self-centered narcissistic behaviour?

‘Children are children’, and most of them can be quite cute and we love them and we will protect them with our lives, but they cannot be allowed to overrule adult common sense. They do not have the cognitive capacity yet to know what is good for them and they cannot make certain executive decisions regarding their lives. Those functions in their brains – the pre-frontal cortex functions of considering long-term consequences of decisions, planning, empathy, etc are not yet functional and generally only mature after the age of 25  – 28. Toddlers cannot differentiate between reality and fantasy – Father Christmas is real and Superman can fly.  Teenagers are notorious for committing acts of stupidity – not taking long-term consequences into consideration, and their medial prefrontal cortex is not yet mature which is why they are so sensitive to rejection, fitting in and peer pressure – and why they kill each other when they are ostracised. An alarming number of children kill other children – just to know what it feels like. Did the parents of these children ever equip them with social skills such as compassion? What kind of role models did they have?

Is the parent allowing the child to manipulate the parent – the adult – to such an extent that the child’s preferences overrule common sense? Children have not yet developed social skills and it is up to the parents and other adults in their communities to teach them.  Children are pleasure-driven by nature. There is a difference between children’s needs and preferences – children need nutritious food to develop their brains and bodies, they prefer sugar and unhealthy easy foods. (Look at the items on ‘kiddies menus’ at restaurants – fish or chicken nuggets, fried chips and fizzy drinks , waffles and sweet deserts – whilst the ‘adult’ menu has real grilled fish, salad, and milk – all nutritious brain foods?)  Children need education, they prefer to play on their phones, tablets and i-pads. No child would voluntary go to the dentist or hospital when they need medical intervention. Indulging children’s manipulative behaviour, has long term social health and mental health consequences. Allowing children to make executive adult choices about their own lives, causes so much anxiety in the child, and these parents are sometimes just plain lazy. Children trust parents to look out for them, to have their best interests at heart, to protect them, to teach and to guide them, to care for them – even if it makes the parent unpopular. 

Dr Rahil Briggs, professor of behavioural sciences at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in an article in Psychology Today said teaching children, already at toddler age to self-regulate their emotions is an important component of positive parenting. This means setting limits by telling them firmly in a calm voice, ‘that behaviour is unacceptable’, showing empathy towards their feelings. Let them express their feelings in words – not negative actions – for example a toddler pointing at water and making whiney sounds – tell them: Use your words: Say May I have water please? Use your words: Tell me what upset you? I am upset when you ignore me / walk too fast….

Using words instead of throwing tantrums, acting out or just screaming to get attention – will result in getting positive attention from adults and other people. Persisting in negative behaviour will alienate them from others who push them away. Children are extremely sensitive to ostracism, but parents not stepping up when their children are a general annoyance to others are setting their children up to be disliked.

Dr Briggs says: “When a child is allowed to negotiate often, they learn this is an effective way to get what they want.  Having consistent rules allows children to feel safe and secure.  If they are allowed to negotiate too often, it sends a message that they – at the age of just two or three – are actually in charge – Talk about anxiety provoking.” Negotiating would be to promise a child a treat in exchange for good behaviour – “if you promise to behave in the supermarket, you will get an ice cream when we get home.”  One little six year old girl would not go to bed at 8 pm if her older teenager sister did not go to bed at the same time.  The six-year old is holding the 14-year old hostage by throwing a tantrum if she does not get her way. The six-year old was manipulating the whole household with her tantrums – what a powerful position for a child too young to handle it and the authority of the parent is undermined in the eyes of the other children.

All serial killers had parents, adult family members, teachers, people with authority in their lives – why did they fall through the cracks? What are we telling our children? Which road to take at the crossroad? There is a folklore belief that ghosts congregate at crossroads. Maybe they do – the ghosts of wrong choices…

That is why is good to have conversations with children, to stimulate those cognitive functions to start thinking and to teach them social skills, to encourage acts of compassion. Good parents talk to them and listen to them and spoil them occasionally and that’s ok, and teach them to read books, and love them, and that is even better and kudus to all the good parents out there doing a good job at the toughest job on earth.

Recommended Posts