When children kill

The question of when one can be held to be responsible as an adult is a vexed on in the law. In medieval times, one reached adulthood upon attaining the age of 7. There was no concept of the teenager until recent times.

What happens when children kill? There was a tragic case in the paper today of a 11 year old boy in Britain who was killed in a shooting. The suspects are a 14 year old and an 18 year old. I lived in Manchester at the time that toddler Jamie Bulger was abducted and killed by two 10 year old boys. It was an awful case, and one really wondered what could be done with the two perpetrators. Did they understand the gravity of what they had done? Surely they knew that to hurt another child was wrong, and that to kill another child on purpose was gravely wrong? Should they be treated as adults by the law? If so, would this create very little chance of them rehabilitating and become normal members of society? Could (or should) they be allowed to become normal members of society?

Children should know that such an action is wrong. If a killing is accidental, that’s another thing entirely, but if a killing is premeditated, then I tend to think that it should be treated very seriously. Of course, it does depend on the age somewhat, but I tend to think that children should know that killing another child is wrong from a very early age. It can get confusing when a child sees the world news and sees suicide bombers, wars, violence etc. And then there’s action movies, where the hero kills baddies all the time. Many of the boys in my primary school used to watch the Mad Max movies, and related to me in gory detail how this guy had a metal boomerang which cut peoples’ heads off. As a 10 year old, it freaked me out (which I’m sure was the intention of the boys who told me – nothing better than shocking a girl at that age). But that’s a bit different to killing another child in cold blood, and I’m somewhat wary of hysteria over movies and music being blamed for bad actions.



Filed under children, criminal law, law, morality, society

10 responses to “When children kill

  1. lostinsuburbia

    I think the biggest problem in this issue is that no ones likes to think that children are capable of outright malice, that children wouldn’t do something so horrific as to have a murderous intent without there being some kind of visual/audio/abusive conditioning.

    And then of course there’s the idea that some people are just born bad. (I believe that, I just don’t like the legal implications of the statement, that the kid couldn’t help it because they were born bad…) I do think that’s valid though. That there are people who clearly know right from wrong but choose to do wrong anyway. Children are no exception.

    but how to deal with it within the constraints of the law? I have no idea. You brought up very valid points on rehabilitation. Once in the system, especially at a young age, what hope do they really have or should they really have?

    I wish I had something more constructive to say, something more intelligent than my initial gut reaction. You’ve given me a lot to think about.

  2. I get rather miffed by the way that the law and the media want to pretend that if an offender is just one day short of their 18th birthday they are “children” The scumbags who raped that girl and filmed their crime with their mobile phones come to mind here. If the commit serious crimes they should expect serious consequences. Unfortunately that is very far from what actually happens. If they are old enough to understand the gravity of their actions they are old enough to have the same consequences as an “adult”.

  3. On treating kids as adults within the legal system: If the state deems you old enough to be held accountable (and “punished”) by the state as you are fully responsible for your actions, then you are probably responsible enough to vote.

    If you are not held responsible enough to vote, then the state is only justified in action that removes the threat to others yet remains essentially rehabilitative and without a component that is essentially punitive.

    LE, you raise toughies here. I’m reminded of a kid (a couple of years younger than me) who I grew up with – came from a good family, no patent cognitive problems, from a really nice family (his younger sister was a sweetie), not patently self-destructive (although he committed suicide as a young adult), but he spent a lot of time in “Youth Training Centres”, and even in primary school he was destructive to property, yet was certainly not the worst bully of his year.

    “The System” did not serve well either that boy or society… effectively he was imprisoned as a kid and hardened. Then again, society did need protection from his actions.

    My guess is that with today’s video games that inure one to violence and it’s consequences, things would have been even worse.

  4. GavinM

    Hello LE..

    At the risk of copping some criticism here, I find myself taking the hard line on this one…My 7 y.o. daughter knows the difference between right and wrong, and certainly knows that killing someone is definitely wrong, and, I cannot believe that there would be a 10 y.o. on the planet that doesn’t know it too..

    As far as children who commit serious crime go, yes, I believe the courts should treat them as adults…This also applies to the hoons who throw rocks at cars from road overpasses — once again, I don’t believe that any child doing so doesn’t know that its the wrong thing to do.

    Children aren’t stupid and unfortuneately the system that molly-coddles them the way it does today, combined with lack of discipline at home means that many of these kids know that they can get away with crimes because of their age.

  5. Then there is the whole angle of psychopathy to consider. If the kids are wired wrong along the lines of being psychopaths a whole issue of free will enters the occasion.

    Psychopaths can’t tell right from wrong, are born that way (by nature, not nurtured) and there isn’t a cure (in fact psychotherapy just makes them better liars/manipulators).

    Manditory testing for psychopathy should probably be brought in in these kinds of cases. It wouldn’t surprise me one bit if criminal psychopaths are overrepresented in child-crime, more so than in adult crime (because they tend to become more manipulative with age and hence more able to avoid capture).

  6. pete m

    Video games are fine – they represent nothing more than cartoon characters, like road runner getting squashed by a boulder every 15 seconds.

    I’d be more concerned about your tv and movie watching, where humans are portraying violence, and what the child sees from their home life – eg domestic violence.

    Video games is just a smokescreen.

  7. I must confess to being a fan of computer games. Presently I am addicted to World of Warcraft, and as a night elf, I go around slaughtering members of the Horde. But in real life, I can’t even squash a spider. I agree, PeteM, it is just like a cartoon. I am a tremendous fan of Wile E Coyote and Roadrunner.

    I think you are right – the real concern is when children are exposed to violence in the home environment and think that’s the way life goes, and that extreme violence is a response to frustration.

    Bruce and Dave, interesting points. Yes, you have to be careful not to punish a child too severely so that he or she becomes entrenched as a criminal.

    But I also think Bruce’s point about psychopaths is a good one. During primary school, there was a girl in my class who I now think was a psychopath. She used to enjoy killing animals, and hurting other children, just to see what happened. She was adopted: her adoptive parents were loving people who gave her all she could wish for. But in my opinion there was just something wrong with her wiring. I wonder what tests there are for ascertaining these things?

    I do believe that sometimes someone just has something wrong with the way in which their brain works, so that they have no empathy for others, and they enjoy hurting others. I wonder if these children who kill fall into this category, or whether it’s something out of the ordinary which occurs because of circumstance?

    I know that parents of children who kill often struggle with the question of “what did they do wrong” and could they have done anything differently?

    All thought-provoking comments.

  8. GavinM

    Hello LE..

    It really is a small world, (of warcraft)…I play it too, along with my kids…I have a human Palladin as my main character, and you and PeteM are both absolutely right, it is nothing more than a cartoon..

    So, next time your playing if you see a lvl 70 Pally called BobtheBald…please say hello…

  9. I wonder what tests there are for ascertaining these things?

    Well for a start. put simply there is a test; the PCL-R. The PCL-R also correlates very strongly (as in statistically significant/scientific confidence) with lowered activity in certain regions of the brain.

    I’ll make an addendum to this by also pointing out that certain normal developmental traits, specifically egocentrism (which in a healthy development lessens over time) and subsequent ego motivation can compel a child to do what they know is wrong. Usually this is just stuff like staying up awake late to spite parents and the like, but in cases of personality disorder where ego-motivation is high (eg. narcissism, histrionic personality disorder) things can get more extreme even if the afflicted aren’t psychopaths.

    Some adults of course never get beyond this and I’m not too supportive of adults who use non-permanent personality disorders (like histrionic personality disorder in the non-psychopath) as excuses in any criminal or anti-social conduct because a part of growing up is tackling these types of challenges. They are entitled (IMHO) to support to help overcome these hurdles, but if they don’t try at all, they aren’t entitled to anything including sympathy.

  10. Pam

    I dont believe so much that its about what is right or wrong. I believe that we have laws and rules that govern us as a society/community and if you break the rules there are consequences.
    You can’t say everyone knows what’s right or wrong as I have seen photo’s of children within terrorist encampments holding guns and preparing themselves to bring down supposed evil doers. I have seen documentaries on cults who convince their members that they should kill themselves or others in the name of the lord. So you can’t really say everyone know’s the difference between right and wrong if their right and wrong does’nt match with your own. The only solid way to debate the punishment’s for minor’s is there is a law system and there are consequences for misbehaviour.
    That could cut out the whole did he know right from wrong BS straight off the bat. It wouldnt be did he know what is right and wrong it would be he should have known the rules and if you break the rules you get punished taking into account they get caught.
    It would also cut out the fact that they are mentally impaired and have a gene that makes them prime canditates for phsycotic episodes. If they know what 1 +1= then they should know what dont do that and dont do this means. And if you do, do this and you do, do that this is whats going to happen.
    It doesnt matter if they have narcissistic tendencies because narcsissim doesnt equal stupid.
    My point is we as a society breed this behaviour. Do you really think every parent is concious of there childs comings and goings? Do you think kids are going to be totally upfront with what they get up to during their everyday life? Isnt sex, drugs and the badboy image glamourised in our society today? We have movies where gangstas are glorified because they grew up with poor conditions and wanted something better for themselves and the only way they could do that is if they sold drugs and became good at it and we cheer him on because he finally discovered his dream of having everything he missed out on as a child and he changed for the better. As in he stopped selling drugs and started rapping about hoes and b!tches now he’s just the “man”. We have humanitarians or protestors at the gates of Australian detention centres telling the goverment to let them free without recognizing the fact that these people are illegal and they chose to break a law before they even landed. I understand their are cases where it was life and death but there are people who go through the proper channels and dont get that oppurtunity anymore because a shipload of people just bumped them down the list.We have daytime tv programs with sexual content or even adds on with sexual innuendo and expect our children to not be curious about what all that bumping around under the sheets is or is supposed to mean. We allow criminals to make a mockery of the legal system and then expect to play the righteous to our children. We have laws that allow children to misbehave and the parents are otherwise helpless to stop it. If they raise a hand to spank their child its called abuse. If they yell at their kid its considered emotional abuse. Next minute they are going to say if we look at our children wrong its abuse.We have to many contradictions in our life to play the part of morally correct and claim certain behaviour to be right and wrong. We see homeless people on the street begging and assume they just want money to blow on alcohol so walk right past and then expect our children to show empathy to others. We see a person being verbally abused on public transport or in a public place by wannabe hard@sses and keep our mouth closed for fear they will start on us instead. We preach but do we actually practise what we preach? And through studies done we know children pick up from what we show them. Parents are not the only influences on their childs lives, everyone is so are we all playing our parts.
    Our children go to school 8 hours a day depending on where you live and spend the remaining 3-4 hours a day with their parents and within that amount of time despite the lack of quantity is their honestly a lot of quality to be had? Or are they tired from work and just wanting to get dinner on the table with little fuss and noise? After dinner clean and tidy and sit down for a breather with minimum fuss and noise. Is their enough time to spend quality time with your child and not just to coddle them because you feel guilty over the lack but teach them in detail and by example of the rights and wrongs of the world.
    We have reality tv shows to be on times where minors can watch and even though it doesnt show the sex it does show nasty and manipulative and two faced behaviour which is pretty much an acceptable form of trying to “make it” in the cold harsh world of today. You have judges on the idol series being complete @sses and think oh well thats just him/her and act like its okay for them to be that way and even glamourise the fact that they are atleast upfront and honest.
    Im not a moral avenger I just see no point in debating moral apptitude when kids arent as maleable as back in the day. They have attitude now which is encouraged and then labled as being Self assured. Kids are people and as such should be treated as people and people make mistakes and face what comes thereafter.
    Sorry for the rambling… I tend to go off on tangents when trying to make a point:)
    Last point b4 I go. Parents should also take accountability for what their kids have done because if they didnt have time for their kids beforehand to teach them properly they should have made time. If they were to caught up in themselves theres a price to pay. If they were bought up a certain way and blame it on environment they as well as the community should have found a way to overcome that.

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