What will my child become?
I think that question is pretty much universal among parents. Whether it’s a daily obsession or just an occasional thought, we all take our child’s current characteristics and project them into an imagined future. Will she be happy? Will she be nice? Will she be clever, confident, artistic, musical?
On other days, we worry. Will she be mean? Will she get into drugs? Will she end up neurotic, psychotic, and confined to an institution?
And on our worst days, if you’re anything like me, we wonder if there’s any possibility, no matter how small, that she might grow up to be a serial killer.
It’s not such a crazy question, when you think about it. Every serial killer was once a child; ergo, right now there are children among us who will one day grow up to be serial killers. Children whose parents feed them and bath them and dry their tears and rock them to sleep at night. Children who are innocent and cute and totally harmless. Or rather, who seem to be.
But we reassure ourselves that there are signs – there must be signs. We’d know if our child harboured a darkness within, wouldn’t we? Wouldn’t we?
In the past week, my four-year-old daughter has landed two humdingers that, while making me laugh at the time, have made me wonder in retrospect.
We were in a minibus on the way back from a family Christmas get-together when, apropos of nothing, she suddenly said, ‘Why did the clown cross the road in front of a car?’
‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘Why did the clown cross the road in front of a car?’
‘Because he wanted to die!’ she said, and burst out laughing. To be fair, we all laughed, because it was darkly funny. But it’s not exactly one for the family album.
Then, earlier today, we were watching Swallows and Amazons. When we got to the scene where Uncle Jim shouts at John, I said, ‘What a nasty man.’
‘Yes,’ said my daughter. ‘They should kill him.’
‘Whoa,’ I replied. ‘You don’t think that’s a bit of an overreaction?’
She just shrugged. With the absolutism of a child, the penalty for meanness is death. Yikes. Where does this end?
I’ve always been interested in the ‘red flags’ that might indicate future criminality. It’s perhaps inevitable, given my age: I was 13 when two 10-year-olds murdered the toddler James Bulger, close enough in age to the killers for the case to fascinate and horrify me; likewise, I had just finished school when two high school seniors murdered thirteen of their classmates at Columbine. I remember the media wringing its hands, blaming video games and movies, society and Marilyn Manson, while the man on the street put the blame a little closer to home: on the absent parents and on the killers themselves, evil oiks who should have been drowned at birth. Trying to understand why these things happen is programmed into my psyche.
Given the vast number of crime shows filling the schedules, I’m definitely not alone in wondering what makes someone a monster. Is it innate or learned? Are they born imprinted with the desire to kill, or does something turn them from well-adjusted members of society into stone cold killers? And can we ever identify those among us who might one day become murderers?
Luckily, there are multiple lists of the early characteristics of serial killers available online. Of course, children displaying these behaviours and backgrounds aren’t necessarily going to grow up to be Ed Kemper, but most Ed Kempers have them in some combination.
The big three, the trifecta, the so-called Macdonald Triad, are:
- Bed-wetting after the age of five.
- Cruelty to animals.
If you noticed any of these in your child, I think you’d be worried anyway, regardless of whether or not they’re predictive indicators for serial killing. While the first one is often indicative of child abuse or parental neglect, the three together might make you sit up and take note.
In addition, most serial killers have the following backgrounds:
- Troubled family life with a history of substance abuse and/or psychiatric disorders.
- Child abuse.
- Witnessing extreme violence.
While such things are just as likely to make someone a victim as a killer, these characteristics in combination with arson and animal torture, are hardly things you’d look for in a potential babysitter.
And the more subtle behavioural clues that might predict future problems:
- Antisocial and manipulative behaviour.
True, that seems to describe every child, but the intensity of these three, combined with the previous six, are things to look out for.
Other positive correlations between early behaviours and serial killing are:
- Inappropriate sexual behaviour.
- Substance abuse.
You’ll notice that nowhere in the early signs of serial killers does it say, ‘Makes bad jokes about suicidal clowns’. Phew.
All joking aside, I don’t think my daughter will grow up to be a murderer. She’s kind and sensitive and remarkably well-adjusted for someone with two autistic parents. As a parent, I know my daughter. And that’s why I don’t believe a pair of ten-year-olds could murder a toddler, or a couple of teenagers gun down their classmates, without there being a multitude of red flags that their parents chose not to see.
If you’re wondering if your child is a psychopath, unless they’re fascinated with fire and torturing animals, odds are that they’re not. Nor does having a difficult childhood or watching some bad movies make your child a monster unless they were born with something monstrous inside them. People don’t wake up one day and start murdering – in interpersonal violence there is always a progression, an escalation, from the minor to the major, unless they have a personality-changing bump on the head like Richard Ramirez, John Wayne Gacy, David Berkowitz, Albert Fish and Dennis Rader – which makes head trauma another sign to look out for.
So don’t worry about what your child might become. It’ll probably be worse than you hope and better than you fear.
But if they fit all twelve of the above, you might consider talking to someone, for all our sakes!