Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Toxic Children: Stop Blaming Parents; It's Genetics

Parents & Children

Children begin by loving their parents; as they grow older they judge them; sometimes they forgive them.
Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

Angry Boy: The clenched fists and steely determination in this blue-eyed boy say much. Not all children are nice. Some of it is a result of environmental factors, but not all. Much of what is often considered bad behaviour is in fact due to genetic influences.
Credit Phillipe Put
Source: InnerSpace

It's long been considered a conventional unassailable truth among social workers, teachers and other child-centred helping professions that all children are born nice, and if they are aggressive, nasty and rude, the problem lies in their environment and in how they have been raised. In essence, it's always the fault of parents. It's part of The Blank Slate (tabula rasa) thinking that Steven Pinker so eloquently takes to task in his book, chiefly opposing the long-held view that all humans start out with a clean slate, and their environment will greatly determine their behaviours, thoughts and life-plan.

It's a nice theory, but as Pinker argued rather persuasively, it has no basis in science. Some children are hard-wired to be nasty, mean and lacking in empathy. An article ("Accepting That Good Parents Might Plant Bad Seeds") in The New York Times, by Dr. Richard A. Friedman, a professor of psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College in Manhattanargues just that point.
Not everyone is going to turn out to be brilliant — any more than everyone will turn out nice and loving. And that is not necessarily because of parental failure or an impoverished environment. It is because everyday character traits, like all human behavior, have hard-wired and genetic components that cannot be molded entirely by the best environment, let alone the best psychotherapists.
“The central pitch of any child psychiatrist now is that the illness is often in the child and that the family responses may aggravate the scene but not wholly create it,” said my colleague Dr. Theodore Shapiro, a child psychiatrist at Weill Cornell Medical College. “The era of ‘there are no bad children, only bad parents’ is gone.”
It might be hard to accept, but we now know more about psychiatric disorders, brain chemistry and genetics, even in children, to say with great certainty that some kids are hard-wired to not display empathy or kindness or love. Yes, there are bad kids, just as there are bad parents. And both children and parents might follow a normal distribution, where in a normal distribution, at the far ends you will find both exceptionally good children and exceptionally bad children, with the great majority falling somewhere in the middle.

A recent study at the University of British Columbia shows that even in babies, infants less than a year old, such behaviours are not necessarily learned, but is part of their biological nature to act in ways that are considered intolerant or in some cases, mean-spirited. The CTV News article ("Babies have a mean streak, want their enemies harmed: study"; March 12, 2013), by Darcy Wintonyk, reports:
A University of B.C.-led psychology study found that infants as young as nine-months-old embrace those who pick on individuals who don’t share their preferences.Study lead author Kiley Hamlin said the findings reveal that babies are constantly busy assessing their surroundings, trying to determine who their friends and enemies are. Hamlin said almost all of the 112 test babies acted the same during testing.
During the study, babies aged nine to 14 months chose a food they preferred to eat, either graham crackers or green beans. The youngsters were then shown a puppet show where the character demonstrated the same food preference as the baby. Another puppet demonstrated the opposite preference.The puppets harmed, helped or acted neutrally towards the puppets with different or similar food preferences.
Results showed that the babies far preferred the puppets who harmed the puppet with the opposite food preferences to their own. One baby even planted a kiss on the puppet she liked.
Now, this study shows that babies prefer others who are like them; it does not necessarily suggest that they will think and act that that way  for the rest of their lives; most will eventually learn socially acceptable behaviour, but some, a small minority, will not. This makes sense, and comes as a welcome relief to the many good and guilty parents, who have accepted blame for things for which they bear no responsibility. As a parent of three children, who fall solidly within the normal range, I know that I have something to say on the matter.

Some children are bad, even horrible, and it has nothing to do with their environment. It's who they are, genetically, as unfortunate and random as that might be, both for them and for those they encounter. But of course it's the parents who suffer the greatest ignominy in a society that generally is quick to see all sorts of evils in parents who have bad kids. It's the result of outdated and unproven theories of social construction that still has many followers, despite having no scientific basis.

So, parents give yourself a needed break; if you have done all you humanly can to raise your children, and they continue to act in ways in opposition to your good ideas, training and wishes, what more can you do? Perhaps you can find a good child psychiatrist, psychologist or therapist who's up-to-date on modern theories that includes neuroscience, evolutionary psychology and neurobiology. It might offer help or at least support the idea that you are not crazy, not a bad parent and, perhaps the most important, not alone. Then wait till they become adults, if you can last that long, and let them loose. See if they fare better left to their own devices.

Toxic children often become toxic adults. So, if as adults such individuals continue to blame parents for their inabilities to succeed, it's a sure sign of immaturity and irresponsibility. Parents have some rights, I would expect. It's time that parents stop accepting blame for all the faults of their children. The fault, undoubtedly, lies elsewhere.


  1. Sometimes I think that God didn't mean people to have children. He gave them neither the strength nor the wisdom to deal with such an overwhelming combination of tasks.

    1. I doubt that God has anything to so with it; parents today have less rights than previous generations and concomitant greater expectations. It's necessary for society-at-large to understand, through modern science, that some children are indeed horrible. It's an ugly reality; but even ugliness in nature says much.

  2. I am not sure that anyone is programmed to be nice or nasty. We know that genetics has a lot to do with temperament, but being quick to anger and low in impulse control is not inherently the same as being Bad. Behavior that qualifies for moral judgments is more complex than simple tendencies. It's time "Nature vs Nurture" was laid to rest. We start out with tendencies that can develop in different ways; it is the interaction between nature and nurture, more than anything else, that makes us who we are.

    1. I agree that both nature and nurture work together, often in some mystrious way, to bring about a personality. Most children, as is the case with most parents, fall within the normal range of a curve.

      There are exceptions, as there are exceptions in nature. Modern science is showing that there are cases where children are hard-wired a certain way that makes them difficult to riase as children, no matter how much parents support and love them. It's hard for society to accept that a tiny percentage of children are nasty, yes, toxic. Whether or not such children can be helped is open to debate. We have to at first admit that such children exist before we can address the problem. Denial is never good.

      see http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/13/health/13mind.html?_r=0

      see http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0061148431?ie=UTF8&tag=wwwviolentkicom&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=0061148431

  3. I would have to agree with you wholeheartedly.
    Chinmay K -


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