I was asked recently whether or not I could identify a psychopathic child, and I can unequivocally say that, no, I cannot. I am very certain about this from both a scientific standpoint, but also anecdotally in my own experience with children.
I have never wanted children. I lack the mothering inclination, and when I was younger I can say that without a doubt I didn’t have the patience for it. Self focus has been how I have lived my life, and with children, you have to put them first. That’s not something I was willing to do, so obviously, no children.
However, that does not mean that children don’t like me. They do, and sometimes to an obnoxious point, such as strange children climbing into my lap without any warning, or following me around wherever I go.
One child in particular, a little girl about four liked me so much that she would just stick to me like glue, and oddly I happened to like her as well. This little girl like horror movies… a lot. Especially those with Japanese ghosts in them. You know the sort? They aren’t like ghosts in the West that can be defeated in some way or another. Japanese ghosts are coming for you, even if you get on a plane and head across the ocean. They always win.
Don’t mess with Japanese ghosts, just leave them alone, and don’t get their attention… at least that’s how it is in their movies. Anyway, she loved movies like this, and would imitate the sound that the ghost from, “The Grudge” makes. If you have seen any of the iterations of this film, you know exactly what I am talking about. Those of you that haven’t seen it, or just those looking for great background noise for outside your house this Halloween, here is twelve straight hours of exactly that sound.
This little girl did exactly that noise. She had listened to it so often that she could mimic it perfectly. Horror movies held no fear for her at all. Now, if I were to think to myself, “
This little girl likes me, she doesn’t feel fear even according to her own parents, and she thinks horror movies are fun… Hm. Maybe she’s a psychopath.”
I would have found out later on how wrong I was. I didn’t see her for several months, and when I did, of course she had grown, but her brain had changed as well. Horror movies all of a sudden terrified her. She didn’t want to hear that sound, and she certainly wasn’t about to imitate it.
Her parents, who you can question their judgement all you like when it comes to allowing their four year old to watch horror movies like, “The Grudge,” said it was a sudden change. They said the she liked them fine one day, and then the next time she saw a movie that she had seen previously, her fear kicked in.
There are many things that you might see in a child that is quite reminiscent of psychopathy, but that really means nothing. Just as I had no idea how much that little girl would change over the course of a few months, you have no idea how much any child might shift their thinking and behavior.
No one suspected that I was psychopathic when I was a child. Just a massive handful that could not be contained in my whirling way of engaging the world. All the things that I did, lying, stealing, punishment immunity, etc, can be seen in many children for many reasons, the most common among them of course being their brain development, and the least common would be something like psychopathy.
It is important to not apply very adult labels to children that are not mini adults, but children with underdeveloped brains that start off in a very selfish way of thinking. Children are excessively self interested. They are born that way for the sake of survival. Whatever kindness that they develop will be unique to them, and in the beginning, a stark contrast to who they are in their first months of life.
You come into the world with a lot of demands. If you didn’t, you would die. You urgently remind people around you that you require care, and most of the time those needs are met. You change as you grow, both based around the environment that you are in, but also as well as your brain changes and begins processing new information. When you start, the world is focused on you in your mind, and as you age, the acceptance that the world is far larger that what is assumed as a child shifts that self focus to a degree.
This process happens with all children, psychopaths and neurotypicals alike, and you cannot differentiate between them based on how a child responds to the world when they are young. You have to wait until that brain qualifies as an adult brain, and then can consider their childhood in retrospect.
Even understanding how my brain works, and how it functions, I can’t recognize it in a child that has decades of development left to undergo, and identifying it in a child wouldn’t necessarily be particularly helpful either. What is helpful is meeting that child where they are, and working with those things that make them unique. Maybe not exposing them to horror movies when they are four, just because a child doesn’t yet experience fear, that does not mean that they won’t later on, but you get what I mean.
My parents had to approach me in ways that were atypical, as that was they only thing that worked. There were definitely things that they did that helped me be who I am now. That early work was crucial to the foundations that I rely on for existing in this world.
One, they taught me delay of gratification. It took a long time of course and I was constantly looking for a route to the end game that cut out the work involved, but they were dogged in their determination.
Two, they were heavily invested in the idea of responsibility. They made sure that if a task was undertaken, it was followed through on. They gave me many chores, and if I wanted to have privileges, I had to attend to them. Due to that I keep a clean house now, I know how to cook, and I am self policing. The last one, self policing, is the most important.
They instilled in me a sense of do what you need to do before what you want to do. It would have been very easy to give into my tantrums, and I had horrific tantrums when it got me what I wanted, but they refused. I had to learn alternative methods. Psychopathy is a lot like completing an electric circuit. We find the path of the least resistance and take it. They made the responsible way, the path of least resistance.
Also, they learned quickly that I was punishment immune but extremely reward motivated. That saved them even more grief that they dealt with. They could get me to perform miracles of behavior with rewards, while punishing me was just giving me time to think of how to do something better next time.
I think about the environment that a lot of children are being raised in, heavily permissive environments, being given everything, and never having to work. This would have been the worst case scenario with me, save for if I had had an abusive family. If I hadn’t learned behavioral restraints, delay of gratification, responsibility, and the ability to require of myself, I would be a nightmare now.
The weak restraints that I have in my brain from doing things needs stop gaps. This has to be taught at an early age. I can’t imagine what the psychopaths of this generation are going to be like.
They never tried to apply a label to me though. It wouldn’t have done anything to help the situation anyway. It can limit a child dramatically from growing into who they could be, as psychopathy as a label comes with a lot of negative stereotypes that many parents would struggle to overcome.
It also would function as a built in excuse. Trust me, you did not want me knowing when I was little that I was psychopathic, and what that meant. I would have used that to my advantage in ways you can’t even imagine. I would always have something to duck behind and point to as my reasoning for actions, and I definitely would have done it.
There is a growing movement in the research field to identify psychopathy in young children. I disagree with this notions entirely, for the reasons that I have listed, but also because it isn’t beneficial to anyone involved. It opens the door the eugenics minded people, and that isn’t good for any aspect of our society.
Psychopathy can be identified in adults, and adults alone. Let us, as a society, keep it that way.