In February, an 11-year-old boy in Pennsylvania shot his father's pregnant girlfriend in the head as she slept. Then he headed off to catch his school bus. Was he born bad?
Some kids inherit an extremely fearless temperament that can be detected soon after birth, says Paul Frick, a psychologist at the University of New Orleans who studies children with severe behavioral problems. They seek danger and show no conscience, lacking empathy and guilt. They respond unemotionally to negative events—such as punishment or the distress of others—and they use people for their own gain. Imagine a child tormenting a peer despite repeated scolding, or coolly severing the tail of a shrieking cat just to see what will happen.
Most risk factors for future problem behavior can be assessed before birth—such as having a mother who smoked during pregnancy, coming from a dysfunctional family, or having parents with a history of antisocial behavior, says Richard Tremblay, a psychologist at the University of Montreal who studies violent behavior in children.