Child Myths

Straight talk about child development.

When is Bad Behavior Really BAD?

Do children who steal usually grow up to be thieves?

The pediatrician Perri Klass recently commented in the New York Times on parents' worried when a child steals something ("Stealing in Childhood Does Not A Criminal Make", Aug. 11, D5). As Klass pointed out, it is pretty common for children in preschool or the early school years to swipe things that don't belong to them. I certainly remember when one of my sons dreidl-napped his school friend's dreidl, which I found in his pocket at laundry time (before it was washed, fortunately). I also remember my concern when quarters I had put aside for the parking meter turned up in the other son's room.

I agree now-- and agreed back then-- with Klass's suggestion that there should be some consequences (not punishment), but no big deal made when children under about 8 walk off with other people's possessions. The kinds of consequences I have in mind involve a) giving the thing back, b) apologizing, and possibly c) thinking it over and reporting back about what was wrong with what they did. (However, if thinking it over is demanded, the parent needs to be prepared to accept a simple explanation like the one offered by one of my young sons: "Ya get in trouble!")

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Most parents who are not themselves burglars would agree that it's a serious matter when adults steal. They don't want their children to grow up to be thieves, and that's the real issue, or at least, most of us are not afraid that we'll have a miniature James Gang on our hands tomorrow. On the whole, it seems that parents who exercise a modicum of supervision need not worry about the future. Most children swipe something now and then, most parents tell them not to, and most adults do not steal most things most of the time.

So, childhood thievery does not seem to be much of a predictor of bad adult behavior. How about other early behaviors? For example, what about the oft-referenced "MacDonald's triad" of fire-setting, cruelty to animals, and late bedwetting? A 1968 book, "Homicidal Threats" by J.M. MacDonald, suggested that these three characteristics were indicators that a child would grow up to be a violent criminal. MacDonald reported in this book a retrospective study in which he interviewed serial killers and investigated their past lives. He reported that the triad of characteristics was common among the group he studied, and this claim has been given much attention.

MacDonald's study, in fact, did not provide good evidence for the claim he made. What was wrong with it? For one thing, his methods did not allow him to consider how many non-criminal adults had fire-setting, cruelty to animals, and persistent bedwetting in their past histories. Without knowing this, there is no way to know even whether these behaviors are more common among violent-criminals-to-be, much less whether they allow us to predict later behavior. For another thing, part of the investigation depended on the reported memories of the criminals themselves and of people who had known them as children. The latter knew that those children had grown up to be convicted and incarcerated for serious crimes. What they remembered and reported about the children was likely to be affected by what they knew about those adult actions. They might even include or omit points in order to tailor the childhood to suit what "should have" happened with developing criminals. In addition, neighbors or even relatives might never have learned of a child's problem with bedwetting, and most children would do their best to make sure that no one found out they set fires or tortured animals-- unless their relatives also did these things. We can't conclude from MacDonald's evidence that those behaviors are indications of serious later problems.

No one would claim that fire-setting or animal cruelty makes for a good start in life. However, the issue may really be that most children who do these things are poorly cared for and supervised. Effective parents pay attention to what their children are doing, and interfere with undesirable actions of all kinds; by doing this, they offer guidance that can benefit all aspects of their children's development. Unsupervised children can become involved in very undesirable behavior, but they are also lacking in developmental guidance, and it's the absence of guidance that may have the worst impact on their adult behavior. Fire-setting and cruelty may just be symptoms of the real problem-- lack of adult supervision and guidance.

All this is not to say that disturbing childhood actions are meaningless. A child who continues to steal regularly, and who shows no remorse even though the parents follow through with demands for restitution, needs additional guidance. Deliberate, repeated fire-setting can indicate a developing mental illness of a serious nature. And serious cruelty to animals can indicate a lack of empathy that will interfere with later human relationships, as well as the possibility of mental illness. But these behaviors need to be considered over time and in appropriate contexts rather than being used to label a child as a criminal.


Jean Mercer is a developmental psychologist with a special interest in parent-infant relationships.


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