In one classic study of 26 killings by children, each case was found to contain four necessary elements: a disturbed, impulsive child; a victim who serves as an irritant; absence of a supervisory person who could have intervened, and a lethal weapon at hand.
All four were in place on the March day when Detective Sgt. Fred Foan was summoned to a well-to-do neighborhood near Creve Coeur, Mo., to investigate the fatal shooting of a 10-year-old boy.
There was no mystery about the culprit--an 11-year-old girl who had called the police and reported that when the young neighbor with whom she had been playing balked at her order to leave her yard, she had taken a pistol from her parents' bedroom, aimed and fired.
According to Foan, the girl "had sort of a personality change. She went inside and came out with a handgun. She knew full well it was a real gun. I'm sure the victim thought it was a play gun, but she knew it wasn't."
Foan said the girl "stood a short distance from him, probably six to eight feet, so close you can hardly miss. She grabbed the gun with a two-hand hold, then pulled the trigger."
"Other than her first spontaneous statement to the first officer on the scene, we couldn't talk to her. You have to treat juveniles differently, which is very hard to deal with. You can only question them with a parent and a juvenile officer present."
In this case, he said, the girl's father would not allow her to talk to police, and she was taken to the juvenile detention center. Foan canvassed the neighborhood, piecing together a picture of "a tomboyish, very aggressive, totally undisciplined kid," he said.
"The day before, she had been banned from the little boy's house for unladylike behavior. She was a big girl for her age and apparently she beat the hell out of him the day before. She also had behavior problems in school."
At the time of the shooting, Foan said, the girl's mother was in the hospital for surgery and her father was at work. "The father was not in charge of the family. There was a bad atmosphere--he was not in control."
During the two hours Foan spent in their house, "she ran into her room, closed the door and had a tantrum."
The child's parents were "good people but not good parents," Foan said. "Her mother did all kinds of volunteer work, but she was never around."
Predictors of Behavior
Parental attitudes and child-rearing practices may be one of the more reliable predictors of seriously aggressive behavior in children.
Daniel Scheinfeld of Chicago's Institute for Juvenile Research studied parenting practices of mothers whose children emerged from urban ghettos to become high achievers, despite disadvantaged beginnings.
These mothers emphasized "cooperation, consideration and sharing responsibilities" in rearing their children, Scheinfeld found. Mothers of low achievers, on the other hand, stressed "controlling the child's behavior."
Rather than preparing their youngsters to face life's challenges, Scheinfeld discovered, the unsuccessful set of mothers concentrated on trying to keep their children out of trouble. In the process, they often undermined their children's confidence.
Researchers have found a correlation between social disadvantage and poor parenting skills, according to Elliott Currie, a former Yale University criminologist, because "it is virtually a truism that parents' repertoires of child-rearing techniques tend to narrow as you go down the income scale."
That is because "parents trapped in jobs that require rote conformity and discourage initiative" are far less apt to encourage independence and initiative in their children, he explains.
If some adults are more skillful parents than others, it is also true that some children are harder to rear than others.
In cases of child abuse, for example, it is rare for all children in a family to be mistreated. One child usually is singled out, researchers have found. Sometimes the same child, given several sets of foster parents, continues to be abused by all of them.
"Clearly a child who is selectively and repeatedly abused in relatively independent settings must show particular characteristics or behavior patterns that make him or her a likely target for abuse," said Ronald Slaby, an associate professor of education at Harvard University.
"As the abuse continues, the child's tendency to exhibit problem behaviors may increase, thereby attracting further abuse and perpetuating an escalating cycle of problem behavior and abusive treatment."
Gerald Patterson, research director of the Oregon Social Learning Center in Eugene, an expert on childhood aggression, has identified such patterns of behavior, patterns that lead not only to disruptions within families but also to rejection by parents and other children, failure in school and low self-esteem that tend to keep children trapped in these cycles.