In 1993 a crime was committed that shocked the nation, a crime that for many would defy comprehension and challenge the way we understood murder and childhood. That crime was the abduction, torture and murder of James Patrick Bulger, aged 2. Now the murder of a child is possibly one of the most appalling crimes that I can personally conceive of but as you will no doubt be aware the thing that made it truly shocking was that his killers were two 10-year-old boys, Jon Venables (born 13 August 1982) and Robert Thompson (born 23 August 1982).
Jon Venables has recently re-entered the public consciousness in the UK after it was announced that he had breached the terms of his license of release and had been returned to prison: an announcement that has reignited a sometimes vitriolic and often reactionary debate about the nature of Venables and Thompson’s crime and their subsequent release on license to a life of anonymity.
Some people have expressed the sentiment that Venables and Thompson were simply evil and that prison is the right place for them; that they never should have been released in the first place and that now Venables is locked away the key should be thrown away. Others have cautiously taken the view that the ten year old Venables may not have been able to understand fully the implications and consequences of his actions. This post does not intend to engage in attempting to provide excuses for Venables and Thompsons actions nor does it intend to engage in a lighting the torches and handing out pitchforks to stoke the fires of moral outrage. Rather it intends to look at what psychology has to say about the development of morality in children and what factors can cause two ten year old boys to commit such an unspeakable act.
The brains of children and adults are very different; as part of an evolutionary trade-off we are not born with a fully formed thinking organ – if we were childbirth would likely prove fatal for the females of our species! So our brains develop throughout childhood and adolescence – there are critical periods for the development of binocular vision, thought to be between one and three years, and further critical periods have been identified for the development of hearing and the vestibular system. There is also hypothesized to be a critical period for language acquisition, based partly upon the stories of “feral children” such as Genie and Victor of Aveyron, thought to end somewhere around five years of age.
So is there evidence to suggest that a sense of moral judgment is something which we are born with or something that has to be developed?
Research undertaken by Eliot Turiel has suggested that children as young as three can understand the difference between a social transgression and a moral transgression or rather they recognize that it might be okay to talk during nap, or to stand up during snack time, or to wear pajamas to school if the teacher says it is. But they also assert that a teacher couldn’t make it okay to pull another child’s hair or to steal her backpack. Similarly, children growing up in deeply religious Mennonite communities distinguish between rules that apply because they are written in the Bible (e.g., that Sunday is the day of Sabbath, or that a man must uncover his head to pray) and rules that would still apply even if they weren’t actually written in the Bible (including rules against personal and material harm).
So what cause some children to grow up seemingly bereft of this distinction of moral reasoning and able to do things that are far, far worse than pulling someone’s hair and able to transgress rules against personal harm?
Perhaps a child’s ability to delay gratifaction might cast some light on the issue: to function effectively, individuals must voluntarily postpone immediate gratification and persist in goal-directed behaviour for the sake of later outcomes. If a child can delay gratification in an experimental situation it tells you a great deal about their impulse control and W Mischel et al (1989) found that those 4-year-old children who delayed gratification longer in coping better certain laboratory situations developed into more cognitively and socially competent adolescents, achieving higher scholastic performance and with less frustration and stress.
Individuals who are low in impulse control are much more likely to engage in antisocial and criminal behaviour then those who have more self control. This may seem to some to be somewhat of a tautology but what is interesting is that research has suggested that self control can be affected by the environment in which a child grows up. In the case of the research linked to it was found that parental variables have a consistent and significant impact on impulse control.
Or to put it another way:
Just witnessing violence within the family home can have a huge impact on the development of a child and is highly correlated with that child becoming violent in their own future. Studies in the field of interpersonal violence suggest that the biggest predictor for children becoming abusive or growing up to become abusers is still witnessing or being a victim of domestic violence. Witnessing such abuse can lead to the abused becoming violent towards others. Of course by no means does this cycle of abuse always happen and it’s rare that it ends in the tragic death of a child.
Now there is little reliable information available on the circumstances of Venables or Thompsons childhoods and it would be remiss to speculate as to whether one or the other could have witnessed or suffered abuse and I wish to express explicitly that although this post was prompted by Venables re-arrest it is not intended as a direct comment on the crime or the reasons for it.
This post is simply intended to show that there may be reasons for it over and above branding the tragic actions of two ten year old boys as “pure evil”. It is also important that we consider that circumstance could potentially have stunted Venables and Thompsons moral reasoning in some way and that even though their crime was truly, truly horrific and seems utterly unfathomable – we should not as a society assume that anyone is beyond rehabilitation. In my opinion when cases such as these occur something serious must have occurred to override the normal moral development of a child, perhaps this could be due to some form of critical period? Perhaps this issue needs more exploring – or perhaps the question has been answered and I need to be more aware of the research in this area – if anyone knows more on this issue I would welcome comment.