Regarding the 9-year-old “psychopath”

Weekends are for speculation at the New York Times, and the paper’s Magazine section speculated it out of the park with this feature about whether young children can be diagnosed as psychopaths. For the purposes of our discussion, we’re going to put aside the question of what “psychopathy” actually is. That’s what reporter Jennifer Kahn has done, parenthetically noting that “the terms ‘sociopath’ and ‘psychopath’ are essentially identical,” connecting adult psychopathy to “cold, predatory conduct” and leaving it at that. Psycho-/sociopaths do bad things and don’t feel bad about them. They obey external rules of right and wrong, but they don’t internalize them in emotionally meaningful ways; they don’t want to be good. If it sounds to you like I am describing every child that has ever lived, you begin to understand the problem. If it doesn’t sound that way to you, it’s probably because there is something wrong with your brain, and society has no choice but to write you off.

Society is dicks, as Michael would probably tell you. “Michael” is the anonymized son of “Anne” and “Miguel,” who worry that he might be a psychopath. At age nine, Michael is what developmental psychologists call a “big-time wiener.” He screams when he is told to clean up or go to school. He cuts up his pants with scissors. When he is angry, he goes into the bathroom and repeatedly slams the toilet seat until it breaks. “By the time he turned 5,” Kahn writes, “Michael had developed an uncanny ability to switch from full-blown anger to moments of pure rationality or calculated charm—a facility that Anne describes as deeply unsettling.”

That Anne regarded her five-year-old son’s charming moments as “calculated” suggests the problem with diagnosing psychopathy in a child. Behavior that is normal among children can be horrifyingly selfish and cruel from an adult perspective. Children are certainly capable of abnormal behavior, but what distinguishes deviance from regular-kid crappiness? Put another way: at what point do you say that a child is Bad?

Late in the article, Anne notes that she has “always said” her son will grow up to be a Nobel Prize winner or a serial killer. Educators will here recognize a common parenting mistake: the tendency to interpret behavior as either especially great or especially bad. It’s natural to continually try to divine who your child is from what he does, but it’s also dangerous. A child learns normal behavior from his parents’ reactions to rando behavior, and overreaction makes it harder for him to calibrate his scale. Told that other parents might find her Nobel/Dahmer prediction unsettling, Anne responds with self-pity:

“To them I’d say that they shouldn’t judge until they’ve walked in my shoes,” she said finally. “Because, you know, it takes a toll. There’s not a lot of joy and happiness in raising Michael.”

Michael’s mother does not find much “joy and happiness” in their relationship. Citing an episode of “Criminal Minds” in which a child kills his younger brother, she worries that Michael might do the same. The facts of his case firmly established, she sends him to a summer camp where psychologists will figure out what is wrong with him.

The obvious danger of such thinking reflects the larger problem of the idea of the sociopath in contemporary society. Books like The Sociopath Next Door posit a class of people who feel no empathy for anyone else. They are so cold and irredeemable—so persistent in their bad behavior and so infuriatingly remorseless about it—that we can’t afford to have any empathy for them. The sociopath cannot be treated, and he cannot be understood. All we can do is identify him, so that he is no longer able to take advantage of our kindness.

In other words, it’s okay to act like a sociopath toward him. Like Michael’s mother, we excuse our lack of feeling by positing lack of feeling in another. It is the same inversion of the Golden Rule that justifies most violations of good conduct. It’s not okay to hit someone unless they hit you first. You can steal back what is stolen from you. Only lie to people who are trying to trick you. Bad behavior becomes less bad when it has a narrative behind it; Hiroshima ended World War II, and the child who hits other children is likely being hit at home. Only when we don’t know what’s happening at home can we say conclusively that he is a little shit.

Maybe it is not a coincidence that “sociopathy” is characterized by unknown causes and a vague definition. It is a term that refers to failure of empathy in others, but we use it when we cannot figure out why someone else did what they did. The irony is inescapable. I submit that irony is usually worse when it happens to children.

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  1. What a crazy misreading of that article, Dan! I thought it was a fascinating read, and one of the things that most impressed me is the EMPATHY and patience of the psychiatrists who are studying these kids — who are trying to identify what makes them different from ADHD and other conditions, and ultimately trying to help them. (Why are you so willfully blind to the distinctions between psychopathy and normal self-centered kid behavior? It was made very clear in the article, at least as far as is possible given current knowledge.) The psychiatrists have spent decades studying this condition; it’s not a silly Times trend piece concept.

    I’m also impressed by the patience and love these parents are showing for their child by attempting to raise him, understand him, and help him in spite of his extremely challenging problems.

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