Kids' Violent Impulses

Parents nationwide are reacting with shock to news reports that a group of 8- to 10-year-old kids in Waycross, Ga., were so mad at their teacher that they apparently planned to knock her unconscious with a glass paperweight and stab her with a steak knife. The local district attorney said he is seeking juvenile charges of conspiracy to commit aggravated assault against a 9-year-old girl and 10-year-old girl who allegedly brought the knife and paperweight and an 8-year-old boy who allegedly brought duct tape. The girls are also being charged with taking weapons to school. NEWSWEEK's Karen Springen talked to child psychiatrist Elizabeth Berger, M.D., author of "Raising Kids with Character" and a spokesman for the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, about whether these kinds of violent impulses and plots are normal for grade schoolers. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Are you surprised by this alleged plot to attack a third-grade teacher?
It would be very important to not get hot under the collar about anything until there is a more prudent and thoughtful kind of fact-checking in terms of what all these events really were and getting more clarity about what might be "he said, she said."

[But] let's take it at face value as a hypothetical situation. We need to talk about two different things. One is what goes on in children's imaginations, and the second is what is it that they actually follow through on. In the imagination, people ages 1 through 105 years are full of terrible impulses, particularly toward people they're close with. One does not have to look far in folklore, in dream life, in slips of the tongue, in expression. "I could have killed him," etc. A 4-year-old will tell you, "I'm going to throw daddy in the river and run off with mommy." The imaginative impulse to do away with people who have crossed you is universal and exists in every human being throughout life.

But what causes kids to follow through?
The fact that one angry child can drum up a group, any kind of group, speaks to the fact that there is a level of feeling that is out of control here. These are by definition children who have some kind of difficulties in learning or behavior, so it could well be that the structure of this classroom is just not adequate to deal with the kinds of difficulties that the children present. This is no criticism of the teacher's skill. This is a hypothesis, but the situation suggests that there is too much negative energy in these kids and that something more has been needed--the class is too big, or the teacher needs a teacher's aide, or there are problems in these youngsters' homes that are not being adequately addressed.

Usually there's not one single cause but a variety of frailties. Children this young have huge needs for parents, for schools, for communities, for societies. They don't exist in isolation out on an asteroid someplace. When there is some kind of dramatic problem, as there [might have been] here ... you would cast a wide net in terms of why do these children have such antisocial attitudes generally.

How do kids get this type of idea? Is it videos? Is it TV?
No. You will notice that a baby of a few weeks of age is capable of anger, of biting and trying to hit. Aggression is one of the most fundamental parts of the human psyche. And it is the long process of childhood that binds the raw aggression of a 6-month-old who would surely murder you if he could when he's mad. It is the long process of becoming a self-disciplined human being that prevents us from all murdering each other.

There were knives before there was television. The Bible is full of gross and frightening homicidal moments of the most intimate sort. We don't consider the exposure to the Bible to be a threat to social stability. Profound documents about the human condition reveal plainly the potential violent impulses that are part of the human condition. We can't forget that ... It has always been the case that childhood has been full of cops-and-robbers games in which bang, bang, you're dead. This is childhood. Now what's bad here is that the line between let's play make-believe—bang, bang, you're dead—which is what 3- and 4-year-olds do, and reality is so incomplete.

So it's not fair to blame on modern videos and TV?
It would be a grave intellectual mistake, if you've read Genesis, to speak of fratricide as if it were invented by videogames. The question isn't how did rage get into children, because rage gets into children because they're human beings, and this is as old as prehistory.

What about the idea of a ringleader, banning together an organized group like this at such a young age?
In situations of inadequate adult structure, for example, child soldiers, it's not at all uncommon to have a gifted leader who's 9 years old. Within crime syndicates in Mexico City, there are shrewd and seasoned gang leaders who have not yet reached the double digits in age.

So it's not a shock?
It's a shock because you would think that when children have an ordinary structure in terms of their families, the street they live, community organization, in terms of schooling and supervision after school. When those situations are being met, you don't have bizarre situations where 9-year-olds meet gangs. In theory, a 9-year-old can be a tough customer as an insurgent. In extreme circumstances around the world, both historically and currently, children in the age of one digit have frequently been shrewd soldiers and strategized attacks that have led to death.

How much would it matter whether kids had conditions like ADHD?
I think that children who have developmental vulnerabilities may require a great deal more structure and that funding being inadequate, public-school systems everywhere are suffering terribly to meet the needs of youngsters.

Isn't this kind of apparently planned attack still rare?
Absolutely it is rare. What is common is for a 9-year-old who's mad to mumble to himself, "I'm going to get her." It is very rare for a group of youngsters to [apparently] make purchases and to work together in a premeditated manner to achieve some alleged life-threatening result. It's very unusual, and it bespeaks to a serious lack of support somewhere.

Isn't it more common for them plot against a peer rather than an adult?
Well, sure. Out on the schoolyard, they'll slug each other. I'm not saying that's ideal. Children push and shove and trip one another rather regularly, under the best of circumstances. And while it's deplorable, it is universal.

Is it more unusual to see kids act out against an authority figure?
It's much more unusual for reasons that are both practical and psychological and intangible. It's partly that kids might talk big under their breath. When it comes down to it, the whole weight of the adult world rests with the teacher's authority. And this is something that few children would have the folly to buck.

What's the solutionso we don't have this kind of thing happening in other schools?
Since you don't know what the diagnosis is, you don't know what the treatment plan ought to be. The treatment has to look at the total fabric that childhood is embedded in. Children need homes in which they feel grievances can be dealt with and frustrations can be tolerated. There has to be a way for children to see their parents dealing with grievances in a way that is not homicidal and explosive but is problem solving. The school has to have a teacher who says if you have a problem, come to me. This teacher may have done all these things. This is an episode that raises questions, but at this point in the evolution of this news story, we have questions but we have no answers.