Of “Bad Seeds” and Mass Murderers: Separating Fact from Fiction

Every month or so it seems we meet a new and frightening “bad seed.” According to a June 7, 2013 article in, there have been 62 mass murders in the last 30 years.  How does a newborn baby turn into a killer? Where does all the hate – and lack of conscience – come from?

In the 1956 movie, The Bad Seed, child-actress Patty McCormack portrays a girl whose perfect blond pigtails belie a murderous soul. Little Rhoda supposedly inherited her sociopathic genes from her maternal grandmother, a serial killer.



Confronted by her mother about killing a classmate,  Rhoda displays no remorse. In fact, she tells her mother that she also murdered a neighbor woman.  In the book by William March, the mother commits suicide and the girl lives. According to an article on Wikipedia, the movie code at the time wouldn’t allow a “crime does pay” ending and the  script was censored. Instead, the movie ends with the little girl being killed while the mother is saved. Funny,  even in the 1950s parents weren’t forced to take the heat.

In real life, however, killers aren’t usually little girls with blond pigtails. With only one exception, the mass murderers have all been men –  a lot of them just beginning their adult lives.  And they destroy without conscience.

A gunman identified as 24 year-old John Zawahri shot and killed four people in Santa Monica, Calif. this past week. He was supposedly distraught over his parent’s divorce.

Like a violent tornado, Zawahri didn’t discriminate in his destruction, perhaps with the exception of his father and older brother, whom he shot and killed first. After that, news reports say, he hijacked a car, kidnapped the terrified female occupant and forced her to drive him to the Santa Monica College Campus, where he had once been a student. Along the way he did a little shooting to pass the time, wounding several bus passengers. He did more shooting when he arrived at the school, killing a father and his daughter, along with a female bystander, before police gunned him down.

What a waste of human life.

But there’s not a chance in hell that this or any other mass murder happened because the killer was born a “bad seed.”

The problem is, we don’t know exactly what causes one person to snap and what leads another to handle disappointment with greater resilience.

According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, resilience is: 1. the capability of a strained body to recover its size and shape after deformation caused especially by compressive stress
2. an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change

Read it again: An ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change. Is this something parents can actually teach their children?

Indeed it is. But it won’t be accomplished with drill sergeant tactics.

To start with, kids need to know parents understand how they feel. The operative term here is “need.” They need to know we aren’t pushing their emotions aside because we’re too caught up with our own affairs. It’s called empathy.

I’m not a psychologist or professional counselor. However, my reading on the subject, as well as my personal experience, inform me that when kids have a voice and are permitted to express their thoughts and feelings, their brains can then process stress in a healthy way. This is true whether they’ve fallen off of a tricycle, been dumped by a boyfriend – or  gone through their parents’ divorce.

Being with someone who is emotionally “safe” encourages kids to open up. That’s because “safe people” offer  something very important to our sense of personhood, and that is respect.

Ask yourself, “Am I an emotionally safe listener? Do I take time to let them my kids talk through what’s bothering them? Or do I judge, belittle, and force them to ‘grow up and quit whining?’”

Children need to be “heard” even before they talk.  Crying, as upsetting as it can be for parents,  is a baby’s way of communicating.  When a mother responds immediately to her child’s cries, she is telling him that he matters, and that what he as to say is important.

Parents can’t take away all the stresses in their children’s lives, and they shouldn’t. Healthy stress is important for creating resilience. But holding, rocking, feeding, changing, talking or singing in a gentle voice, all help babies handle external stresses –  whether they’ve been passed around to too many relatives or  poked and prodded by a physician. Babies cannot soothe themselves at this stage. They need touch. Infant massage is another way to spend relaxing time with a baby.  The child’s body then produces relaxation hormones such as oxytocin, known as the “cuddle hormone,” and he calms down. Parents produce this hormone as well, and are calmed by gentle contact with their babies.

How you respond to your kids may depend in part on what kind of parenting you received. But you can always turn things around with your own children.

What does creating empathy in children have to do with mass murderers?

Well, do you think any of them thought about how their actions affected others?

Here’s another thing. Scientists at The Harvard Center on the Developing Child say that chronic toxic stress – the kind kids experience when parents are neglectful or abusive – causes impairment to the architecture of the developing brain. Without “buffering” relationships, relationships with empathic adults, the seeds are planted for disorders of many kinds, including cognitive and mental disorders and physical illness.

Maybe these are the “bad seeds” people talk about.

The only difference between myth and reality is, bad seeds don’t grow from nothing. They’re planted. FFG

Click here to watch The Bad Seed

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