The 29-year-old seventh grader 1/27/07
Talk about a surprise for school officials in Surprise, Arizona — a 29-year-old sex offender apparently was enrolled in the seventh grade for several months, shaving off his body hair and wearing makeup to conceal his age, attending classes, and doing homework, all in an effort to gain access to children. Putting aside for the moment the obvious question — how teachers and administrators could possibly have missed this guy — this is a perfect illustration of a point I’ve made many times on the air and in my blog postings. Look at all of the plotting and planning that this guy did to put himself in a position where he’d have easy access to children. We psychologists call that “executive functioning,” and this guy’s brain had to do a lot of it to pull off his act for as long as he did. Ok, so maybe he has a mental illness that causes him to be attracted to kids, but his brain clearly was working well enough for him to figure out that what he wanted to do with kids is wrong. This isn’t me speculating — the guy’s actions prove it. If he didn’t at least know that what he wanted to do is illegal, he wouldn’t have gone to all that trouble to avoid detection as he tried to do it (remind you of anyone? — Andrea Yates maybe?). Bottom line, the guy can be “sick” all day long, but if he knew what he was doing and that it was wrong/illegal (the “nature and quality of his actions” as the law often words it), he’s responsible for his actions (i.e. guilty), and the next class he attends should be license-plate-painting class in prison.
Why the older boy stayed (caution, you are about to enter a speculation zone) 1/16/07
As a follow-up to my last post, many people are wondering why the older boy in that case (the one who was abducted in 2002) did not take advantage of many apparent opportunities to escape (including remaining silent in the presence of police officers on one or two occasions during his captivity). The boy has not spoken to the media, but here are my thoughts on the most likely explanation. You’ll hear a lot of talk in the media about a psychological phenomenon called Stockholm Syndrome, whereby people who are held captive sometimes start to sympathize with their captors over time. It doesn’t have to be a long time — the syndrome gets its name from a bank robbery in Stockholm in the 1970’s in which hostages were taken and held for about a week, after which some of them actually defended their captors’ actions. Flight attendants learn about it in their training on how to handle hostage situations on airplanes. The most famous cases in which the Stockholm Syndrome has been implicated are probably the case of Patty Hearst, an heiress who was kidnapped in the 1970’s and later assisted her kidnappers in committing bank robbery (by the way, I don’t necessarily buy the idea that Stockholm Syndrome takes away a person’s ability to distinguish right from wrong and excuses participation in crimes absent the threat of violence), and the case of Elizabeth Smart, the teenager who was kidnapped in 2002 and remained with her captors for approximately nine months despite apparent opportunities to escape (like being in public places where she could have run, screamed, etc.) and did not immediately identifiy herself to police when she was first found. The most sophisticated kidnappers actively attempt to accelerate the onset of Stockholm Syndrome by imposing highly-restrictive confinement initially, then gradually easing restrictions and granting “privileges” to their captives. Stockholm Syndrome is rare — most kidnapping victims, especially adult victims, never stop despising their abductors and wanting to get free. The Smart case also illustrates “learned helplessness” (sometimes called “accommodation” in child sexual abuse cases), another psychological phenomenon that operates in kidnapping situations, whereby the captive becomes convinced that any attempt at self-help (i.e. escape) will be futile or will result in death or serious harm to the captive or to others (the captive’s loved ones for example). In other words, the victim lives in such fear for so long that he/she abandons all hope of escaping the situation and resigns him/herself to it. At that point, the victim may attempt to engage in a psychological self-preservation process of “benefit finding” whereby he/she might start to think thoughts like, “at least I have video games and pizza here, and I don’t have to go to school, and I can pierce my ear if I want,” but that’s different from sypathizing with the abductor (as in Stockholm Syndrome). Hard as it is for adults to imagine, a child victim might even have thoughts like, “now that I’ve let this happen to me, my parents won’t want me back,” and a sophisticated kidnapper could promote that kind of warped thinking. It has been hypothesized by some that the older child in the St. Louis case might have passed up opportunities to escape because he simply preferred life at the kidnapper’s house. I doubt that — your situation would have to be like something out of Oliver Twist for you to be happy about being carted off by a stranger at age 11. In fact, even kids who do live in abusive homes are usually upset, at least initially, about being taken away from their parents by child protective services. (Some people are pointing to a “taunt” sent to the boy’s parents on the Internet from the kidnapper’s computer as an indication that the boy was resentful of his parents. I’d say “not so fast” on that one — maybe the kidnapper sent it, or maybe the boy was trying to give the parents an electronic clue to his whereabouts in a way that wouldn’t have gotten him killed had the kidnapper caught him sending it.) At this point in the story, my best guess is that “learned helplessness” is the primary explanation for why the boy did not seize opportunities to escape, and as a child, he was probably more susceptible than an adult might have been. Other interesting and related questions abound, like how the kidnapper intended to ensure the older boy’s silence regarding the abduction of the younger boy and whether other victims of the same kidnapper will be identified (it’s usually a serial thing with child molesters). The bottom line is that all we can do is speculate at this point. We may or may not get enough facts to back up definitive conclusions as the story develops. The only possible good to come out of this case will be if we can use whatever we learn to help parents educate their children about what to do in these terrible situations and thereby prevent other children from being victimized in the future.
St. Louis double-kidnapping case 1/14/07
As you’re probably aware, a young boy who was kidnapped in the St. Louis area early last week was found alive last Friday along with another boy who had been abducted in 2002. Some people are wondering why I said on national TV shortly after the kidnapping last week that I had reasons to be hopeful about the child’s safe recovery. So, here’s what my rationale was at the time. Everyone who knew the boy said he would never get into a car with a stranger willingly — that he must have been taken by force or by someone he knew. In the vast majority of cases, a child molester doesn’t just randomly and forcibly grab a kid off the street. It does happen that way — we all know of tragic cases like that — but it’s rare. Far more often, pedophiles stalk kids, try to befriend them (either online or in person), and try to lure them into going somewhere willingly with the molester. In the case of the boy who was abducted last week, everyone else on TV had concluded that the motivation for the kidnapping was sexual assault, which admittedly was and is the most likely explanation (the family isn’t wealthy, ruling out ransom, there’s no apparent familial discord, ruling out parental kidnapping as sometimes happens when there are custody battles, and the child is too young to really have enemies of age to drive a car). One expert who appeared on the same program with me one night last week even said there was a 99% chance that the boy was already dead. I imagined how the mother must have been feeling if she was watching television and hearing people speculate that her child was being molested and that he may even have been killed, so I decided I would offer something hopeful when it was my turn to talk. I said there was cause to be hopeful for two reasons. First, I figured if the motivation for the kidnapping was not sexual, then at least there was reason to hope that the child wasn’t being molested wherever he was. Second, if the motivation was sexual, I knew there was a high statistical chance that the molester would have had some prior contact with the boy, which I hoped would enable the police and the F.B.I. to track him down. Honestly, I agreed that it was a grim situation and that the statistical chances of this incredible outcome weren’t high, but while I try to be right in these situations, I also try to hold out hope. We’ll likely learn the motivation for the abductions when we see what charges are added to the kidnapping charges that the perpetrator is facing already. I do appreciate the sentiments of those who’ve pointed out that I was right, but really I’m just thrilled for the families and for the two boys that they were found alive.
“Optimal” parenting 1/10/07
A couple of days ago, I was approached by a person who recently heard me on the radio talking about what I think is the “optimal” parenting situation for raising healthy kids (a married mother and father who love each other and their child and stay married at least until the child is an adult), and this person wasn’t particularly thrilled with my opinion, at least initially. Keep in mind, I didn’t say that healthy kids can never be raised in other circumstances, and I didn’t express any doubt that a same-sex couple, for example, can love a child as much as an opposite-sex couple can. By “optimal,” I just mean that in my opinion, having both maternal and paternal influences that are positive and reliable gives a child the highest possible chance of turning out healthy, all else equal. It doesn’t mean that the child is guaranteed to turn out healthy, nor does it mean that a child growing up in different circumstances necessarily has a low chance of turning out healthy, and all else is never exactly equal in real life. For example, I didn’t say that I’d choose an abusive married man and wife over a loving gay couple in a custody battle, just that I think there are key things beyond love that a man and a woman are uniquely able, although they often fail, to offer a child (like modeling clear male and female gender roles for the child, which is important because the human race is made up of men and women, and modeling a healthy male/female relationship for the child, which is important because it’s through male/female relationships that we humans propagate our species). Of course it’s true that male/female marriages can be fraught with problems like physical abuse, substance abuse, neglect, etc., which can be profoundly damaging to children, but keep in mind that gay and lesbian relationships are susceptible to those same problems. For another example, I also didn’t say that an abused woman should never divorce or remarry, just that it’s difficult for one person to meet all of a child’s developmental needs and that healthy stepparent/stepchild relationships are often difficult to build and maintain. I do believe that divorce (especially contentious divorce), even when called for by exigent circumstances in the marital home, usually has a lasting negative impact on the kids involved and that the negative impact is often compounded by immersing the kids in stepfamilies thereafter. Well, more than anything I said based on my own analysis of the issue, this next piece of information made the listener really stop and think. I shared it on the air, and I’ll share it again here. In my capacity as a part-time professor, I’ve had the opportunity to ask college students, fresh out of their childhood homes, what they’ve thought about this issue. At this point, I’ve polled approximately 1,000 students, asking them the following multiple-choice question: “If you had to be born and raised all over again with no memory of your prior life, but first you were allowed to choose only the type of parenting situation you would have, whom would you choose to be your primary caregiver(s) during your childhood?” I’ve then offered about a dozen options including a married mother and father, a single mother, a single father, a mother and stepfather, a father and stepmother, two committed gay men, two committed lesbian women, an unmarried man and woman, grandparents, etc., and “other.” I am not aware of a single person who has ever chosen anything other than the first option, the married mother and father. To me, that says it all — not because the students agree with me, but because they’ve had recent, first-hand experience with the issue (not all of it good), so they know what they’re talking about. Of course what’s “optimal” may not be possible for every child, but when it is possible, I’d just like to see more adults striving for it. (P.S. That’s the reason why I have reservations about allowing two adults of the same sex, regardless of whether they’re a gay/lesbian couple or just two heterosexual, same-sex cohabitants who want to raise a child together, to occupy both the “mother” and “father” positions on a child’s adoption certificate. I worry about permanently “closing the door” to what I see as the optimal for any child by legally ensuring that the child will never have both a mother and a father. I worry also about setting up a situation in which my above-stated beliefs about the benefits of providing a child both maternal and paternal influences could be compounded by a separation of those same-sex adults, after which they may each form new same-sex living relationships, potentially putting the child in a situation in which he/she alternates residence between two households in which he/she essentially has four parental figures all of the same sex. For these reasons, if we don’t have both a mother and a father who are committed to raising the child together for the long haul, I tend to favor allowing one of the two adults to fill one of the two parent positions on the adoption certificate, i.e. to adopt the child as a single parent, even if the other adult is to be actively involved in the child’s upbringing, leaving open the possibility that another concerned adult may come into the child’s life at some point who will be able to fill the opposite-sex parent position on the adoption certificate.)
As someone who talks about bad behavior regularly in the media, I often hear people misuse the word “mistake.” For example, I recently heard an attorney for rapper “Snoop Dog” say that Snoop had made “mistakes” in his life, referring to multiple drug and gun violations. Just to go on the record here and put it really simply: a mistake is an accident, unintentional, like when you mean to fill up with premium but inadvertently fill up with regular. If you meant to do it, it wasn’t a “mistake.” That distinction is an important one because labeling intentional bad behaviors “mistakes” trivializes the harm they cause. Just a few examples: drug and gun crimes, racist rants, sending sleazy emails to Congressional pages (I’ve talked on the air about the malignant narcissist who did this one), etc. are not “mistakes,” and if I hear one more married person say that his/her cheating was a “mistake,” I think I’m going to throw up.
Intoxication “excuse” 1/4/07
There seems to be a growing tendency among people in the U.S.A. to accept voluntary intoxication as an excuse for bad behavior — think Mel Gibson, Mark Foley, Michael Richards…the list goes on and on. Just about every famous person who gets caught doing something bad goes right off to “rehab,” and then people say, “Oh, how courageous!” Oh, crap! Voluntary intoxication never excuses anything, not legally and not interpersonally either (and even if the intoxicated person is an addict with a “disease,” the intoxication is still voluntary — see “Thoughts vs. behaviors” below). Intoxication also doesn’t put new thoughts into your head (for example, turn you into a racist when you weren’t one before) — it can just impair your judgment about whether to broadcast thoughts that you already had. By the way, I heard that Gibson’s blood alcohol content was only 1.2, which is over the legal limit to drive a car but not normally enough to make a man act crazy. If that’s true, there might have been something more than intoxication going on there.