Are We Born With A Moral Compass, Or Is There An App For That?

coffee cupsThis week I read a news story about a 17 year old boy in Rising Sun, Indiana who strangled and killed his 10 year old brother … for fun.  The boy said he’s had fantasies about killing someone since the 8th grade, and “it satisfied a craving like a hungry person eating a burger.”

Monstrous.  Chilling.  Terrifying.  There aren’t words powerful enough to describe the feeling most of us get in the pit of our stomachs when we hear of something so unimaginable.  How could a child do something so completely evil at the age of 17?  Was he born that way?  Is he just a ‘bad seed’?  Didn’t anyone ever teach him right from wrong?  The questions come fast and furious with few answers.

Well, folks — I don’t know anything about this kid except what I read in that brief news account, but he’s one of our children. He’s part of our community, and though you and I may not have had a direct hand in raising him, we will certainly be on the receiving end of how it turned out.

I can tell you a few things right off the bat.  This young teen suffers from a condition called antisocial personality disorder. Here’s a partial list of symptoms from the Mayo Clinic:

  • Disregard for right and wrong
  • Persistent lying or deceit
  • Aggressive or violent behavior
  • Lack of remorse about harming others
  • Impulsive behavior

These are people who understand what the outside world considers right and wrong, they just feel no connection to the distinction.  They can’t ever put themselves in someone else’s shoes, because their shoes are the only ones that exist on their planet.  They have no empathy, no heart, no soul.  They never learned how.

Personality disorders are thought to be caused by a combination of genetic and environmental influences.  Nature and nurture.  Research suggests some children may have a genetic vulnerability to antisocial personality disorder and that inadequate parenting may act as the ultimate trigger.  But there’s no question that the seeds are sown very early — during the first 2-3 years of life.

In order to develop trust and the ability to form loving relationships, children must have their earliest and most basic needs met in a consistent way.  They must be fed when they’re hungry, and comforted when they fret.  Loving contact with a mothering figure is required, though it need not be the mother who fills the role.  Eye contact, touch, and verbal cooing help the developing brain to sprout critical neuronal connections that just don’t happen any other way.

In other words, all those things you naturally do with your newborn when you fall in love during those first days and weeks.

Without this early attachment, children don’t ever get the ingredients needed to connect in a loving way with other people.  It’s like trying to bake a cake without flour, eggs, or sugar.  It can’t happen.  And this is the essence of how we develop morality.  We care for and about others, and feel badly when they’re hurt. But only if we were cared for.

The fancy psychological name for this is reactive attachment disorder, but what it really means is that we were never cuddled, or sung to, or loved in those very early months when it mattered most.  No one felt connected to, or responsible for us, so we didn’t grow the basic tools to feel that for others.

It’s no accident that 80% of those who fill our prisons spent time in the foster care system as young children.  And no surprise that today, in our country, children who are removed from their families due to neglect or abuse will land in an average of four different foster homes in the first year.

Not all these kids grow up to be criminals.  Some have amazing resilience and manage to thrive in spite of the odds.  Maybe a roll of  the genetic dice gave them more to work with, amping up the nature side of the equation to compensate for a bad hand on the nurture side.  We don’t understand it yet, but these special few have much to teach us about how character is formed.  How are they able to get what they need when so many others can’t?

But I’m willing to bet that this poor, damaged, 17 year old monster got a raw deal in the parenting department.  It’s more than a guess that his early months lacked  the basics … love, warmth, and safety.  It’s a simple fix, but too many of our kids miss out on it.

The worst part is that once you’ve missed it, it’s exceedingly difficult to go back and get it. The window closes by age 3, and after that the cake can never be baked.  Lots of work is being done to develop therapeutic approaches to replace that early caring, and some have had promising results, but the original hole can’t be filled.  It always remains.

But when you think about it, these facts have a big upside.  The most important thing you can do to raise strong, loving kids who care for others?  Love and care for them. And insist on a nation where ALL our kids are wanted, loved, and cared for.  Because we can’t afford not to.  No high tech app needed.

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Rachel Zahn, MD is a pediatrician turned health writer who had three kids during medical school and pediatric training—crazy, huh?

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