“I wanna be a psychopathic murderer when I grow up because I enjoy the power and adrenaline that surges through me when I think about taking a human life.”
This is what I heard the seven year old kid on the playground say. What he actually said was “I want to be a soldier and kill bad guys with my guns when I grow up.”
My boys witnessed the smiling child, standing at the top of the slide with a stick, excitedly announcing his future military career. They promptly picked up their own sticks and joined the boy in a “battle.” I clenched white-knuckled fists and breathed through my “chillax, mama” mantra. Indeed, no eyes were actually gouged out of any sockets.
Later that day, my whole family heard an NPR news broadcast of a hospital bombing in Syria, and my middle kid’s ears perked up. “There were women and children that exploded, mommy?” I made my voice very somber and explained that “killing and death is always very sad and serious and not something to be glorified; That boy on the playground probably just doesn’t know what really goes on in war…” Everyone was quiet.
My husband lovingly told me I was a nut job for my over-analysis and over-handling of normalcy.
“Boys have testosterone. They’re gonna like the idea of power. Don’t be all shocked and worried that a kid was wielding a stick and basking in the idea of killing bad guys. When I was little, I did that stuff, And I have yet to actually murder a single soul. And you don’t have to lecture the kids on the sadness of killing to make sure they don’t become psychopaths.”
Leave it to my husband to talk me off the ledge of the overthinking-bordering-on-paranoid psychologist.
But this scenario got me thinking. Maybe we do have natural human impulses toward power and dominance, but something tempers these impulses and reigns them in toward constructive outlets and civility. Maybe that tempering force is, in my totally biased opinion as an attachment-based psychologist, human connection.
Maybe a 10 year old might enjoy the idea of clobbering a kid’s sand castle and stealing his ice cream cone, but he stops himself because he has seen the sadness that his mother experienced when someone ruined or took her stuff, and, because he is bonded with his mom, he learned and generalized the concept of empathy. Or maybe a 12 year old naturally has an inclination toward competition and superiority, but partly because he has learned empathy within his well-bonded relationship with his sensitive little sister, he still wins almost everything but humbly saves the brag-fests for after his opponents have left. (And in these hypothetical scenarios, the kids are able to act on this learned empathy because they have intact prefrontal cortex functioning, but this is not a post on impulse control.)
I had all of this on my mind yesterday when I brought my three boys to the indoor public pool. I watched their cannon balls, threw diving toys for them one at a time while their brothers waited, officiated races where there truly was only one winner, guided them toward taking turns and being patient with our ONE pair of remaining goggles, held my youngest up by his belly and practiced kicks while the older two were reminded that they had gotten similar personal attention in previous years….There were countless opportunities to notice and care about someone else’s feelings and needs, to practice the restraint, civility, and empathy born only from human interaction. And all this “attachment therapy” happened within the span of a mere hour of screenless and fully-absorbed engagement.
As much as my kids will miss my bizarre diatribes on the seriousness of war and I will miss my personal angst about playground battles… I think that from now on I will stick to other ways of teaching them humanity ….
Whether it’s an hour at the pool, a simple game of Monopoly, a “game” of flag football in the yard, making a meal together, keeping the TV off in the car and at dinner, spending an hour chatting in bed and stalling sleep, or even having a family laundry party in the living room…. the art of regular, deliberate, engagement remains the not-actually-easy-but-actually-effective way to temper sociopathy.
Just something to think -but not obsess- about. From the therapist that just read this book about the rise of sociopathy and the isolating/individualistic societal factors that lead to callus detachment.