Writing Survival Guide

Why Do Kids Kill?
Cause and Effect Essay Flowchart

Susan Smith Nash, Ph.D.

Downloadable mp3 file here: http://www.beyondutopia.net/podcasts/killer-kids.mp3

It is difficult to explain why there have been so many cases in the United States of kids killing parents, relatives, schoolmates, and total strangers. This essay flow chart helps students recognize how to support an argument and to avoid flaws in their logic.


Like many of society's troubling issues, the explanations are murky at best. Yet, despite the lack of clarity, we want to untangle motives, influences, factors, and possible deterrents.

When postulating a cause and effect relation, it is important to examine the nature of explanations and the argument for possible bias, logic flaws, faulty assumptions.


Components of the Essay:

Engaging the Reader. Start with an illustrative scene, or details cases or examples. Your goal is to engage the reader and to have him/her ask questions.

Omaha Killer's Troubled Past: http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,25197,22889325-2703,00.html

Massacre at Virginia Tech: http://www.cnn.com/SPECIALS/2007/virginiatech.shootings/

Colorado New Life Church Killer: http://www.rockymountainnews.com/news/2007/dec/09/shooting-reported-new-life-church-springs/

James Holmes Shows No Emotion in Court Appearance: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/17/james-holmes-court-appearance-victims_n_1795932.html

Statistics and History.
It is very persuasive to provide statistics and background. However, statistics can distort the situation and shape the reader's perception of events. Statistics can reinforce negative stereotypes, in addition to providing a realistic view of things.

Nature vs. Nurture.
Are some people born violent? Or, alternatively, does the environment make a person violent? Are individuals socialized into violence? Nature vs. nurture arguments are easily accepted by most readers, but if one is not careful, an argument can be biased and simply reinforce already existing opinions, ideas, and political stances.

Possible Cause #1: Television Violence (emulatory behavior)
Psychologist Albert Bandura conducted ground-breaking experiments which suggest that children imitate violent behavior seen on television. This argument has been expanded to suggest that children will behave violently after being exposed to media of all kinds, including video games, multiplayer interactive computer games, violent images, television, and even music.

Cautionary note: Does the author have a hidden agenda? Are the statistics being used to support underlying bias? There can be faulty assumptions, too. Does every exposure to violent behavior result in violent action? Does this assumption lead to damaging stereotyping?

  Possible Cause #2: Brain Chemistry
Are some people born with brains that are "wired" to be violent? Brain scans that demonstrate differences between the brains of violent criminals and ordinary law-abiding individuals have been used to support the notion that organic differences in the brain and nervous system are responsible for violent behavior.

Cautionary note: Whose research is being used? How did they conduct their research? Is there hidden bias? Be alert to socio-economic, ethnic stereotyping which masks itself as "biology."

Possible Cause #3: Culture of Killing
Do some societies develop a "culture of killing" that rewards people who are violent in certain ways? Are kids who kill transformed into anti-heroes, or cult figures? Does this lead to copycat acts? Which sociological and psychological theories and theorists can be used to weigh in on both sides of the argument?

Cautionary note: Is the writer's bias getting in the way of objectivity? Are things what they seem to be? Do appearances deceive?

Possible Cause #4: Warped Values
Can children's violent acts be attributed to a general decline in morality and values? This argument is often used by individuals who are promoting a particular agenda. In using this argument, it is very important to define morality, values, and the ideal. It is useful to also refer to philosophical ideas about the common good and ethical behavior.

Possible Cause #5:  Conditioned to Kill?
Numerous studies have suggested that individuals can be conditioned to do violent acts, and that they do so partly because they've been conditioned to do so. They may also kill if they believe that they are under orders to do so. Dave Grossman, author and expert on psychological issues involved with soldiers and killing, argues that adults and childen can be conditioned to kill through a number of behavioral and cognitive techniques, including operant conditioning. (http://www.killology.com/article_trainedtokill.htm)

Possible Cause #6: Child Soldiers -- Stunted Emotional Development? Never Developed Empathy?
There are many ways to exploit children, from child labor to trafficking. In armed conflict (wars, including drug trafficking), children are often used as soldiers and assassins. What made it possible to induce a child to kill in the first place? Do young minds not consider the people they're killing to be "real" ? Does it seem unreal? At the same time, do they kill out of fear? or pleasure? There have been an number of in-depth studies of child soldiers in Africa, and it's worthwhile to take a look at what people have observed.

Young Blood: Children of War

Useful Websites:

Statement made by children participating at the North American Regional Consultation for the UN Study on Violence against children, Toronto, 3 June 2005 .http://www.crin.org/violence/search/closeup.asp?infoID=5761

Dave Grossman: On Conditioning Kids to Kill (co-author of On Combat: The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and in Peace, WSG Research Publications, 2004)

Kip Kinkel: The Killer at Thurston High (PBS Special)

Albert Bandura, etal
"Transmission of Aggression through Imitation of Aggressive Models"

Imitative Violence: An overview from India and Indian film
"The Trend of Violence on the Indian Screen & its Influence on Children"

"TV Violence and Brainmapping in Children," by John P. Murray

Why They Kill: The Discoveries of a Maverick Criminologist, by Richard Rhodes

Bullying in high school: Of Bullies and the Bullied (Psychology Today)

ChildTrauma Academy, Bruce D. Perry, M.D.
Articles on the relationship between childhood neglect, trauma, and brain development

More Examples:
Lionel Tate: "Wrestling Case" Draws Life Sentence


Tate case profile: http://www.karisable.com/ymltate.htm

Red Lake Ojibwa Reservation school shootings:

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