When Children Kill: A Social-Psychological Study of Youth Homicide
Michael Ungar is an associate professor at the Maritime School of Social
Work, Dalhousie University, and a marriage and family therapist
specializing in work with high-risk youth. His upcoming book is titled
Playing at Being Bad: The Hidden Resilience of
Katharine Kelly and Mark Totten admit at the outset of their book that
homicide committed by youths is a rare event, but one still worthy of
our attention, if only for the effect it has on our attitudes toward
young offenders. The 19 Canadian adults, both men and women, in this
qualitative study were all convicted of murder or manslaughter committed
before their 18th birthdays.
Those looking for a comprehensive explanation for why children kill
will have to be satisfied with a montage of details that speak to the
normalcy and unpredictability of such violence and to the circumstantial
factors that predict it. This in itself makes the book a significant
work, in that it hasn’t tried to reach for one main conclusion.
Instead we meet a heterogeneous group of people who mostly grew up in
violent homes, who faced multiple risks at school or in their
communities, and who drifted into lifestyles or through institutions
where they came into contact with peers who made acts of violence that
much more likely. But even this blend of chaotic pathways to violence is
not the entire story. While most of the participants in Kelly and
Totten’s study experienced placement outside their family of origin,
violence, and bullying, and were challenged academically, others faced
few risks and appeared to come from stable and loving homes. The
strength of this work is this contrast. One might say that it supports
the necessity for pluralism evident in constructionist approaches to
work with offenders.
As the authors conclude, the only unity shown among the study’s
participants was their minimizing of what had happened. If there are any
conclusions we can draw, it is that these youth were involved in
ordinary violence that went too far and they ended up killing someone.
Choices were made and circumstances unfolded. Beyond this, we meet a
group of dangerous and angry children in adults bodies.