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ABC-CLIO, Incorporated
When Good Kids Kill / Edition 1

When Good Kids Kill / Edition 1

by Michael D. Kelleher Ph.D.Michael D. Kelleher Ph.D.


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In recent years, the incidence of violent crime committed by teenagers has escalated, a fact that has hardly escaped the news media. When faced with the challenge of understanding and explaining such occurences in the headlines, one is tempted to rely upon the truism: There are good kids and there are bad kids. Michael D. Kelleher, noted expert on the subject of violence, asserts in When Good Kids Kill that this belief is outdated, oversimplified, and fundamentally wrong. He states that some of the most atrocious murders are, in fact, committed by good kids who have never given a prior indication of violence. Kelleher's book is the first to focus exclusively on homicides committed by previously nonviolent teens, exploring many of the prominent criminal cases covered by the media in recent years. Although individual killings are hard to predict, Kelleher's important new work demonstrates that there are categories of crime that can be attributed to good kids who kill; his work shows for the first time that the young perpetrators of murders that fall into these categories share similar backgrounds and experience.

While such crimes as teen mothers disposing of their newborns, sons and daughters murdering their parents, members of cults slaying friends or strangers, and young people murdering the objects of their sexual obsessions are almost always surprising and baffling, Kelleher points out that the killers often exhibit warning signs before erupting into violence. By recognizing these warnings and understanding patterns of experience that can motivate these tragic crimes, the author believes that parents, counselors, and education and law enforcement professionals can begin to address the challenge of increasing teenage violence and ensure a less violent society for our children.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780275964108
Publisher: ABC-CLIO, Incorporated
Publication date: 11/19/1998
Pages: 208
Product dimensions: 6.14(w) x 9.21(h) x 0.50(d)
Lexile: 1370L (what's this?)

About the Author

MICHAEL D. KELLEHER, who has written widely on the subject of violence, specializes in threat assessment, strategic management, and human resources management for organizations in the private and public sectors. He is the author of Murder Most Rare (1998), Profiling the Lethal Employee, Flash Point: The American Mass Murderer (1997), and New Arenas for Violence (1996), all published by Praeger.

Read an Excerpt


Consider this classic American credo: "There are good kids, and there are bad kids." Most of us first heard this phrase as children, and we have come to know it well in our adult lives. Many of us have used it in casual conversation, sometimes offering it as a troubled and uncertain explanation for the often-inexplicable actions of our children, our neighbor's children, or society's children. The majority of Americans accept this concept of "good kids and bad kids,' as a simple truism--a statement of belief that requires little thought, because it seems to accurately reflect the condition of our contemporary society as well as the intimate experiences of our own lives. However, at best, this belief is a dangerous oversimplification, one that is frequently used to distance ourselves from a complex and growing national problem. At worst, it is an unconscious act of surrender to potential violence, a thinly veiled condemnation of our own children and, therefore, our own future.

According to this popular and contemporary notion, bad kids are easily identified, often feared, and irretrievably destined for failure--or worse. Perhaps as teenagers they have aligned themselves with a recognized, highly organized, and feared gang; alternatively, they may have formed a loose association with small, localized groups comprised of similar and (to many adults) questionable individuals. Often they flaunt their presence with peculiar dress, distinguishing speech patterns, or preferences in music and entertainment that seem foreign, unsavory, and unsettling to their parents and other adults.

These kids delight in giving the impression that they do not valuethe traditional sanctions and expectations of an older, allegedly wiser society. They often view conformity as a sign of weakness, unless that conformity is indicative of loyalty to their peers. These teenagers may be unwilling to interact with their parents or other adults in an open way, even when it is to their advantage to do so. Their vision of the future may not be as clear as it could be, and they may even work vigorously at distancing themselves from the unresponsive and more established society that surrounds them. Sometimes they push their activities beyond the structure of the law, testing the limits of what is acceptable, avoidable, or tolerable. At times they may act well apart from the accepted norms of our society, with varying degrees of success and punishment as an inevitable result.

If, by the common definition of the term, such teenagers are thought to be "bad kids," then they must do bad things, even though the essential meaning of "bad" varies wildly among those who judge their actions. In their teenage years some youth may begin to show a sudden disinterest in school, a disregard for traditional and expected responsibilities, a withdrawal from emotional bonding with their parents, and an obvious disdain for the values of any generation but their own. A few will become extremely withdrawn, secretive, argumentative, and aggressive or violent. However, whatever disturbing form these critical years of abrupt change may take, we as a society stubbornly claim to know instinctively when our children begin to do bad things, even though we are often at a loss to define the concept with any precision. When our children engage in undesirable activities or behavior we become concerned, fearful, defensive, frustrated, and sometimes angry. We may consider these unexpected actions by our children as dire warning signs--the fearful, unsettling markers along the path to adulthood by which we decide when a particular child is, at his or her root, a bad kid.

Sadly, some of these adolescents do eventually earn the unshakable definition of "bad," by their overt acts of mayhem and violence. Some of the crimes of these teenagers are so horrific that their impact seems to leave no room to consider any question of goodness. By our own definition, such teenagers must be inherently bad, simply because their crimes are so heinous. The media is replete with examples of kids who have committed aggressive and reprehensible crimes after a long history of flagrantly violating the law. Their young lives are abruptly shattered in a final explosion of ultimate violence against family, friends, rivals, or society--and their victims are many.

It is common to learn that these teenage criminals typically arose from a childhood saturated with poverty, neglect, abuse, and an uncaring, indifferent family environment. Such disturbing stories are legend in America and common fare for the press. The awful crimes of these teenagers are known to most of us, and their impact tends to make us fear all youth more than we should. In the end, because of our concerns for our own children and ourselves, we struggle even harder to recognize the genuine warning signs of impending disaster--to be secure in our absolute knowledge of "good kids" and "bad kids." Unfortunately, it seems that we are tilting at windmills.

The irony of this understandable reaction to a society plagued with violent youth is that we fail to comprehend the complexities of the real issues. Instead, we see only the two options of good and bad. As a result, we strive to keep firmly, and often blindly, to our prosaic definitions of "good kids" and "bad kids." Because of our own uncertainty, we can often be quick to condemn without understanding, too ready to fear without knowledge, and too often prepared to support our very personal definitions of "good kids" and "bad kids" simply because they are familiar and comfortable. Given the complexity and dangers of American society, this kind of reaction s very human; however, it has led to a belief system about our children that is far too simplistic and perhaps even dangerous.

When we read of a good kid who has committed a vicious, gruesome crime, we are ready to look for some subtle, covert motivation that will not destroy our basic credo but rather explain the inexplicable. After all, there are good kids and bad kids--or so we must believe. If a teenager who has always been viewed as honorable, trustworthy, compliant, and conscientious suddenly commits a violent, explosive crime, the prosaic explanation is that he or she was in reality not a good kid. As sudden as his or her crime proved to be, we instantly set to work to reorganize our definition of the goodness and badness of youth so that our basic credo will remain alive and well. In this way, we can for a time set aside our fears and once again wrap ourselves in the warming, comforting definitions of good and bad that we have come to value so highly.

The reality that is presented to us by kids who lash out in acts of unexpected, horrible violence threatens to destroy our personal definitions of good and bad. The actions of these teenagers are clear and devastating, even though their motivations seem foreign, frightening, and frequently beyond understanding. Their crimes also threaten to forever annihilate our basic beliefs about all children--our own children as well as others. What these teenagers do when they lash out in violence tends to throw into question the very foundations upon which we try to build an understanding of all youth. Yet if we are to ever come to a genuine knowledge of why our children commit such brutal crimes, particularly kids who have demonstrated no inclination for violence, we cannot hold fast to a credo that seeks to make them definable by two amorphous and changing qualities, "good" and "bad." If we are willing to put aside our natural, instinctive fears and work to understand these adolescents as we would hope to be understood by them, we must first come to the realization that our long-cherished belief in good kids and bad kids is outdated, oversimplified, and fundamentally wrong.

In truth, good kids sometimes act very badly, and bad kids often act with honor and truthfulness. As a society, we can and should recognize both good and bad actions. We should strive to reward those members of our society who contribute in a positive way, while we work toward eliminating those actions that threaten our peace, our culture, and our lives. However, it is a mistake to blindly and universally identify the actor with his or her actions. They are not the same things, even though it is sometimes reassuring to believe that they are.

When violence strikes at our family, our nation, or us, there are reasons waiting to be understood and motivations crying out to be discovered. Without an effort to move beyond the mere punishment of an individual or group who has violated our societal norms, we run the risk of never coming to an understanding of why violence so plagues our nation. Worse, we overlook opportunities to create a better, safer society for our children and ourselves.

From time to time, we read a horrifying story about a good kid who has gone disastrously wrong. Perhaps it is an honor student, loving son, and promising athlete who suddenly and brutally murders his mother in an inexplicable rage over a minor family issue. It may be a teenage mother who kills and discards her newborn baby after hiding her pregnancy from her parents and friends. There are many possibilities, even though these types of crime are relatively rare in our society. In the media and on television these adolescents are generally portrayed as inherently good individuals who have somehow gone horribly astray. Their stories are sensationalized in the press and are often accompanied by wild, exaggerated, and unfounded conclusions. The angles of the stories that surround these teenagers frequently dwell on the obvious disparity between the positive, loving, traditional background of the perpetrator and the single moment of horror that redefined the entire meaning of his or her young life. These are the most troubling cases--the brutal incidents of unconscionable violence that threaten to overturn all we believe about our children and ultimately ourselves. However, the stories of these crimes and their perpetrators are not simple. There are no easy, straightforward questions of "good" and "bad" in most of these tragedies.

When good kids kill, there is a reason--somewhere. When they murder, even though the act is blatantly horrible and wrong, it is irrational to believe that the crime sprang fully formed from some ill-defined, vacuous, and insensitive soul. That is rarely, if ever, the truth. When a teenager lashes out in extreme violence, we must look beyond his or her crimes, regardless of their horror, and search out the reasons why the crime occurred. In many cases we can do this, if we are willing to face the issues honestly and move beyond the temptation to quickly categorize either the perpetrators or the victims. In some cases, however, it seems impossible to understand the violence that has occurred. In some instances, we just do not know enough--yet.

If we truly care to understand why those children we once categorized as good became so bad, so quickly, we have no choice but to set aside our simple assessment of these individuals and squarely face the complex forces that impelled them to violence. To do anything less is to abrogate our responsibilities as members of a forward-looking society and forever surrender our hope for a less violent future.

Table of Contents


Inconceivable Crimes

Fear, Denial, and Murder

Rage and Retribution

Senseless Acts of Violence

The Question of Conscience

The Punishment Priority

Hope and Change


Selected Bibliography


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