Why Do Adults Kill Children?

A recent spate of deadly attacks on children in China has confused authorities looking for a trend, and shocked relatives and onlookers pondering the motivations of such violent criminals. Adults so rarely murder children that psychiatrists and law enforcement officials don’t have enough data to draw any conclusions about possible similarities in the killers’ motives.

Of the 14,180 homicide victims in the United States in 2008, the last for which data are available, less than 1 percent were 16 or younger, according to FBI statistics. Because the murder of children is so rare, and the incidents in which they die are so varied, it is impossible to find any useful links between the murders, said L. Thomas Kucharski, the chair of psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

“These types of events are rare, poorly understood, and idiosyncratic. There's no research that says you can draw a commonality between the cases,” Kucharski told Life's Little Mysteries.

The vast majority of murders occur as a result of revenge or anger between acquaintances, or as an outgrowth of drug-related crime, Kucharski said. The remaining murders are rooted in personal psychological problems or unique environmental conditions.

In the most recent Chinese school attacks, the perpetrators might not have deliberately targeted children, but instead simply selected the schools because they were the closest, least protected areas where people gathered in large numbers, said Jack Levin, director of the Brudnick Center on Conflict and Violence at Northeastern University in Boston.

“In this case, it may have had nothing to do with the age of the victims, and a lot more to do with the killer getting the idea that there were large numbers of vulnerable targets congregating nearby,” Levin said.

To put the frequency of child homicide in perspective, in 2008, there were 6.5 times as many 17 to 34-year-olds murdered in the U.S. than people 16 years old and younger. And homicides at school are even rarer, with fewer U.S. children dying during school hours than during any other time of the day, Levin said.

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Stuart Fox currently researches and develops physical and digital exhibit experiences at the Science Liberty Center. His news writing includes the likes of several Purch sites, including Live Science and Live Science's Life's Little Mysteries.