Murder in Liverpool / Evil: is it born or is it bred?: Writers have always asked whether children are naturally bad or good

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The door flew open, in he ran, The great, long, red-legg'd scissorman Oh] children, see] the tailor's come And caught out little Suck-a-Thumb. Snip] Snap] Snip] the scissors go; And Conrad cries out - Oh] Oh] Oh] Snip] Snap] Snip] They go so fast, That both his thumbs are off at last.

The Victorian way of improving children was by scaring them, as here in 'Conrad and the Scissor Man' from Struwwelpeter by Heinrich Hoffman.

Picture from the Mary Evans archive


Summerhill, 1960

John, 13, was given a puppy as a birthday present. 'He loves animals,' his mother had written. As John took little Spot around with him, it soon became clear that he was mistreating the dog. I concluded that he was identifying Spot with his younger brother Jim, his mother's favourite.

One day, I saw him beating Spot. I went up to the little dog, stroked it and said 'Hello, Jim.' Apparently, I made John conscious that he had been venting his hatred of his rival brother on the poor dog. Thereafter, he ceased being cruel to Spot . . .

Many psychologists believe that a child is born neither good nor bad, but with tendencies toward both beneficence and criminality. I believe there is no instinct of criminality nor any natural tendency toward malevolence in the child.


The Fifth Child, 1988

She often sat in the kitchen, by herself, when they were across the low wall in the living-room, watching the box. They might sprawl there for hours, all afternoon and evening . . . Shootings and killings and tortures and fighting: this is what fed them. She watched them watching - but it was more as if they were actually part of the stories on the screen. They were unconsciously tensing and flexing, faces grinning, or triumphant or cruel; and they let out groans or sighs or yells of excitement: 'That's it, do it]' 'Carve him up]' 'Kill him, slice him]' And the moans of excited participation as the bullets poured into a body, as blood spurted, as the tortured victim screamed.'


Confessions, c 400

. . . In thy sight can no man be clean from his sin; no, not an infant of a day old upon the earth. Who will put me in mind of this? Any such a little one, in whom I now observe, what of myself I remembered not? Wherein did I then sin? . . . by crying to desire what would have hurt me by being given; and to be sullenly forward at freemen and elders that did not humour me, and mine own parents too; yea and fighting, as fiercely as I could, at divers other discreeter persons. . .because they obeyed not my commands. So that it is not the mind of infants that is harmless, but the weakness of their childish members. I myself have seen and observed a little baby to be already jealous; and before it could speak, what an angry and bitter look it would cast at another child that sucked its milk away.


Nicholas Nickleby, 1839

Pale and haggard faces, lank and bony figures, children with the countenances of old men, deformities with irons upon their limbs, boys of stunted growth, and others whose long meagre legs would hardly bear their stooping bodies, all crowded on the view together . . . There were little faces which should have been handsome, darkened with the scowl of sullen dogged suffering; there was childhood with the light of its eye quenched, its beauty gone, and its helplessness alone remaining; there were vicious-faced boys brooding, with leaden eyes, like malefactors in a jail . . . what an incipient Hell was breeding there]


Lord of the Flies, 1954

Ralph moaned faintly. Tired though he was, he could not relax and fall into a well of sleep for fear of the tribe. Might it not be possible to walk boldly into the fort, say - 'I've got pax,' laugh lightly and sleep among the others? Pretend they were still boys, schoolboys who had said 'Sir, yes, Sir' and worn caps? Daylight might have answered yes; but darkness and the horrors of death said no . . . There were sounds coming from behind the Castle Rock. Listening carefully, detaching his mind from the swing of the sea, Ralph could make out a familiar rhythm.

'Kill the beast] Cut his throat] Spill his blood]'


A Godly Form of Household Government, 1621

The young child which lieth in the cradle is both wayward and full of affections; and though his body be but small, yet he hath a reat (wrong-doing) heart, and is altogether inclined to evil . . . If this sparkle be suffered to increase, it will rage over and burn down the whole house. For we are changed and become good not by birth but by education . . . Therefore parents must . . . correct and sharply reprove their children for saying or doing ill.


A High Wind in Jamaica, 1929

Her father . . . stood unseen in the shadows of her bedroom, watching her . . . his bowels of compassion yearned towards the child of his loins . . . But as he stood now watching her, his sensitive eyes communicated to him an emotion which was not pity and was not delight: he realised . . . that he was afraid of her]

But surely it was some trick of the candle-light, or of her indisposition, that gave her face momentarily that inhuman, stony, basilisk look?


The Children of Dynmouth, 1976

It was impossible to know the truth about Timothy Gedge, why he was as he was . . . There were the good things, too, she reminded him. There were children who were loved and who were lovable. There were their own two children, and thousands of others in Dynmouth and elsewhere. It was only the odd one who grew a shell like Timothy Gedge's . . .

They went to bed and when Lavinia woke in the night it was Timothy Gedge she thought of, not her lost child. She wondered how he would be now if he'd been brought up in the Devon Manor Orphanage. She wondered how he'd be if his father had not driven off or if his mother had shown him more affection. How would he be if on one of those Saturday mornings when he'd hung around the rectory she'd recognised herself the bitterness beneath his grin?

She couldn't believe the catastrophe of Timothy Gedge was not somehow due to other people, and the circumstances created by other people.


Emile, 1762

Do not give your pupil any kind of verbal lessons; he ought to receive them only from experience. Inflict no kind of punishment on him, for he does not know what it is to be at fault. Never make him beg pardon, for he could not know how to offend you. Devoid of all morality in his actions, he can do nothing which is morally bad and which merits either punishment or reprimand . . .

Let us set down as an incontestable maxim that the first movements of nature are always right. There is no original perversity in the human heart. There is not a single vice to be found in it of which it cannot be said how and whence it entered. . .Therefore, up to the time when the guide of amour propre, which is reason, can be born, it is important for a child to do nothing because he is seen or heard - nothing, in a word, in relation to others; he must respond only to what nature asks of him, and then he will do nothing but good.


The Turn of the Screw, 1898

'Their more than earthly beauty, their absolutely unnatural goodness. It's a game,' I went on; 'it's a policy and a fraud]'

'On the part of little darlings - ?'

'As yet mere lovely babies? Yes, mad as that seems] . . . They haven't been good - they've only been absent. It's been easy to live with them, because they're simply leading a life of their own. They're not mine - they're not ours. They're his and they're hers]'

'Quint's and that woman's?'

'Quint's and that woman's. They want to get to them.'

'But for what?'

'For the love of all the evil that, in those dreadful days, the pair put into them. And to ply them with that evil still, to keep up the work of demons . . .'


The Father's Advice to his Children, 1701

Be . . . much . . . in the contemplation of the four last things, Heaven, Hell, Death and Judgment. Place yourselves frequently upon your deathbeds, in your coffins and in your graves. Act over frequently in your minds the solemnity of your own funerals; and entertain your imaginations with all the lively scenes of mortality. Meditate much upon the places, and upon the days of darkness, and upon the fewness of those that shall be saved; and be always with your hourglass in your hand, measuring out your own little span and comparing it with the endless circle of eternity.


Coriolanus, 1607-09

Valeria. O' my word, the father's son] I'll swear 'tis a very pretty boy. O' my my troth, I looked upon him o' Wednesday half an hour together; has such a confirmed countenance] I saw him run after a gilded butterfly; and when he caught it he let it go again; and after it again; and over and over he comes, and up again; catched it again; or whether his fall enraged him, or how 'twas, he did so set his teeth, and tear it. O, I warrant, how he mammocked it]

Volumnia. One on's father's moods.

Valeria. Indeed, la, 'tis a noble child.

Volumnia. A crack (rascal), madam.


There is a Choice: Good or Evil, 1992 (The Spectator)

It is, to me, self-evident that we are born with a sense of good and evil. It is also self-evident that as we grow up each individual chooses whether to be good or bad. Fear of eternal damnation was a message reinforced through attendance at church every week. The loss of that fear has meant a critical motive has been lost to young people when they decide whether to try to be good citizens or to be criminals.



Intimations of Immortality, 1806

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting: The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star, Hath elsewhere had its setting, And cometh from afar: Not in entire forgetfulness, And not in utter nakedness, But trailing clouds of glory do we come From God who is our home: Heaven lies about us in our infancy]


Songs of Innocence, 1789

'Twas on a Holy Thursday, their innocent faces clean, The children walking two and two, in red and blue and green . . . O what a multitude they seem'd, these flowers of London town] Seated in companies they sit with radiance all their own. The hum of multitudes was there, but multitudes of lambs, Thousands of little boys and girls raising their innocent hands.

(Photograph omitted)