Martin van Creveld asks: why do American kids kill?

Summary:  Today Martin van Creveld looks at an aspect of America that amazes foreigners — not just our stratospheric murder rate, but the incredible rate of murders by children. We feel righteous superiority about Arabs sending their children as suicide bombers, but prefer not to think about the greater number of American children killing on their own initiative. We are exceptional.   (1st of 2 posts today.}

Killer kids

Why American Kids Kill

By Martin van Creveld
From his website, 2 July 2014
Posted here with his generous permission.

American kids keep killing each other, their teachers, and any other adults who happen to be present when they go berserk. Since December 2012 alone there have been some 74 school shootings, more than two a month on the average. Each time something of the kind happens the media go even more berserk than the children themselves. So far neither metal detectors at the gates nor armed guards in the corridors seem to have made much of a difference. Proposals for dealing with the problem have ranged from providing teachers with handguns to covering students with bullet-proof blankets.

As a foreigner who has spent some years in the U.S while his children went to school there, and who has written a book (in Russian) about the U.S, I may be in a better position than many others to shed some light on this question. Here, then, are my observations.

Healthcare for children

Owing to the way the healthcare system is constructed, American infants are more likely than some others to die during their early months or years. For many years now, even the States that do best in this respect tend to lag behind many other developed countries, including some that are much poorer. Though America’s fertility rate may be the highest among developed countries, its kids are skimped on before they are born as well as immediately after birth. Arguably the fact that the problem affects lower-class socio-economic families much more than it does those above them only makes things worse.

Child care spending

Compared to many other developed countries, America spends relatively little of its public wealth on raising its children. Family payments, measured in absolute numbers, are lower than in Australia, Austria, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, and the U.K. They are also much lower than the OECD average. Relative to the earned incomes of employed single mothers, the overall value of cash transfers per family is low and declining. As a result, the percentage of children who live in poverty is higher than in most other developed countries.

Parental tyranny: Over-parenting

As if to make up for these shortcomings, American parents, and society in general, are extremely demanding on their children. At school they are supposed to get straight A’s. At home they are supposed to perform “chores,” meaning unpleasant tasks adults do not want to do. In addition they have to excel at sports — the reason being that, doing so, they may be able to get through college with the aid of scholarships and thus save their parents tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars. I personally knew some perfectly nice middle-class parents who more or less compelled their teenage daughter have an operation on her knees, which were hurting, so she could to go on playing basketball. If all this were not enough, during their vacations they are expected to hold a job — the kind of job, needless to say, that pays so little that nobody else would want it — so as to cover at least part of their expenses.

The outcome is that many teenagers are busier, and enjoy less leisure, than in any of the many other countries I have visited or in which I have lived. Talking to some of them, I never understood how they managed it. Inevitably, some fail to do so. All this is done in the name of teaching children how to cope with “life”—yet judging by the results, it is often counter-productive.

TIME on over-parenting, 30 November 2009
The Growing Backlash Against Over-parenting” by Nancy Gibbs, 30 November 2009.

Parental tyranny: the burden of rules

Even as they encourage their children to grow up in a competitive world, American parents and society in general put them under any number of restrictions. If American adults are greedy for an endless supply of high-quality goods and services, then the American Psychological Association will commission a study on the effect of advertising on children with the goal of making them less so. If many Americans swear, then an American seven year old will be punished by his school principal for telling a classmate that his mother was gay, as indeed she was.

If Americans supposedly smoke too much, then American youths up to age 21 are forbidden to smoke and may, indeed, be sent to jail for buying a pack of cigarettes. If not enough Americans join the Armed Forces so they can be sent to get killed in useless wars on the other side of the world, then any school that receives federal money must admit Pentagon recruiters and must provide those recruiters with students’ contact addresses even without their knowledge, or that of their parents. Ironically this requirement, which was enacted in 2001, was part of a law known as “no child left behind”.

If American adults like to drink while riding in stretch limousines, then out of fear that kids may do the same they are prohibited from using those limousines for their coming-out parties and must content themselves by being bused instead. If over sixty percent of American adults are overweight, then one can be certain that their children, far fewer of whom are, will be made to pay the price by having sweets, snacks, candy and various soft drinks banned from their schools’ vending machines. The list is endless.

Thus children are caught in a vise. From the moment of birth on, they are taught they must grow up so as to make their way in society. But that very society also puts them under endless prohibitions and, claiming that they “cannot handle it” (whatever “it” may be) infantilizes them. As one American told me, that explains why American children are so keen on sport. It is the only adult activity on which they are allowed to engage.

Parental tyranny: the burden of punishments

Finally, American parents, and society in general, have never learnt how to spare the rod. I well remember how, on first visiting the home of a prominent and extremely well educated lawyer, I was told that his two sons had been “grounded” for quarrelling and would not be allowed to leave their room for a couple of days. I well remember how my son, then thirteen years old and following his first day at an American school, came home with a fifty-page booklet listing all the things he was prohibited from doing and the punishments attached to each; and yet, as he said between tears, he had done nothing wrong yet! Worse still, with computers around no offense committed by a child, however trivial, is ever left unregistered or forgotten. It is as if the term “forgiveness” did not exist.

Some parents go so far as to send their rebellions children to a kind of bootcamp where they are supposed to learn what is what. Others even allow those children to be kidnapped by personnel who work for the firms that operate the camps and take them there by force. Others still consult doctors who then prescribe Prozac, Ritalin and other chemical compounds to keep the children quiet. Wherever one goes one hears the advice, “talk to your children.” But how can American parents, especially busy career mothers who often work as hard as fathers and are always desperately trying to juggle career and housework, ever find the time and energy to do so the way it should be done? Instead, all they seem to do is nag their offspring about homework.

As the Roman philosopher Seneca used to say, repeated punishment crushes the spirit of some of those subject to it. At the same time it stirs up hatred among all the rest. Is it any wonder that some children, caught in an impossible world, take up a gun and kill everybody they meet?


Martin van Creveld

About the Author

Martin van Creveld is Professor Emeritus of History at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and one of the world’s most renowned experts on military history and strategy.

The central role of Professor van Creveld in the development of theory about modern war is difficult to exaggerate. He has provided both the broad historical context — looking both forward and back in time — much of the analytical work, and a large share of the real work in publishing both academic and general interest books. He does not use the term 4GW, preferring to speak of “non-trinitarian” warfare — but his work is foundational for 4GW just the same.

Professor van Creveld has written 20 books, about almost every significant aspect of war. Some of the best known are Technology and War: From 2000 B.C. to the Present and  Nuclear Proliferation and the Future of Conflict. He’s written books about the technical aspects of war, such as Supplying War: Logistics from Wallenstein to Patton, Training of Officers: From Military Professionalism to Irrelevance, and Air Power and Maneuver Warfare.

He’s written controversial books, such as Fighting Power: German and U.S. Army Performance, 1939-1945 (German soldiers were better than our!) and Men, Women & War: Do Women Belong in the Front Line?. He’s written some of the most influential books of our generation about war, such as The Transformation of War: The Most Radical Reinterpretation of Armed Conflict Since Clausewitz (which I consider the best work to date about modern war) and The Changing Face of War: Combat from the Marne to Iraq.

His magnum opus is the dense about mind-opening The Rise and Decline of the State – the ur-text describing the political order of the 21st century. For links to his articles see The Essential 4GW reading list: Martin van Creveld.

For More Information

See these articles about child killers…

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Killer kids overseas



7 thoughts on “Martin van Creveld asks: why do American kids kill?”

  1. I didn’t know it was this bad! I certainly think it was much better when I was growing up, the 50’s and 60’s. I recently read where a couple were charged with some kind of crime for allowing their children to walk home from school? alone. There was even a term for this kind of parenting (which I cannot remember at the moment but it struck me there was an actual classification of parenting for this).
    I think the biggest change has been the invasion of schools by the American Psychiatric Society. The amount of medication kids are on today is criminal. Ritalin, anti-psychotics, anti-depressants, etc. Pretty much every major school shooting was done by someone on meds. That’s not to say these kids didn’t have problems at the time only that the possibility of these meds actually causing a break from reality is well known. And of course after a shooting to relieve the trauma, more kids are put on meds.

    1. Law enforcement/police officers (many veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan) and kids are two of the most psychotropic drug medicated segments of society. It is accurate to zero in on prescription drugs as perhaps the major factor leading to violent actions against others and self.

      For more information:


    Begs the question. Why do American police kill? Why do Americans adults kill? Why do American bombers and drones kill? Maybe, kids, they are just reflecting the rest of society. I don’t think this is too surprising.

    “I well remember how my son, then thirteen years old and following his first day at an American school, came home with a fifty-page booklet listing all the things he was prohibited from doing and the punishments attached to each; and yet, as he said between tears, he had done nothing wrong yet!”

    That said, I’m totally with this point here. America is infaturated with punishment, endless punishment. Punishment of blacks, punishment of Arabs, punishment of ‘illegal aliens’, punishment of children. Punish, punish, punish.

  3. This is part of the “character armor” enabling 300M to rule the other 7B. Empire ain’t beanbag.

  4. To maintain such a great empire a number of not so nice individuals have to be trained and unleashed. This tends to coarser the whole society as can be seen from the pervasive violence. The U S was never going to be a peaceful Nordic social democracy.

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