IT’S NOT MY FAULT: REFUSING TO BE HELD ACCOUNTABLE (Chapter 8, 1989 Edition of Before It’s Too Late Reprinted with permission)page hidden title

From 1970 through 1978, Dr. Samenow worked as a clinical research psychologist for the Program for the Investigation of Criminal Behavior at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C.. With Dr. Samuel Yochelson, the findings of their clinical research-treatment study of offenders were published in the three-volume set entitled The Criminal Personality and is the author of Inside the Criminal Mind. Since 1978, Dr. Samenow has been in private practice as a clinical psychologist in Alexandria, Virginia.
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It’s common for children and adults alike to blame others as they attempt to wriggle out of admitting a wrongdoing. “He started it” is a response parents and teachers-in fact, anyone who deals with children-hear repeatedly. In a sense, it seems to be part of human nature to blame other people or circumstances in order to divert attention from our own shortcomings. Yet while the responsible person may do this on occasion, he more often will acknowledge his errors, learn from them, and make an effort not to repeat them.
Children and adults who are antisocial seem to have almost unlimited excuses for their own misconduct. In faulting others, they present themselves as victims and often sound convincing to whoever takes them to task. However, it would be preposterous to conclude that any young child who blames others for his own misbehavior will become antisocial.

The very young child does not have a clear concept of cause and effect when it comes to understanding the impact of his own behavior. He certainly does not have clearly delineated ideas about social relationships. If a toddler slings an object into the air and it strikes a nearby child, it may not be evident to the former that something untoward has happened as a result of his actions. Psychologist Gesell points out that a young child’s natural inclination is to blame others. A four-year-old may knock something over, turn to anyone in the immediate area, even the cat, and assert, “Now see what you made me do.” Gesell says that this kind of blaming, which may include faulting inanimate objects, continues until the age of seven, and even then the child still may “alibi in order to cover up any of his mistakes.”
It is at age eight, notes Gesell, that the child is more inclined to assume responsibility for his behavior and suffer the consequences. Even then, there is by no means a complete cessation of the courtroom-type scene in which children, confronted by an adult after a mischievous episode, blame one another. But by age nine, continues Gesell, the child accepts blame fairly well. He is developing a set of ethical concepts, and is more willing to accept responsibility for what he does.

Nevertheless, as we grow older, we all still occasionally blame outside circumstances. We play tennis and blame a sudden breeze for a shot going out of bounds. We curse our bad luck for investing in a stock based on a rumor that turns out to be unfounded. We blame congested traffic for our tardiness. Sometimes we are correct; adversity does occur through no fault of our own. If the sudden breeze hadn’t sprung up, our shot would have been good. Perhaps there was no way we could have anticipated that at ten in the morning there would be a massive traffic jam. But at times we blame others when we ourselves have been the creators of or contributors to the adversity. If we had conducted careful research or sought out competent advice, rather than purchasing a stock on impulse, we might have avoided a financial loss. If we had allowed extra time in case something went wrong on the highway, then we might have avoided being late. It is often convenient or expedient to blame circumstances rather than shoulder responsibility and attack a problem or even plan ahead to prevent it from occurring.

Deterministic explanations of human behavior have furthered the tendency to blame that which is external to the self. The view that man’s behavior is molded principally by the environment is conducive to regarding him as a victim of events beyond his control. In explaining what causes crime, practically every adverse circumstance imaginable has been cited, including poverty, racism, broken homes, child abuse, the glorification of violence in the media, deficient schools, unemployment, adverse influence by peers, and poor role models. While it is true that their environment has an impact on people, individuals differ in how they cope with it. In most cases, they need not be hapless victims of the environment.
Growing up in poverty is one example. A drug dealer whom I interviewed told me that he and his eight siblings were raised in a poor rural area of West Virginia where his alcoholic father eked out a living as a tenant farmer. He said that a person would have to have lived exactly as he did to truly understand how terrible it felt to go to bed hungry, how mortified he was when classmates laughed at him because he wore raggedy clothes, and how incredibly envious he felt of peers who owned things he could only dream about. As a child, he vowed that one day he would surround himself with luxury, which as a seller of narcotics he eventually was able to do. A background investigation conducted by a court official verified his statements about the grinding poverty of his youth. But the court official also learned that none of the offender’s eight brothers and sisters had either a criminal record or a history of drug abuse. All were employed at legitimate occupations; some were supporting families. Each of these individuals had been a victim in that, through no fault of his own, he had suffered extreme deprivation. But that deprivation did not “force” them into crime.
Of course, sometimes people truly are victims. But even then, as in the case of the drug dealer, individuals choose the way they respond to their victimization. To believe that human behavior is determined by external forces over which we have no control furthers the tendency to blame others rather than look for ways to cope with adversity and to improve ourselves. It slights the fact that sometimes people have the power to make choices to alter circumstances they did not choose.

When very young, the child who later develops pronounced antisocial patterns seems no different from any other youngster in that he blames people because he does not know any better or because he wants to save face. But eventually a more sinister aspect to this habit appears. Rather than having fewer reasons to blame others, he has more, because increasingly he is engaging in conduct that he desires to hide. He knows right from wrong, but in his mind, right is whatever he wants to do at the time. He is well aware that eventually he will be apprehended, but in his own mind it is never this time. He has the capacity to shut off the fear of getting caught long enough to do what he wants at the moment. When he miscalculates and is caught, he will automatically blame anyone or anything. It becomes a way of life for him to present himself as the victim. As he grows older, he develops an increasingly sophisticated set of tactics to divest himself of responsibility, fool others, and escape consequences.
It’s impossible to differentiate between a responsible and an antisocial youth just by looking at a single act. Instead, one has to know the overall mentality that is at work. Two ninth graders, for example, receive Ds on a test and blame the teacher for giving an unfair test. Such a response hardly sounds indicative of a future criminal. But consider the personality patterns of the two outraged boys in question. One had studied hard; the other had not opened a book. In the case of the first student, two possibilities for the reaction exist. Either he failed to master the material, (and possibly registering a protest about the exam to the teacher), this student vows to study harder the next time. In the second case, the student had no interest in the subject matter to begin with and therefore no intention of learning from the experience in order to improve. Following his customary habit, he diverts attention from his own lack of interest and effort by blaming the teacher.

The antisocial child often is successful at convincing others that whatever the problem, its source lies outside himself. Consider fifteen-year-old Tim, who has made life so miserable at home that his parents reluctantly have decided to send him to boarding school. Furious, Tim refuses to go. He asserts that his parents do not care about him, that their only interest is in getting rid of him. He bitterly accuses them of favoring his sister, of discriminating against his friends just because they dress in an offbeat manner, and of always blaming him when something goes wrong. His list of injustices is unending. Yet his mother and father had agonizingly reached the boarding school decision only after two years of utter misery as Tim skipped classes, refused to do homework, drove their car without permission, stole money from them, came in late at night reeking of alcohol, and refused to attend counseling sessions. Tim’s mom and dad knew that they had given him every opportunity to receive help and to change, but they still felt that they had failed as parents. They did not want to send him away. Hoping to find the most suitable school, they consulted a professional placement service. Tim continued to plead for one more chance, begging to stay home and attend the local public school. (Expensive private day schools had been tried, and each time Tim had been asked to leave for serious infractions of rules.) After the parents were interviewed, Tim was interviewed alone by the placement service director. He turned on the charm, telling her he had learned from his mistakes, pleading for a final chance, and promising not to disappoint his parents. He said he wanted to put the past behind him and turn over a new leaf. Tears welled up in his eyes as he complained to the counselor about his parents, especially about their bigoted attitude toward his friends. After listening to and questioning Tim, the counselor was impressed by his apparent sincerity in regard to changing his ways. Tim had been successful in convincing her that his parents’ behavior had been more unreasonable than his own and that, indeed, they were the cause of his misbehavior. The placement service director decided Tim was simply going through normal adolescent turmoil and that his parents needed to be more tolerant and forgiving. She concluded that Tim should remain at home.
His parents were devastated. They did not know which way to turn. They only knew that their son’s behavior was far beyond their control, that he had failed to respond positively to anything they did, and that they were out of ideas for the future. Fortunately, the placement director at last saw for herself how quickly Tim appeared to lose control of himself. Bringing the parents and Tim into the same room, she watched a polite, considerate child transformed. Tim became increasingly loud and argumentative, and then turned accusatory and verbally abusive. Observing this heated interaction, the woman reversed herself and concluded that she held little hope that life at home would improve for Tim or his parents and agreed to look for a suitable residential placement. She capitulated to the request, however, principally because she believed the parents were inadequate to the task of nurturing their son.

Tim had convinced a neutral party that he was the victim and his parents the victimizers, whereas the opposite was true. His parents, while being loving and patient, had suffered enormous abuse and begun to believe that the failure was theirs, not his. I supported the decision to send their son to boarding school and assured them that they had left no stone unturned in their efforts to help him.
My point in retelling this story is simple. Like the placement director who was counseling Tim and his family, most people fail to recognize the antisocial child for what he is. This happens not only when such a child is young, but also, as with Tim, when he is an adolescent or even a young adult.

Childhood often is romanticized as a period of treasured innocence. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the eighteenth-century French philosopher, urged his readers to “hold childhood in reverence. He believed that a young child could do nothing morally wrong because he lacked a concept of right and wrong. Proclaiming “God makes all things good,” he believed that children fall into wrongdoing when they are corrupted by external forces. He even went so far as to assert, ”Children’s lies are entirely the work of their teachers.”
It is true that a young child may do something harmful out of innocence. But a tendency exists among some adults to discount the significance of even willful and persistent dishonest or malicious acts by a child, either with the view that the motivation was innocent or that the child will grow out of it. Lies are regarded as childish exaggerations, fights as the results of inevitable squabbles and overreaction, vandalism as pranks, disruptive behavior in school as mischief. Even when the youngster is held accountable and punished, adults often look for explanations in factors that appear to lie outside the child’s control. They will not acknowledge that even very young boys and girls may choose to lie, fight, and steal. Instead, some adults remain all too ready to accept whatever excuse the child offers just because he is a child. The antisocial youngster counts on this and achieves what he considers victory after victory because he has outsmarted others. He is so ingenious at convincing others that he is the victim that sometimes the real victim of his irresponsibility is ignored.

Perhaps nowhere in the recent past has this tendency become more alarmingly pervasive than in juvenile court. During proceedings that occur behind closed doors to protect the rights of the defendant, there is a tendency to search for explanations that might mitigate the child’s responsibility for the crime. During the hearing, the defendant is a very real human being, there in the flesh. The victim is not present. He is reduced to an abstraction, a name, a written police report, or at best a brief written “victim impact statement.” Originally, the juvenile court was established to provide services to improve the child’s welfare. The thinking was that most children could improve their behavior if offered a wholesome environment, love, and, if necessary, a mild penalty to discourage disobedience. It was believed that children became delinquent through no real fault of their own. The view of the wayward child as victim was prevalent and to some extent still is. I don’t mean to imply that this remains the thinking in every case or in every court. In fact, I have testified before juvenile judges who, besides considering environmental factors, conscientiously delve into the personality of the defendant. Before imposing sentence, they endeavor to understand how he functions from day to day. In my view, a consideration of the individual’s personality, in addition to the nature of his offense, is absolutely essential. Today’s juvenile courts have a great deal more to cope with than wayward children. Coming into the courts today are savvy, street-wise antisocial boys and girls who successfully exploit the still widely held view that children who commit crimes are victims of circumstance.

The antisocial youngster always knows his explanations of wrongdoing are just excuses. That is, they are not part of his thinking before or during an offense. A child will say hе “borrowed” a transistor radio and intended to return it. But at the time he took it, no such intention existed. He may claim he threw a punch because he had to defend himself, when in fact he was the one who mercilessly taunted and threatened another boy, provoking a fight. The justifications are articulated only for purposes of accountability. They have little or nothing to do with why the child committed the offense.

Blaming others for our own failings is something that all do from time to time. But the antisocial child does this almost automatically any time he is called to account for misconduct. He becomes increasingly resourceful in developing and deploying tactics designed to dupe others and confuse them about where culpability lies. He is so convincing that he often succeeds in minimizing or completely avoiding punishment-and then goes on to victimize others. At his most successful, he truly persuades his listeners that whatever the issue is, he’s not at fault.