Killing Your Children is Not Good Parenting

March 15th, 2011

By Dr. Jim Taylor

I’ve been reluctant to write this post ever since I read an absolutely shocking story recently. In fact, my wife told me that I shouldn’t write it at all as the post could be seen, at best, as insensitive and, at worst, as distasteful beyond the pale. But I have been eerily attracted to the story and feel compelled to write this post, even with the potential risks, because there is something in the story that resonates with me and, I believe, with all parents.

Now that I have your attention (or you’re about to click off the page), I better tell you what I’m talking about. Have you heard about the suburban Tampa mother, Julie Schenecker, who murdered her two teenage children in January? As an aside, I can’t believe that this story hasn’t been all over the tabloids and cable news the last few months. It has all the makings of a media feeding frenzy: a seemingly typical suburban mother, two seemingly normal teenagers, a husband who works in military intelligence and travels constantly. Its absence from the media miasma might suggest that the seemingly bottomless depths of depravity in which sensationalistic journalism resides might, in fact, have a bottom.

Here is the Cliff Notes version of the story. Mrs. Schenecker bought a handgun and then waited three days for the mandatory “cooling off” period (perhaps it should be longer?). She then shot her 13-year-old son twice (missing once) in their mini-van on the way to soccer practice. He was found in the vehicle in the garage with his seatbelt still on days later. Mrs. Schenecker then went inside their home and shot her 16-year-old daughter in the head while she was studying. Police reports indicated that she admitted to the killings while complaining that her children were “disrespectful and mouthy and that she was going to deal with it.”

Of course, the first thought that enters most everyone’s mind is that Mrs. Schenecker was suffering from some sort of severe mental illness, as it is unthinkable that any mother could perpetrate such a heinous crime (more on that later). And news reports did suggest just such a scenario, possibly related to drug or alcohol abuse. And indications from the public defender’s office were that Mrs. Schenecker would plead not guilty by reason of insanity.

When I mentioned the case to several mothers I know they, not surprisingly, expressed both shock and horror toward an event that seems absolutely unimaginable to any mother and a separate world from one inhabited by all mentally healthy mothers. Yet, and here is where I might be wading into dangerous waters, I sensed that some of their response to the crime was a reaction of fear that, but for the grace of God, go they. One mother leaned toward me and admitted in a hushed voice that she has had homicidal fantasies about her children when times were bad and was overwhelmed with shame at the admission.

Now we are entering a forbidden zone where no parents willingly go. As I allowed this mother’s confession to sink in, I thought about my own experiences with my two young children, their infuriating irrationality, their feral tantrums, and the feelings of frustration and anger that they provoke in me. I realized that Mrs. Schenecker’s crime may not be a world distinct from those of us who are “normal,” but rather lies in the nether reaches of a world in which all parents live.

Okay, I said it and I feel relief having said it. All of us get pushed to their emotional limits as we travel the road of parenthood. Fortunately, most of us have the wherewithal to step back from the abyss. At best, we calm ourselves and comfort our child whose behavior is, more often than not, neither intentional nor malicious. Or, we walk out of the room and cool off or hand our child to our spouse. At worst, some of us may lose control a little bit and yell at our child, but then get it together before the situation escalates beyond control.

As we move down the road of every parent’s worst nightmare, we encounter parents who lack that wherewithal. Maybe they are young or alone or under stress or were victims at the hands of their own parents. The result is child abuse that is far more common than any of us would like to admit. And we realize that we could, on our very worst days, go farther down that road than we are ever willing to admit.

At the very end of the road we meet Mrs. Schenecker and, according to the research, hundreds of other mothers in the 1990′s alone (it feels like an episode from the Twilight Zone, existing in our world, yet being other worldly) who, for reasons that only they may be able to fathom, were pushed by their children or their own psychic demons to do a deed that is so incomprehensible and alien to anyone who is a parent, yet so terrifyingly recognizable and near for those very same parents.

With my heart racing and feeling a little teary eyed, I walked into my daughters’ bedrooms where they lay asleep in their beds, so sweet and innocent, yet so very capable of provoking emotions both powerful and harmful. I bent down and gave each a gentle kiss on their foreheads. And as I left their rooms, I promised myself that, no matter how bad it gets, I will never, ever go farther down that road. And my fear turned to resolve and love for those little beings who mean more to me than life itself.

(This article was also posted at Dr. Jim Taylor’s Blog.)

(Visit Dr. Jim Taylor’s YouTube channel to see TV interviews and Prime topic discussions.)

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2 Responses to “Killing Your Children is Not Good Parenting”

  1. Tom Carter |

    Thanks, Jim. You made the right decision in writing about this awful tragedy. It surprised me when you entered that “forbidden zone,” but I think you’re absolutely right. Everyone does get “pushed to their emotional limits” at some points in life, and dealing with parenting and children, not to mention spouses, sometimes leaves people hanging right on the edge. Thankfully, very few go over to the dark side.

    Your last paragraph left me “feeling a little teary eyed” too, and that doesn’t happen often.

    As to the question of insanity, it usually doesn’t work as a legal defense. It’s not enough to say that someone had to be crazy to do something so bad, whatever the crime may have been, but that doesn’t come close to fitting the legal definition of insanity. States deal with it differently; here’s a brief discussion of the insanity defense in Florida law.

  2. Anonymous |

    Thanks for the good words, Tom. About 98% of the commenters where this post appeared were supportive of the post. The other 2% has very strong and bad reaction to it (though their perceptions of the post were far from what was in the post).

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