Over the weekend I just spent in Grayton Beach, Florida, I watched a young boy (about seven) try to drown his brother in the surf around 8 am. We went to the beach early that morning, as did this kid and his family. I noticed them when we walked down the stairs to the beach at Grayton Beach State Park. The dad had a fishing pole, outlined against the sun. We had seen swift silver little fish the day before in the shallow where we waded. His family was around him, a posse of four kids, a woman who gave the air of being his wife, and another woman of similar, slightly older age--an aunt, maybe, or young grandmother. At any rate, I didn’t pay any further attention to them until I settled down on our towel after a walk. This was about five minutes before the boy tried to drown the toddler.
When I say he tried to drown him, I don’t mean they were playing. It was an act of singular violent intention so discrete that it drew my attention to the pair. That and the struggled splashing of the toddler as his brother pinned him underwater. The older boy was bent at the knees, his arm immersed in water almost to the elbow. He was focused.
Is he--? My mind ignited with realization in the second before the mother began yelling.
“GET HIM OUT OF THE WATER RIGHT NOW!” The boy looked up, and withdrew his brother from the water, turning to face his mother in the same smooth motion. He held the screaming child by the back of its shirt like a sack of onions and stared. The woman ran over to him and took the baby, who was immediately swept several feet away in her arms and surrounded by both the other adult woman and an older sister of between fourteen and sixteen. I watched the baby shake himself, regain his balance. I looked to the boy, who was stomping around the beach flexing his arms, emitting groans of rage and aggression, his face contorted into a toadlike grimace. After a few moments of stomping, he became perfectly still and stared out over the ocean to the horizon for several minutes. During that time, he wasn’t punished in any way by his parents. After a few minutes, the toddler was running toward him again, eager for interaction with his big brother, who he did not understand had just tried to murder him.
I was immediately possessed by a mental image of myself standing up, grabbing the kid by the hair, and administering whatever justice came to mind when I looked into his face (maybe verbal, maybe more direct). The only thing that held me back was the distant vision of two friends far down the shore, who would be pulled into whatever drama would ensue from my little outburst. I stayed on the towel, but couldn’t look away. A few moments later later the boy’s sister, around the same age, approached him. He called her names for tramp and slut for several minutes in a conversational tone. Interestingly, he referred to himself as a “grandpa,” putting his hands on his scrawny hips and puffing out his gut.When their mother said it was time to leave, the little girl, rotund in her pinky-purple tankini, resumed her brother’s meditative post on the horizon. I wonder what both the children were thinking, but of course, I have no way of postulating.
Later when I discussed this incident with my companions on the beach, my friend Erin made the point that the boy’s behavior might have been “expected,” meaning punishing it had been tried and had failed. Perhaps some other kind of behind-the-scenes rewiring was going on, some other attempt to make him into the kind of person who knew it was wrong to try to drown someone, and that doing so would have consequences. How do we teach this to the child who can’t retain the difference between right and wrong in their memory? What about the one who doesn’t feel guilt or love? What about when that individual has the brain and wiles of an adult? Today’s “expected behaviors” could be tomorrow’s mall shootings. To what extent are we expected to be flexible with our children and the children around us when it comes to bad behavior, or worse, dangerous mental illnesses? In the latter cases, is it fair to ask the family to bear the burden alone when the threat posed is larger? I suppose that would depend on your answer to the question “where does mental illness come from?” If you believe it’s the product of upbringing, you might believe the parents alone should be in charge of taking on the burden of whatever waste of space they managed to raise. If you’re like me, you might believe that such things are more complicated, and think the state and community should have some measure of responsibility--beyond imprisonment and corporal punishment after the crime has occurred.
I’m not a parent, and I know nothing about children, so it’s entirely possible what I saw was normal. Maybe there’s some kind of age window in pre puberty where you’re allowed to do things like this. I certainly did my share of horrible things to my brother and sister which might have led an observer to think I was the next Charles Manson. Once my mom got a call from my teacher because I drew a picture of Cody, my brother, getting eaten by a t-rex on the scratch paper she had provided for a state standardized test. It was a very detailed drawing--I had finished the test way ahead of time, and I had a stunningly vivid mental image of my nemesis being consumed. It’s true that I’m basing my amateur diagnosis of this kid on literally ten minutes worth of observation. I could be totally wrong--but I don’t think I’m wrong to be unsettled by (and curious about) the very real questions this incident raised for me. I don’t have any answers yet, but I’m mulling it over, Chime in with what it conjures up for you!