Video games are not the only thing to blame because young people have committed homicide already in the 17th century
Text: Heikki Laurinolli
Photo: Jonne Renvall
Children’s violence against their parents has been present in all known societies throughout history even though social workers and criminologists have raised the issue in recent years as a new phenomenon.
Historian Raisa Toivo from the University of Tampere in Finland says that the prevalence rates of this form of violence have remained at a relatively high level for a long time. Together with Marianna Muravyeva, Toivo edited a book entitled “Parricide and Violence Against Parents throughout History” (Palgrave Macmillan 2018).
Teenage violence has recently increased in news headlines and discussion forums and bad parenting skills and brutal video games have been given as the reason.
The explanation of the impact of video games does not take into account that children’s violence against their parents appeared already in the 17th century, long before the modern entertainment industry with video and online games.
The violence of adult children against elderly parents has also been recently highlighted, and it is feared that this problem will increase because the elderly population is growing. However, the same phenomenon can already be found in historical sources in the 17th century.
A significant problem
also in Finland
According to statistics compiled in Europe, the United States and Canada, up to 7 – 18 percent of parents have sometimes suffered from violence perpetrated by their children. Almost 30 percent of this violence is committed in single-parent families. The culprits are mostly sons aged 10 to 18 who attack their single mothers.
The highest percentages have been found in Canada. In Finland, the share of killings and murders committed by children against their own parents ranges from 2 to 5 percent of all homicides. Toivo finds this number large, even though in absolute terms the figures only mean a few cases per year.
Death sentence laid down
by the Mosaic Law
Toivo analysed the Finnish Court of Appeal’s decisions in a four-year period in the 17th century and found twenty cases where a child had beaten, kicked or pushed their parents. At that time, the population of Finland was approximately 300,000 – 350,000.
“These cases were processed by the Court of Appeal, because the punishment for the crimes was the death penalty as laid down by the Mosaic Law,” Toivo says.
Over the four-year period, a total of about 600 offences were recorded by the Court of Appeal, of which about 300 were violent crimes. Twenty cases means seven percent.
“It is a huge number, but we must bear in mind that at that time the Court of Appeal only processed capital offences. They did not deal with ordinary run-of-the-mill fights, only cases that involved aggravating circumstances,” Toivo explains.
In the 17th century,
the Court mitigated sentences
The number of cases of children’s violence against their parents has remained surprisingly steady throughout history, despite social change. However, there is variation in how the cases have been processed by the judicial system.
“In the 17th century, it is quite clear that people did their utmost to settle such cases out of court. No one wants the death penalty for their own children except in extreme circumstances,” Toivo points out.
Although in theory the law imposed the death penalty, only one death sentence was enforced in the twenty cases processed by the Court of Appeal. Lighter punishments were sentenced in the other cases or the perpetrators were completely acquitted.
In the 17th century, rebellion or violence against parents was also a political offence – almost treason – as well as a religious crime against God. At the time, the family was thought to reflect the order of the entire society where the father was the king like God in the universe.
Various reasons have been given for children’s violent behaviour. One explanation is looser discipline and indulgence. Another explanation is that violence is caused by authoritarian upbringing. A third way to understand the problem is to look at socio-economic reasons.
According to the psychological explanation, violent children are mentally ill. Some psychologists find mental health problems just intrinsic while others think that the environment, and how the children are treated, play a role.
Toivo says that people in the United States tend to emphasise intrinsic explanations while Europeans put more weight on the world around us.
The models of explaining violence also vary historically. The 16th and 17th centuries favoured moral explanations where all people were thought to be inherently sinners and thus inclined to evil ever since the Fall.
“According to this explanation, a small murderer lives inside all of us. It must therefore be kept under control, and education means good discipline. People are also kept busy working so they can do no wrong with their idle hands,” Toivo says.
In the 16th and 17the centuries, a more medically-based explanation was introduced where all people were no longer considered bad in principle. The explanations shifted from moral ones to medical and psychiatric.
and judicial evidence
The different explanations of violence meshed at the Court of Appeal where morality stories usually fell under the burden of proof of judicial evidence.
The conception of parenting and children's roles is reflected in the normative and ideological material that was represented in the 17th century by the catechism, educational guides, and pamphlets on parricide.
According to the pamphlets, moral decay advanced from smaller sins to bigger ones.
“When all the money is first lost on whoring, drinking and gambling, and the father refuses to give more money, the son ends up committing murder. He receives the death penalty, and while walking to the execution block, the protagonist of these stories accuses his mother for not raising him better,” Toivo describes the pamphlets’ message.
In court, the cases always began with the same morality story, but after that, evidence was sought that put part of the blame on the parents. The parents could thus be proven to have provoked the violence and perhaps even been guilty of it themselves. As a result, the perpetrators received lighter sentences.
“On the ideological side, a picture of an overly soft and indulgent parent was created, but in practice the court produced a story of an overpowering and violent parent whose child responds to violence with violence,” Toivo explains.
Contradictory explanation models cross even more when they involve a physician's diagnosis, according to which everything is due to mental health problems and alcoholism.
work in different societies
Toivo does not want to comment whether explanation models and methods of handling court cases have improved in the present day.
“This problem has not been eliminated in any society, which means that the perfect method has not been invented yet. People seek to explain these things, and different explanations work in different societies,” Toivo points out.
Toivo says that the purpose of the book project was to add more dimensions to the psychological explanation model by highlighting the socio-economic, circumstantial, and emotional aspects involved.
“We wanted to highlight different cases from history in order to gain fresh perspectives. Because people’s problems are multidimensional, these issues need to be looked at from many different perspectives and from a variety of disciplines,” Toivo says.
Parricide and Violence Against Parents throughout History: (De) Constructing Family and Authority? Marianna Muravyeva & Raisa Maria Toivo (eds.) Palgrave Macmillan 2018.