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The Myth of the “Bad Seed.”

bad children photo In 1956 a movie came out called, The Bad Seed, which caused quite a stir. It was about an eight-year-old girl who was an antisocial monster. She killed several people during the movie, including a little boy who won a penmanship award which she coveted, and an intellectually challenged man who teased the girl, whose name is Rhonda. The mother in the movie is portrayed as long-suffering and solicitous to the little girl, to the point of allowing her to walk all over her, but views herself a loving mother trying her best with her monster child.

Eventually she finds out her daughter is a killer and tries to take the girl’s life and her own. Both are saved and the naive father returns home unaware of anything. Father and daughter go home and he kisses her good night. She sneaks out and goes to the pier where she drowned the little boy who won the penmanship medal, looking for the medal in the water with a flashlight. At that point lighting strikes and knocks her into the water, where she drowns.

Before this movie, the common attitude toward bratty children of the type described in this movie was that parenting was at the root of the problem. However, this movie was the beginning of a new trend which lay the blame for a child’s misbehavior on the child herself. It was not the parent’s fault that the child was bad. The child had simply inherited bad genes and was bad for no reason whatsoever except for the genes.

A few years later, in the 1960s, the slogan began to appear everywhere: “Don’t blame parents.” Soon it was considered almost a sacrilege to make mothers or fathers responsible for how their children turned out. Today that slogan has become almost an eleventh commandment and there is a trend to make nearly all mental illnesses genetic, eliminating parents and parenting from the mix. More and more, children who act out at home and school are viewed by doctors as having an disease called ADHD and are prescribed medications.

Mothers of problem children, whether the child suffers from ADHD, dependency disorder, autism, or another childhood disorder, go to see their doctor heartbroken and bewildered at how their child is behaving–similar to the mother in the movie. And doctors are quick to take the mother’s side and to reassure her. The child often sits in a corner and acts out his distress, and thereby confirms that he is diseased.

The trouble is, nobody bothers to pay attention to the child’s point of view. Since we don’t blame the mother, what we end up doing is blaming the child. It’s the child’s fault that he is acting up. He has a disorder. Give him some medicine to quiet him down so that he doesn’t menace his mother, father, family and the school anymore.

As a psychologist, I paid close attention to the underlying psychological aspects of The Bad Seed. The mother is a permissive and gullible person and the father is distant and doesn’t understand at all what is going on, leaving the mother to handle everything. It appears that, from a psychological point of view, the child has become a brat because her mother allowed the child to walk all over her, and there was no father around to balance out the parenting and enforce discipline.

A lot of research has been done on “the terrible twos”–a stage at which children generally get into a power struggle with parents to establish their independence. According to psychologists at the Mayo Clinic, the terrible twos are a normal stage in a toddler’s development characterized by “mood changes, temper tantrums and use of the word ‘no’.” However, Two-year-olds typically aren’t able to clearly communicate their needs or control their feelings. This can lead to frustration by parents and misbehavior by children.

A few years ago a television series called, “The Super Nanny,” starring Jo Frost, provided a wonderful reality show of how young children from two-years-old and beyond can become spoiled, willful, and bratty–and how at times they can take over a family. The parents throw up their hands, not understanding and not wanting to understand how the child got that way. The super nanny lives with the family for a time and teaches the parents how their extremely permissive (masochistic) attitude (often compounded by a father’s distant and critical attitude) caused their children to be the way they are. Often these shows seemed to have happy endings, but in real life they often don’t.

In real life there are no super nanny’s around to show parents what to do. Instead their are doctors who prescribe “magic” pills to settle such children down. And who wouldn’t prefer this than dealing with their child’s bratty behavior? The trouble is that by managing the child’s behavior with medication rather than trying to help parents to understand it and take responsibility for their contribution to how the child developed bad behavior, there is no way to get to the root of it and possibly cure it. There is no way to establish a more healthy relationship between the parents and the child.

The view that children become bratty because they have some kind of biological or genetic disease is a myth perpetuated by doctors and parents who want to avoid the reality of this growing phenomenon. The myth of the bad seed is a way of protecting parents from responsibility and totally violates the rights of children to be heard to understood. We might as well make up a new slogan: “Don’t blame parents; blame children.”

The Myth of the “Bad Seed.”

Gerald Schoenewolf, Ph.D.

Gerald Schoenewolf, Ph.D. is a licensed psychoanalyst in New York and has been practicing for over 37 years. He works with adults, couples, families, adolescents, and children. He has graduated from three psychotherapy institutes and received a Certificate in Psychoanalysis from the Washington Square Institute in 1981. He has been an Adjunct Assistant Professor of psychology at the Borough of Manhattan Community College since 2002 and has authored thirteen books on psychotherapy and psychoanalysis as well as four novels and a book of poems and drawings. More recently he wrote 20 screenplays (winning four first-place awards at festivals) and produced and directed two feature films.

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APA Reference
Schoenewolf, G. (2016). The Myth of the “Bad Seed.”. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 19, 2019, from


Last updated: 31 Jan 2016
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