My answer may sound heretical, coming from a psychiatrist. After all, our bent is to see misbehavior as psychopathology that needs treatment; there is no such thing as a bad person, just a sick one.
But maybe this young man was just not a nice person.
For years, mental health professionals were trained to see children as mere products of their environment who were intrinsically good until influenced otherwise; where there is chronic bad behavior, there must be a bad parent behind it.
But while I do not mean to let bad parents off the hook — sadly, there are all too many of them, from malignant to merely apathetic — the fact remains that perfectly decent parents can produce toxic children.
When I say “toxic,” I don’t mean psychopathic — those children who blossom into petty criminals, killers and everything in between. Much has been written about psychopaths in the scientific literature, including their frequent histories of childhood abuse, their early penchant for violating rules and their cruelty toward peers and animals. There are even some interesting studies suggesting that such antisocial behavior can be modified with parental coaching.
But there is little, if anything, in peer-reviewed journals about the paradox of good parents with toxic children. [...]
It goes against the grain not just because it seems like such a grim and pessimistic judgment, but because it violates a prevailing social belief that people have a nearly limitless potential for change and self-improvement. After all, we are the culture of Baby Einstein, the video product that promised — and spectacularly failed — to make geniuses of all our infants.
Not everyone is going to turn out to be brilliant — any more than everyone will turn out nice and loving. And that is not necessarily because of parental failure or an impoverished environment. It is because everyday character traits, like all human behavior, have hard-wired and genetic components that cannot be molded entirely by the best environment, let alone the best psychotherapists.
Read the whole thing here, if you're interested.
I do think that this is something most parents know, on one level. Many of us have seen or known a family in which most of the children are nice, well-adjusted people and the parents are good and attentive--yet there's that one child, the troublemaker who grew up to be an adult who has some problems or is estranged from his family, or some similar thing. Some of us may have had extended family like this; others only heard stories of the son or daughter a few generations back who was the "black sheep" or the "bad seed" (to use two terms in use in the old days).
For a while now, it seems, as Dr. Friedman says, that to hold to a notion of a "bad seed," a child who was just bad for no particularly good reason, was not politically correct. The child had to have some inward, undiagnosed mental problem, or he was emotionally stunted for some reason, or his parents had somehow failed to recognize that he was so very different from his siblings that he needed love and attention from them of a wholly different order from the more "garden variety" sort of love and attention that did just fine for his brothers and sisters.
In popular fiction of a certain era, you can find some writers (Agatha Christie comes to mind) poking gentle and not-so-gentle fun at the idea. Mothers, grandmothers, aunts etc. would say of the troubled character (usually a young man) that he was highly-strung, that his father was not around or was too stern with him, that he was nervous or sensitive, that he was a scoundrel, to be sure, but such a charming one, and so attentive to his dear old Auntie! And if the writer (especially Christie) later revealed that this character was, indeed, the bad seed who had actually sponged off Auntie and gotten Auntie to make a will in his favor before carefully crafting an alibi and then bashing in Auntie's head--well, her contemporary readers probably nodded, not yet having much use for all the psychiatry and psychology explanations for bad behavior.
Of course, true psychopathy often does have these kind of underlying causes and explanations. The kind of bad seed Dr. Friedman is describing seems to be more the sort of child who is simply ill-mannered, rude, distant, or both disobedient and ungrateful toward his or her parents--and who grows up to be the sort of adult who continues to be most of these things. Psychiatry may not be able to explain all of it. Genetics may not really, either, when all is said and done.
What does explain it? As Catholics we know that human beings have a fallen nature. While we do everything we can for our children, we can't control their inward processes or the choices they make. And each and every day, they are making little choices that will make them (as ours do us), as C.S. Lewis put it, closer to being a heavenly creature or a hellish one.
So long as we live, we are not bound to end up in the direction we are going. We can backtrack, pray, seek God's forgiveness in Confession, work a little harder, smile a little more often, be a little more patient, love others a little more and ourselves less. This is as true for bad seeds as it is for all of us, and in that a Christian parent can find hope.
St. Monica, after all, didn't give up on her "bad seed" child, St. Augustine. The workings of grace, her constant prayers, her unfailing love did what mere parenting could never do.