The novel Lullabies for Little Criminals tells the story of a young child who is forever altered by her interactions with adults who do not behave according to the laws of the land. In the universe that author Heather O'Neill constructs, a young girl is placed in the position of ersatz adult thanks to the poor choices of the actual adults around her. At only twelve-years-old, the narrator Baby is forced into a premature maturation thanks to lack of supervision. Her own parents, both children themselves at the time of her birth are either dead or completely incapable of being any kind of functional parental figure. Rather than a story of an empathetic set of characters, O'Neill creates a reflection of a real issue in modern American, or in this case Canadian, society. Not only is Baby's story tragic, but it is a probable situation particularly in cases where children are living below the poverty line. In an article titled "Voices from the System" (2003), researchers found that although children living in the system may have slightly different experiences and marginally varying stories to tell, each was psychologically and sociologically marred because of the horrors of their childhood (Whiting 2003,-page 291). As much as we wish to turn away and to believe that a twelve-year-old girl can remain innocent and pure no matter what forces surround her, the fact is that the world is full of children just like Baby and all of their stories will parallel hers, even to the end.
From the beginning, Baby's development was affected by the situation surrounding her birth. Without a mother figure or any true adult, all Baby has is her father Jules who she doesn't view as an authority figure at all. Even her name was designed as a symbol of the supposed coolness of her parents, the moniker being a symbol of coolness rather than a title for the child to bear with pride. "It was an ironic name. It didn't mean you were innocent at all" (O'Neill 2006,-page 4). Average twelve-year-olds do not have comprehension about the concept of irony. Nor do they often question whether or not their personality is one of innocence. The world is of a mentality where children are being psychologically aged faster and faster, but this can be curbed with a healthy and loving environment. Without that foundation, Baby and all the girls like her are doomed.
Being poor forces children into an early adulthood as much as any of the other factors this narrator has to deal with. Baby is completely aware that something is being robbed of her by being raised in this fashion. When her friend, a prostitute informs Baby that her 12th year is supposed to be the one where she loses her virginity, the girl is incredulous and yet accepting at the same time. "They were trying to kick you out of childhood. Once you were gone, there was no going back, so you had to hold on as long as you could" (O'Neill 2006,-page 17). This too, is not unique to a work of fiction. These girls who are so very young have no way of supporting themselves. The people who are supposed to provide them financially and emotionally are not there. Legally unable to work at anything else and having no other recourse, many underage girls wind up selling themselves for money. O'Neill makes this slightly more understandable in the case of Baby. Instead of selling her body for the money like the girl at the beginning of the story, Baby sells herself in order to please her pimp boyfriend Alphonse; giving everything to hold onto the one strong male figure in her life. In a 2003 study, researchers traced the proliferation of prostitution and sexually active adolescents in foster care situations. What they determined was: "the chaos associated with unstable living arrangements and changing household composition in the inner city creates an environment in which compelled sex can easily emerge" (Dunlap 2003,-page 80). The behavior is learned from the only adults around, often people who engage in promiscuity or sexual favors in exchange for drugs or money. Most children who begin sexual activities, especially a sex for money or sex for drugs exchange before they reach puberty will be unable to have healthy sexual relationships in the future. Instead of blaming the young women for succumbing to drugs and prostitution, more attention should be paid to the conditions under which the child was raised that would create an individual who would value their bodies so poorly.
Not even the foster care system, which is designed to help children like Baby is able to protect her from the negative forces of the world. There is a long history of documentation which shows that children in poverty or who do not have strong familial support are far more likely to get into legal and moral trouble than children who do have some sort of supervision. The only structure Baby is allowed to have is an all too brief period where she is placed in a foster home. Though still not ideal, being a relatively poor home with limited resources, Baby is finally in a situation where she is permitted some boundaries and affection. The episode with the foster care home shows the difficulties of rebuilding the psychology of neglected and abused children is actually worsened when the facility they are placed in cannot provide them with the resources that they need. According to Barth (2006) there is a strong correlation between mental health problems and poverty (page 359). Baby is an example of just this scenario. Living in her home, she has developed a need for affection from any adult male she can find, leading her to a life of prostitution and drug addiction.
Neglect of children is not only categorizes as inattention to children or abuse of children, it also deals with the quality of care that a child receives while being supervised by adults. According to Slack (2004), logically enough "children receive poorer quality parenting than non-maltreated children" and "parents reported for maltreatment tend to employ harsher discipline, spank and punish their children more often, reason less with them, become more easily frustrated and have more difficulty managing parenting stress" (page 396). Neglect and abuse of children can force them to relinquish their childhoods far sooner than similarly-aged children in non-abusive situations. Baby's knowledge of things beyond her years is prominent in the novel. One such example is when her father and his buddy are going off to buy "chocolate milk." Baby says, "Jules and his friends had been calling heroin chocolate milk for years. They did it so they could at least pretend I didn't know what was going on" (O'Neill 2006,-page 10). As most children discuss knowing the secret behind Santa Claus, this child is so accustomed to her father's drug use that she describes the incident as a matter-of-fact thing; absolutely not out of the ordinary. This is the norm for children who live in drug accustomed homes. When the addiction is common in the household, children become used to either covering for their parents or to dealing with the addiction by taking on the adult role in the household. Jules's one attempt at adult behavior, modifying a reality to protect his child, fails miserably and he holds on to the euphemism more for himself than for her. Both father and daughter know that he is not fooling the child by calling the heroin chocolate milk, but it makes him feel slightly better that although he is a failure as a responsible father, he might just be making his errors okay by putting on a false name. Children who live so far below the poverty line lose their sense of childlike wonder and their ability to use imagination and fantasy. Persistent deep poverty, according to Patricia Dyk (2004), creates this kind of scenario (page 123). The competing tensions of fear of losing shelter, not having enough to eat, and in most cases the desire to acquire drugs being more important than getting food, leads to anger and further distress. Family units, already stratified by drug addiction and neglect, can breach the line into physical abuse when the addictions are not fed regularly. Poverty does not necessarily mean that a parent or parents will become neglectful of their children, as discussed in McSherry (2004), but families who are living beneath the poverty line are more prone to become neglectful of their children than families with higher incomes. This makes a lot of sense because people below the poverty line in many cases have to work several jobs and their children are left frequently alone.
For Baby, the story ends on a potentially positive note. She and Jules go to live with Jules' cousin. Without the fear of additional beatings by the pimp Alphonse and a father who is determined to stay clean, there is a chance that Baby will also be…