Generational Criminals: Character or Context?
Kids these days. So goes the refrain of every older generation, going back to the time of Socrates, who lamented about the the “bad manners” of the youth of his day who had “contempt for authority.” Between the deficits of memory and proximity bias (events that occur closer to you are assumed more prevalent), there lies a whole valley of potential judgment. Such judgment winds its way into social policy as those who are able to hold institutional power then attempt to fix the problems they see. Determining the source of declared bad behavior is often based on underlying assumptions concerning the locus of control. Is a person’s bad or even criminal behavior due to being a “bad seed” and therefore of some character defect or are social and familial influences to blame?
In psychology, theories that support judgment placed on the individual are referred to as “static theories.” “According to this view, each individual has a certain chance to commit crime. Individual differences could be due to personality traits and biological causes and/or to differences in upbringing as predicted by the self-control theory…” (Van de Rakt, Ruiter, De Graaf, & Nieuwbeerta, 2010). The latter self-control theory states that criminal parents lack the proper level of self-control needed to raise their children right and therefore those very kids grow up to commit crimes themselves. Regardless of the form taken, such “static theories” place the proclivity to commit crimes squarely on the backs of the children themselves.
Another set of theories is referred to as “dynamic theories.” These theories note that tendencies to commit crimes change during the course of one’s life, “meaning that life circumstances influence one’s chance of committing crime and that there exists a causal relation between past and future criminal behavior.” The influence of parental criminal behavior in these theories is assumed to last beyond early childhood.
Undoubtedly some knee-jerk responses are already rearing up, the source of which stemming from personal desire and likely accompanied by personally witnessed stories supporting one or the other. An important point to keep in mind is that where one falls on the spectrum of influence strength will result in tendencies for viewing not just adolescent behavior but adult behavior as well. What can be said of one entails being said of the other, unless the notion is to be promoted that there exist some fundamental difference between the two groups. Whatever can be said about the teen mind, it is still a human one, so while the set of variables may change, the placement of responsibility will not.
What is it then that ends up being found? The study under consideration here attempted to find out the relative strength for each set of theories, static and dynamic. If the former is correct, the prevalence and time frame of parental criminal behavior should have no influence on whether the child commits a crime later in life. If the latter is correct, there should be a degree of change related to when and how often criminal behavior occurs by the parent(s).
The findings end up, as is often the case, supporting variations of both sets of theories. Criminal activity generally increases during adolescence, peaking in the early twenties and then decreasing with time, but within this bell curve of criminal behavior there was found to be linkages with when the father committed a crime. “In the year a father is convicted for committing crime (and in subsequent years), the chance his child is also convicted increases.” There is, thankfully, what is referred to as a decay effect in play. In other words, when it concerns the first parental crime, the increase of the child committing a crime decays to half the increase within one year. Unfortunately, with each crime committed, the amount of time that increase takes to decay becomes longer and longer. When a father is convicted for the fifth time, it takes more than six years for the increased chance to return to half of what the potential was originally before the conviction.
As to why some children are more influenced by their father’s criminal behavior than others, it is still open to investigation. What can’t be removed from discussion is the effect that such behavior has on the proclivity of children to commit crimes. We simply cannot talk as if responsibility is purely the burden of the individual. Were such to be the case, there’d be no connection between a parent’s actions and the child’s own behavior. Given the slope of decay for the influence of a father’s criminal behavior, we have to conclude, however tentatively, that the child’s potential for manifesting their own criminal act is linked.
Noted previously, adolescents are not a different species from adults, however much it sometimes appears to those of an older generation. If the effect of a primary attachment figure’s behavior can be seen in the adolescent, there is likely a similar effect for other powerful attachment relationships later in life. Such isn’t the scope of the research under review here, but the inference can at least be asked and considered.
What such an understanding does to how we judge the behavior of teens and others is up to each of us. We can continue promoting the notion that “bad seeds” should be punished because they could have chosen to do something else, or we can be more generous in our appreciation for the interconnected life that is each human person. For certain in either case, the consequences in the creation of social policy will effect real lives and reflect not only on those we deem criminals but ourselves as well.
© David Teachout
Van de Rakt, M., Ruiter, S., De Graaf, N. D., & Nieuwbeerta, P. (2010). When does the Apple Fall from the Tree? Static Versus Dynamic Theories Predicting Intergenerational Transmission of Convictions. Journal of Quantitative Criminology, 26(3), 371–389. http://doi.org/10.1007/s10940-009-9089-3