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Parents Don't Turn Children Into Criminals

The child is not a formless lump of clay.

For decades, mental health professionals have dissected the lives of mass shooters and serial killers trying to determine what “went wrong” during their upbringing Invariably, the role of the perpetrator’s parents is scrutinized while trying to identify causes. The assumption seems to be that mothers and fathers were at fault, i.e. that if you are the parent of a chronically delinquent child or an adult criminal, there must be something wrong with you. Does blaming parents really explain anything or does it help obfuscate a chilling truth?

For decades, there has been a long-held belief, even a core conviction, that children come into this world much like a formless lump of clay. It is parents who have a primary responsibility to shape that lump of clay, to mold it into an emotionally stable, well-adjusted person. However, as child development studies have increasingly found, children come into this world with different temperaments to begin with. They have predispositions toward developing some personality traits. Any parent of more than one child recognizes that each offspring is unique. From the cradle, an infant’s temperament has a considerable impact on how his parents treat him. In a sense, the child raises the parent as well as vice versa. I am not making a case for a person being a “bad seed” or born a criminal. However, research findings increasingly suggest there are genetic components to criminality.

Does this mean that parents have no responsibility for how their children turn out? Am I letting parents off the hook? The answer is “no” to both questions. Parents need to do their best to nurture, guide, and educate their offspring. We all make mistakes as parents. Somehow, our children not only survive but thrive. Parents who are abusive, neglectful, inconsistent, and psychologically disturbed are likely to have an adverse impact on their offspring. However, this is not to say that, invariably, their children become perpetrators of heinous crimes. Fortunately, most boys and girls who suffer neglect and abuse do not become criminals. It is striking to observe that some criminals are the sons and daughters of parents who are devoted, stable, and responsible. Unfortunately, the best efforts of parents to help and correct this kind of child can and usually do fail. As it turns out the parents are usually the victims, the child the victimizer, not the other way around.

The child who becomes a criminal is extremely secretive. His parents would have to hire a full time private detective to know what their son or daughter is doing. The criminal to be becomes increasingly ingenious at concealing many aspects of his existence. When a well-intentioned parent inquires where he is going and what he is doing, he offers an explanation that sounds credible, asserts his innocence and tries to put the parent on the defensive for not trusting him. The mother of Columbine mass murderer, Dylan Kiebold, tells a Washington Post interviewer (2/15/16) that she believed her son was “like so many teenagers.” The boy who massacred his classmates was not the son they knew. He was their “Sunshine Boy,” raised by parents who were “adamantly anti-gun.”

During the past forty years, I have interviewed hundreds of parents of offenders. Most of these men and women were devoted to their children and conscientious in attending to their needs. In nearly every case, the child who was committing crimes had a sibling who grew up in the same household but who turned out to be law-abiding, conscientious and responsible.

Concluding that a criminal is the product of bad parents may satisfy a theory but it ignores the reality that children make choices from an early age and that criminals come from a wide variety of backgrounds. Blaming parents is easy to do, but it distracts us from understanding the mind of the perpetrator. Coming to terms with a person who leaves behind him a trail of carnage as he victimizes others compels us to address questions of good and evil and to focus on the chilling choices that some people make, whether or not they had good parents.