I was visiting my hometown of Norwich recently when I heard of an interesting story from an animal-loving friend. Her dog, an affectionate retriever, I think, had recently given birth to a litter of puppies. The dog protected all of its puppies vigilantly: except one. And that one it tried to kill quite relentlessly, eventually succeeding.
The explanation my friend gave was straightforward enough. It wasn’t that the bitch was out of control. There was clearly something wrong with that puppy: ‘it was a wrong’un!’
The reason the story made me take notice was that I was told it at the same time as I was digging into some of the latest research on the impact of parenting on children’s behaviour and crime. We’ve known for a very long time that there is a relationship parenting and future criminality – hardly surprising perhaps. But now research is raising the question of whether it’s bad parenting that results in criminal off-spring or whether perhaps bad children might themselves encourage the very type of parenting that we judge harshly. Surely it’s logical that a mother is more likely to neglect a child whose behaviour is intolerable?
I have to say I’m not entirely convinced that the relationship often goes that way round. For starters, a vast amount of human brain development (and one assumes character formation) happens after birth. Most animals have almost full-weight brains at birth and, even chimpanzees are born with a brain that is about 45% of its adult weight. But in humans, only about a quarter of brain growth is inside the womb and a staggering three-quarters happens after birth. Of course, genetic factors might dictate the way the brain develops after birth too – but studies showing the impact of abuse and neglect on brain formation and criminality are simply too compelling to ignore.