Search the Site

On Stalin, Child Abuse, and Crime

Freakonomics makes the case that good parenting doesn’t necessarily produce good children. But what’s the effect of bad parenting — especially child abuse?

Martin Amis offered some evidence on that subject in a talk at the New Yorker Festival this weekend, in the form of a “charming anecdote about Stalin.”

In 1937, Stalin liquidated most of his census board for reporting an undesirably low population for the Soviet Union. Afterwards, he visited his mother, whom he hadn’t seen in years.

“What are you now?” she asked.

“Remember the Tsar?” he asked. She did. “Well, I’m something like that.”

“So, Mom,” Stalin asked, “why did you let Dad beat me so much when I was young?”

She shrugged. “We must have done the right thing — look how far you’ve come!”

To the extent that Stalinist Russia was a criminal enterprise, she was probably right. At least one study, by the economists Janet Currie and Erdal Tekin, finds that childhood maltreatment (including both abuse and neglect) nearly doubles the chance that a given individual will commit criminal acts.

According to Currie and Tekin, one reason for this conclusion is that abused children tend to engage in crime earlier than the non-abused. Currie and Tekin explain:

Starting to engage in criminal behavior early may increase illegal human capital by raising experience in criminal activities, and decrease human capital in legitimate activities, such as schooling or being in the labor market.

Beaten young though Stalin may have been, he did manage to enroll in a theological seminary before he engaged with the labor market, so to speak.