Debunking the Theory of Bad Seed: Why You’re Not Destined to Repeat Your Parent’s Crimes

Perhaps your father was a serial rapist who has been locked away in prison for life. Now here you are, his son, with that same blood coursing through your veins. Does your genetic tie to your father mean that you are doomed to develop the same dark impulses that he did?

Or perhaps your father was the lone gunman who marched into a public restaurant and mowed down a bunch of innocent people before shooting himself. Now here you are, his biological offspring, sharing that same twisted DNA. Does that mean you are also destined to turn into a mass murderer?

When humans don’t understand something, they tend to fill the gaps in their knowledge with a bunch of guff . Crimes like rape, torture, child molestation, and mass murder are poorly understood by both the general public and the authorities who deal with these kinds of perpetrators. As a result, a whole lot of absurd theories have been created which are complete hooey yet cause very real angst to the close biological relations of those who commit shocking crimes. If you are the biological relation of someone who did a horrific deed and you’re now stressing over the idea that you have the same dark impulses lurking somewhere inside your cells, it’s time to take a deep breath and try to relax, because that’s simply not how these things work.

Most of the crimes committed by individuals which the public finds particularly shocking and mysterious are attempts to cope with psychological trauma. Trauma isn’t a disease that you can inherit. Trauma occurs when your mind goes through certain life experiences that it finds too overwhelming to deal with. Trauma is also a temporary problem which can be fixed with the right kind of help. It only becomes permanent when that help is never acquired before the person dies.

Suppose you and I sit down to draw a picture. Between us on the table are 7 markers, one for each color of a rainbow. I grab the red marker right off, which then forces you to have to choose between the markers that are left. Maybe you pick up the blue one. Now we both start to draw. Right away our creations are looking different from each other because we are each starting with different colors. Maybe I’m trying to draw a picnic spread while you are trying to draw an ocean scene. Our goals have been worked out in the privacy of our own minds. You didn’t try to tell me what to draw and I’m not trying to tell you what you should draw. We’re both focused on our own work.

Now maybe you originally planned to put some red in your picture, but you can’t get access to the red marker until I finish with it, and I’m taking forever. Since the red marker isn’t available, you alter your plans and grab the yellow marker instead. You inwardly change your plans for what you’re trying to draw so that your goals will better match the available resources.

Since I’m hogging the red marker, you pick up the yellow and start using it for a very long time. In my mind, I was going to use the yellow marker next, but now you’ve tied it up, so I have to change my plans. After thinking a while, I decide to go for the green marker.

In this scenario, we are both thinking independently about what we want to do, and we’re both responding to the fact that our available resources keep changing. This is how humans function in their lives: they set goals for themselves and start pursuing those goals, only to endlessly course correct as their resources change.

You were going to throw in a load of laundry before starting dinner, but you couldn’t find the laundry soap. So you scrapped the idea of doing laundry and instead focused on making dinner. You were going to make spaghetti until you realized you’re out of pasta. You’re staring into your refrigerator for new inspiration when the doorbell rings. Now dealing with whoever is at your door becomes the new priority while dinner plans are put on hold. This is how it works in real life: we’re constantly making plans, and then having to adjust those plans in response to unexpected problems and interruptions.

Now let’s say your father raped a bunch of college girls before landing in prison. By the time a man reaches the point where he feels that raping girls will help his mind manage its stress, he has gone through a whole series of complex experiences and reactions which you couldn’t duplicate even if you tried. When you say to yourself, “I am doomed to turn out just like my old man,” it’s like you’re saying it’s possible for you to duplicate not only his life experiences, but also his private reactions to those experiences. Well, no, this really isn’t possible.

By now your life has already rolled out in a very different way than your father’s. Human life paths are like snowflakes: no two are alike. And while you’ve been experiencing different events in your life story and interacting with a very different cast of characters than your father has in his story, your reactions to your life have also been very different.

Let’s go back to that art metaphor. When you want to use the red marker but I won’t give it up, you have so many options for how to respond to my behavior. You might decide that red was a critical color for the picture you’re working on, and then tear up your sheet and start fresh with a whole new idea that doesn’t require red. Or you might decide to press on with your general idea, but alter it in one of countless ways to accommodate the fact that the red isn’t available. Or you might decide to keep every detail of your original plan, but switch to working on the non-red bits while you count on the fact that the red will become available soon. No one reaches into your mind and makes you react to my marker hogging in a certain way. It’s a decision that you make all by yourself based on what seems logical and good to you in the moment.

Now let’s sit your father down in your place at that art table and once again have me snatch up the red marker and hang onto it. When it was your turn at the table, you started with the blue marker. But your father is a different person than you, so he might start with the green or orange instead. Even if your father chooses the same first marker that you did, it’s guaranteed that he won’t try to do exactly what you tried to do with it. This is simply due to the fact that your father is not you. No matter how many preferences and personality traits the two of you seem to share, you are still very different people, and your minds will come up with different ideas of the first picture that they want to draw. You originally tried to draw an ocean scene. Your father might go for a forest or city scene. Even if your father decided to draw an ocean, his scene would look very different than yours. Even if you and your father were both staring at the same photograph of an ocean scene and trying to duplicate it, you would still each come up with a different end product. This is because no two humans are clones of each other. We all experience life differently, then we interpret our experiences differently, and then we react to our interpretations differently.

Things like murder, rape, molestation and torture can be thought of like those different colored markers on that art table. The color that your mind will naturally reach for first could be quite different than the color that your father, mother, brother, or sister will go for. The problem with trying to say that such preferences are genetically inherited is that for every case in which a father and his son both went for the same color, there are plenty of other cases in which a father and son choose every different colors.

Your mind was created with certain default programming that determines which kind of coping methods it will go for if it ever become desperately stressed. The kinds of crimes that cause people to gasp in horror often involve minds that are desperately stressed. But even though we might find many similarities in the logic that five different serial rapists are using to justify their crimes, we would also find many differences. While rape is often motivated by a need to feel powerful, this isn’t always the case. Just as child molestation can be an attempt to accomplish very different psychological strategies, rape can be motivated by a variety of internal fears and stresses within the person doing the assaulting. It’s when we don’t understand how complicated these things are that we look at two men who appear to have done similar crimes and say “Like father, like son.” But no, the son’s actions really don’t have anything to do with the father’s. The son’s actions were driven by his own logical response to his own life experiences–experiences which were very different from his father’s.

In trying to understand crime, oversimplifying things only causes confusion. Terms like sexual assault and schizophrenia are far too vague to give us any clear picture of what is being referred to. In real life, legal verdicts and psychological diagnoses are often much too broad–focusing only on a few elements of behavior rather than attempting to describe the individual’s entire situation. Of course we do this because we’re in a hurry to move things along and we often don’t feel we have the time or resources to stop and figure out what a certain person’s unique story was. But behind every shocking crime there is always a story that feels extremely logical, complex, and important to the perpetrator.

Every human is born with default programming that determines what kinds of trauma coping methods they will go for in certain situations. But while those defaults exist, there are countless factors that can be thrown into the mix which would prevent those defaults from coming online. A man who goes through a stressful experience alone might have a chance to use his defaults, but a man with the same default wiring who goes through the same kind of experience with a strong support network may never express his default instincts. In the meantime, it is very common for sets of siblings to have very different default wiring from each other as well as from their parents.

You can’t develop pedophilia unless you have a certain type of traumatic event happen to you and have a mind that is prone to fixating on age as a factor in that trauma. Pedophilia is often a response to being sexually assaulted, but a ton of people who are sexually assaulted never develop this condition. Five brothers who are molested in the exact same way can easily have five different responses to the experience. One might develop pedophilia, another might become a serial rapist, another might become alcoholic, another might develop homosexuality, and another might become a sex addict. Why minds spin off in such different directions has to do with differences in their default programming. Such programming is not predictably passed from parent to child, which is why we have so many children balking at the heinous crimes of their parents, and honestly not being able to dial into the mental logic being used.

Rape is only shocking until you understand the logic that drives it. Then it suddenly makes sense. Of course it’s still horrible and life shattering and an event that we want to prevent as much as possible. But understanding is the thing that helps us stop gasping in horror and treating certain kinds of perpetrators like subhuman lifeforms when they are really just acting on different kinds of logic.

If you strip any trauma response down to its basic elements, you’ll find a stream of logic that is surprisingly easy to identify with. If someone utterly humiliates you in public, you will naturally want to find a way to restore your sense of worth and equality with your fellow humans. In many cases, this is all that rape is really about: it’s a desperate attempt to restore a sense of self-worth and equality with other humans.

If your health and sanity depended on you being able to solve a complicated puzzle within a certain timeframe, then naturally you’d keep taking stabs at it over and over. You wouldn’t be able to make peace with quitting because you know that if you do, a terrible thing will happen to you when your time runs out. In many cases of child molesting, this is the sort of logic involved. The molester feels a desperate need to solve an internal mystery that is eating away at him and threatening to tear him apart.

While humans have very different default responses for how to cope with extreme stress, their basic needs are the same. You and I might have very different ways of approaching a coconut tree, but the fact that we both need the nutrition that a coconut offers gives us something in common. I might not personally identify with your style of chucking rocks at the coconuts in order to knock them down. I might personally feel that my style of climbing up the trunk makes more sense. But even though I might not personally choose your approach, I can understand your end goal, because it is the same as mine. Understanding breeds compassion.

Your parents’ responses to their own lives do not in any way determine what your responses to your life will be. Your parents’ default methods for managing psychological stress do not determine what your defaults will be. In real life, biological relationships aren’t nearly as significant as we pretend they are. Consider how many children are born with drastically different personalities, temperaments, preferences and appearances than their biological parents. It’s only by ignoring a ton of countering evidence that we cling to this ridiculous theory that children are doomed to have a ton in common with their parents. In real life, things don’t work out like this at all. For every pattern we think we see, there are countless other situations in which that pattern doesn’t occur.

The God who made us all is a Being who is obsessed with variation, and He simply doesn’t feel any need to carry over a certain quota of traits from parent to child when He is creating a new human. When God made you, He did so strategically. Far from being an accidental collision of random factors, your unique combination of traits was assembled by a Creator with a specific agenda in mind. If you want to know what the purpose of your existence is or what your future holds, look to your Creator for answers, not to your biological relations.

For more about parents, see: The Creator Pull: Understanding the Unique Power of Biological Parents.

This post was written in response to a request.

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