Lifetime Implications of Childhood Peers

“The simple but true fact of life is that you become like those with whom you closely associate - for the good and the bad.”  --Colin Powell
“A man is known by the company he keeps” ― Aesop
Wise parents tell their children to choose their friends carefully.  This has long been regarded as sage advice, and now Mark Hoekstra, PERC’s Rex Gray Professor, and his coauthor Stephen B. Billings provide empirical support for similar advice to be given to parents, to choose your children’s peers carefully.  This research appears in their PERC working paper 1909 (NBER working paper 25730) titled “Schools, Neighborhoods, and the Long-Run Effect of Crime-Prone Peers.”  They document how exposure to crime-prone peers during childhood leads to long-run effects on adult crime.  The impact of associating with crime-prone peers persists into adulthood, long after the individuals studied are no longer in school. 
Much of the previous literature focusses on how peers impact performance in school.  The work by Billings and Hoekstra is able to show how adult crime is shaped by exposure to early childhood peers, both at school and in the neighborhood, all while separately controlling for other aspects of neighborhood quality. 
It is well-established that children of criminal parents are significantly more likely to commit crimes, and children with criminal fathers are more than twice as likely to have a criminal conviction themselves.  Billings and Hoekstra document a similar relationship, and go on to see the impact on adult behavior of individuals who as a child had a higher or lower proportion of peers linked to an arrested parent.  They report that a five percentage point increase in exposure to crime-prone peers – peers who had an arrested parent – results in a 6.5 percent increase in the probability of being arrested and a 4.5 percent increase in the number of days incarcerated.  Moreover, these are impacts on adults who have already left school, indicating the long – term impact of childhood peers.
We might agree with Mom and Dad about the importance of choosing friends wisely.  Billings and Hoekstra provide evidence that Mom and Dad also have an important decision to make when possible, their choice of neighborhood and school for their children.  The choice of location and school are implicit choices of peers for their children. School choice, in particular, can have a lifetime impact.

Posted: October 21, 2019 by Dennis W. Jansen