Family Relationships and Crime

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"The most important part of education," said the Athenian in Plato's Laws, "is right training in the nursery" (li. 643). Through acceptance of Freudian theory, this ancient belief gained new credibility during the first half of the twentieth century. According to Freudian theory, successful socialization begins with an early attachment to the mother, an attachment that must later be modified by a conscience, or "superego," that develops through identification with a parent of the child's own sex (Freud). In the case of a young boy, the theory continues, attachment to the mother leads to the boy's jealousy of his father, but fear of his father's anger and punishment forces the child to control his incestuous and antisocial desires. Because Freud argued that the development of conscience for males depends on attachment to the mother and identification with the father, psychoanalytic explanations of crime focused on paternal absence and maternal deprivation. These emphases continue to guide psychological theories and research despite the decline in popularity of Freudian theory.

Toward the mid-twentieth century, sociological theories became influential. First Charles Cooley and then George Herbert Mead proposed that people develop self-concepts that reflect how they believe they are perceived by "significant others" (Mead). These self-concepts motivate a person's actions. The parents provide the first group of significant others from whom a child acquires a sense of identity. If parents are neglectful or abusive, the child develops self concepts that tend to lead to associations with others who similarly denigrate the value of individuals. Edwin Sutherland suggested in the 1930s that both delinquent and nondelinquent behavior is learned from "differential associations" with others who have procriminal or anticriminal values. Children reared by families with "criminalistic" values would accept a criminal lifestyle as normal. Children neglected by their families would be more strongly influenced by nonfamilial associates, some of whom might be procriminal (Sutherland and Cressey).

The second half of the twentieth century witnessed development of explanations for crime that took into account both psychological and sociological processes. Most popular among them are the "control theories," which assume that all people have urges to violate society's conduct norms and that people who abide by the norms do so because of internal and external controls. These controls trace to the family through "bonding" (internal control) and discipline (external control).

Control theories rest on an assumption that deviance is natural and that only conformity must be learned. Social learning theories, on the other hand, assume that both prosocial and antisocial activities are learned. They claim that a desire for pleasure and for avoidance of pain motivates behavior, and hence they focus on rewards and punishments. Social learning theories employ the notion of vicarious conditioning to explain how people learn by watching and listening, and direct attention toward the influence of parents as models for behavior and as agents for discipline. Some theorists, however, question the assumption that self-interested pleasure and pain govern all voluntary choices.

Regardless of what theory is used to explain how behavior is learned, Western cultures place a heavy burden on families through assigning responsibility for child rearing to them. Families in such cultures must transmit values so as to lead children to accept rules that they are likely to perceive as arbitrary. It should be no surprise, therefore, to find that family life bears a strong relation to juvenile delinquency (Kazdin). Perhaps the most significant changes in thinking during the last quarter of the twentieth century have been methodological. Increasingly, social scientists have become aware of retrospective and expectational biases, biases that occur when people are asked to recall their experiencesparticularly when they have theories about the way people react to events of certain types. These biases affect data collection and interpretation. To overcome these biases, newer studies have used longitudinal approaches, studying people through time. These longitudinal studies provide a basis for reassessing theories about family relations and crime.

Single-parent families and crime

In contemporary Western societies, a nuclear family structure has been idealized. Conversely, deviations from this structure have been blamed for a variety of social problems, including crime. One of the signs of change, however, has been acknowledgment that not all single-parent families are "broken." Another has been renewed examination of family dynamics in a context in which effects of having a single parent in the home can be considered apart from concomitant poverty, or effects of poor supervision and disruptive child rearing.

Classical theories endorsed the popular view that good child development requires the presence of two parents. This view seemed to have been corroborated by studies showing that the incidence of broken homes was higher among delinquents than among the nondelinquents with whom they were compared. In line with the Freudian tradition, many believed that paternal absence resulted in over-identification with the mother. According to this view, delinquency is one symptom of compensatory masculine "acting-out." The theory purports also to explain why delinquency is prevalent among blacks and the poor, groups with high rates of single-parent families.

If delinquency were a response to excessive maternal identification, however, the presence of a stepfather should reduce the criminogenic effects of paternal loss. This does not occur. In fact, studies have consistently shown higher rates of delinquency for boys who had substitute fathers than those having no fathers in the home (Glueck and Glueck; Hirschi; McCord, McCord, and Thurber).

Despite the frequency with which both the popular press and participants in the legal system blame "broken" homes for failures to socialize children as willing participants in an ordered social system, their conclusion goes well beyond the facts. Research that takes into account the role of parental conflict, stress, or socioeconomic conditions in relation to single-parent families fails to show that single-parent families contribute disproportionately to crime.

Because poverty is related to both crime and single-parent families, studies that confound socioeconomic status and family structure have tended to nourish the belief that single-parent families account for crime (Crockett, Eggebeen, and Hawkins). Studies within a particular social class, however, show that neither British nor American children from single-parent homes are more likely to be delinquent than are their similarly situated classmates from two-parent families. Disruptive parenting practices and behavior account for most of the apparent effects of single-parent families on crime (Capaldi and Patterson; Gorman-Smith, Tolan, and Henry; McCord; DeKlyen, Speltz, and Greenberg).

Family conflict is particularly criminogenic (McCord; Rutter; West & Farrington), and the choice to divorce must typically be made by parents who do not get along. David Farrington found that marital disharmony of their parents, when boys were fourteen, predicted subsequent aggressive behavior among boys who had not been previously aggressive. Tracing the lives of a group of men forty years after they had participated in a youth study, Joan McCord contrasted effects of conflict between parents with effects of parental absence. Compared with boys raised in quarrelsome but intact homes, boys reared by affectionate mothers in broken homes were half as likely to be convicted of serious crimes. Criminality was no more common among those reared solely by affectionate mothers than among those reared by two parents in tranquil homes.

Michael Rutter was able to disentangle effects of parental absence and effects of parental discord in his study of children whose parents were patients in a London psychiatric clinic. Among those who had been separated from their parents, conduct disorders occurred only if the separations were the result of parental discord. Among those still living with both parents, disorders occurred when there was parental conflict. Furthermore the children's behavior improved when they were placed in tranquil homes.

No one has taken the position that single-parent families are superior to good two-parent families. But good two-parent families are not the option against which an adequate comparison of single-parent families ought to be measured. For many children, the option to living in a single-parent household is living with an alcoholic or aggressive father or living in the midst of conflict. Recent research has resulted in a considerable amount of evidence to suggest that if the remaining parent provides strong and supportive guidance, offspring in single-parent homes are no more likely to become delinquents than if there are two good parents in the home (Matsueda and Heimer).

Parental attachment and crime

The nuclear family structure places a special burden on parents. Because they are seen to be the primary socializing agents, parents are expected to provide warmth and protection as well as guidance. Conversely, absence of affection and inadequate discipline have been seen as sources of crime.

Psychoanalytic perspectives encouraged the use of case materials to develop facts for a science of human behavior. The view that maternal deprivation has dire effects on personality gained support from case histories documenting maternal rejection in the backgrounds of aggressive youngsters and from studies of children reared in orphanages, many of whom became delinquents. Indeed, John Bowlby suggested that the discovery of a need for maternal affection during early childhood paralleled the discovery of "the role of vitamins in physical health" (p. 59).

Critics of the conclusions reached in these studies noted the selective nature of retrospective histories and pointed out that institutionalized children not only lack maternal affection but also have been deprived of normal social stimulation. They wondered, as well, whether a father's affection was irrelevant. Around mid-century, several studies suggested that paternal affection had effects similar to those of maternal affection. For example, Travis Hirschi compared the impact of paternal affection with that of maternal affection in his study of California students. Hirschi's analysis indicated that the two parents were equally important and, moreover, that attachment to one parent had as much beneficial influence on the child as attachment to both.

Most of the evidence on parental attitudes toward their children has depended on information from adolescents who have simultaneously reported their parents behavior and their own delinquencies. Because these studies are based on data reporting delinquency and socialization variables at the same time and by the same source, they are unable to disentangle causes from effects.

Evidence from adolescents' reports of interactions with their parents when they were fifteen and of their own delinquency when they were seventeen years old suggests that friendly interaction with parents may deter delinquency (Liska and Reed). Relying on adolescents to report about their parents' child-rearing behavior assumes that the adolescents have correctly perceived, accurately recall, and honestly report the behavior of their parents. There are grounds for questioning these assumptions.

Experimental studies show that conscious attention is unnecessary for experiences to be influential, so salient features of their socialization may not have been noticed by the adolescents. Studies have also shown that reports of family interaction tend to reflect socially desirable perspectives. To the extent this bias afflicts adolescents' reports, real differences in family upbringing tend to blur. When parents report on their own behavior, they are likely both to have a limited and biasing perspective and to misrepresent what they are willing to reveal.

A handful of studies have used measures of parent-child interaction not subject to the biases of recall and social approval. Robert Sampson and John Laub reanalyzed data from the files compiled by Sheldon and Eleanor Glueck. Using multiple sources for information about parent-child relations, they found that parental rejection was a strong predictor of criminality. After coding case records based on home observations for a period of approximately five years, Joan McCord retraced 235 members of the Cambridge Somerville Youth Study. She found that those who had mothers who were self-confident, provided leadership, were consistently nonpunitive, and affectionate were unlikely to commit crimes. Thus, studies on emotional climate in the home present consistent results. Like parental conflict, negative parent-child relations enhance the probability of delinquency. Parental affection appears to reduce the probability of crime. Not surprisingly, parental affection and close family ties tend to be linked with other features of family interaction.

Variations in discipline and crime

Psychoanalytic theory postulates that development of the superego depends on the "introjection" of a punitive father. This perspective generated research on successive training for control of oral, anal, and sexual drives and on techniques for curbing dependency and aggression. Although resultant studies failed to produce a coherent picture showing which disciplinary techniques promoted a strong conscience and which decreased antisocial behavior, they focused attention on the relationship between discipline and deviance. Studies less closely tied to psychoanalytic theory have considered various types of punishment and used such concepts as firmness, fairness, and consistency in analyzing relationships between discipline and crime.

The Gluecks found that incarcerated delinquent boys rarely had "firm but kindly" discipline from either parent, yet a majority of the nondelinquents with whom they were compared experienced this type of discipline. Parents of delinquents were more likely to use physical punishment and less likely to supervise their sons. Hirschi characterized discipline by asking if the parents punished by slapping or hitting, by removing privileges, and by nagging or scolding. He found that use of these types of discipline was related to delinquency, a conclusion which suggests that such punishments promoted the behaviors they were "designed to prevent" (p. 102).

Several longitudinal studies investigating effects of punishment on aggressive behavior have shown that punishments are more likely to result in defiance than compliance. Power and Chapieski studied toddlers one month after they had started walking unassisted and again a month later. The sample, drawn from Lamaze classes, was middle class, with mothers at home. Among them, "Infants of physically punishing mothers showed the lowest levels of compliance and were most likely to manipulate breakable objects during the observations" (p. 273). Additionally, six months later, the same infants showed slower development as measured by the Bayley mental test scores.

Crockenberg and Litman studied two year olds in the laboratory, where they measured the infants' obedience to requests and interviewed their mothers about discipline and family life. The same mother-child pairs were studied a month later in their homes during meal preparation and mealtime. After controlling other types of maternal behavior, the observers' ratings indicated that negative control was related to defiance in both settings.

Similarly, spanking seems counterproductive for children preparing to enter school. Strassberg, Dodge, Pettit, and Bates recruited families in three cities as they registered the children for kindergarten. Parents present in the home reported their disciplinary practices over the prior year. The children were subsequently observed in their classrooms. Children spanked by their mothers or fathers displayed more angry, reactive aggression in the kindergarten classrooms than did those who did not receive physical punishments.

In 1997, McCord analyzed the effects of corporal punishment based on biweekly observation of 224 parents and their sons over an average period of five and one-half years. In addition to measuring the use of corporal punishment in the home, each parent was rated in terms of warmth expressed toward the child. At the time of these ratings, the sons were between the ages of ten and sixteen. Thirty years later, the criminal records of the subjects were traced. Regardless of whether or not a father was affectionate toward his son, his use of corporal punishment predicted an increased likelihood that the son would subsequently be convicted for a serious crime. Regardless of whether or not a mother was affectionate toward her son, the mother's use of corporal punishment predicted an increased likelihood that the son would subsequently be convicted for a serious violent crime.

Punishment is not necessary to rear an emotionally healthy, behaviorally adaptable, and socially responsible child. Nevertheless, most American adults experienced at least some punishment, typically physical punishment, when they were children. Most use some physical punishment in raising their children. Therefore it is clear that healthy development can occur when physical punishment has been used. Although in the short run, punishments may stop unwanted behavior, they also increase the likelihood that children will learn to use force to get what they want. The use of punishments also endanger the parent-child relationship, a relationship that often provides a foundation for subsequent familial ties.

Punishment is only one of several aspects of effective parenting. Others include holding clear standards of conduct and rules of behavior and communicating these clearly to children. Communication is promoted through attending to what children are doing, monitoring behavior so that parental reactions to unwanted behavior are contingent on that behavior and so that misbehavior can be prevented.

General socialization and crime

In studying the impact of family on delinquency, long-term studies are particularly helpful, providing information for judging whether parental rejection and unfair discipline precede or follow antisocial behavior. For two decades, David Farrington and Donald West traced the development of 411 working-class London boys born between 1951 and 1953. When the boys were between eight and ten years old, their teachers identified some as particularly difficult and aggressive. Social workers visited the homes of the boys in 1961 and gathered information on the parents' attitudes toward their sons, disciplinary techniques used, and compatibility between the parents. In 1974, as the boys reached maturity, each was classified as noncriminal (if there were no convictions) or, according to his criminal record, as a violent or a nonviolent criminal. Farrington and West found that the families most likely to produce criminals had been quarrelsome, provided little supervision, and included a parent with a criminal record. Furthermore, boys whose parents had been harsh or cruel in 1961 were more likely than their classmates to acquire records for violent crimes. Parental cruelty was actually a more accurate selector of boys who would become violent criminals than was the child's early aggressiveness.

Other longitudinal studies show antecedents to aggression and antisocial behavior similar to those found by Farrington and West. McCord found that maternal rejection and lack of self-confidence, paternal alcoholism and criminality, lack of supervision, parental conflict, and parental aggressiveness permitted predictions of adult criminality that were more accurate than those based on a person's own juvenile offense record. In studying Swedish schoolboys, Dan Olweus found that ratings of maternal rejection, parental punitiveness, and absence of parental control predicted aggressiveness. Descriptions of the family had been obtained from interviews with the parents when the boys were sixth-graders, and aggressiveness was evaluated by the boy's classmates three years later. In her Finnish longitudinal study, Lea Pulkkinen discovered that lack of interest in and control of the fourteen-year-old child's activities, use of physical punishments, and inconsistency of discipline tended to lead to criminality by the age of twenty.

All of these studies suggest that delinquents have parents who act unfairly or who are too willing to inflict pain, whereas the parents of nondelinquents provide consistent and compassionate attention. Community variations may account for the fact that some varieties of family life have different effects in terms of delinquency in different communities. In general, consistent friendly parental guidance seems to protect children from delinquency regardless of neighborhoods. But poor socialization practices seem to be more potent in disrupted neighborhoods.

In sum, family life influences delinquency through providing offspring with predispositions regarding how to cope with life outside the family. Children reared by affectionate, consistent parents are unlikely to commit serious crimes either as juveniles or as adults. On the other hand, children reared by parents who neglect or reject them are likely to be greatly influenced by their community environments. When communities offer opportunities and encouragement for criminal behavior, children reared by neglecting or rejecting parents are likely to become delinquents.

Siblings and crime

Studies of family relationships and crime have commonly centered on parent-child influence. Generally, if included at all, siblings are mentioned only in passing. Daniel Glaser, Bernard Lander, and William Abbott, however, focused on siblings when asking why some people become drug addicts. Three pairs of sisters and thirty-four pairs of brothers living in a slum area of New York City responded to questions asked in interviews by a former addict and a former gang leader. One member of each pair had never used heroin, whereas the other had been an addict. Results of this study suggested that the typical addict was about two years younger than the nonaddicted sibling, spent less time at home, left school at a younger age, and began having relationships with persons of the opposite sex when younger. The interviews did not yield evidence of systematic differences between addicts and their siblings regarding parental affection or expectations for success. Like the Finnish adolescents studied by Pulkkinen, and the British delinquents in the Farrington and West sample, the addicts appear to have had peers for their reference groups. Unfortunately, relatively little is known about why some children adopt peers instead of family as reference groups.

Differences in sex, intelligence, and physique provide partial answers to why one child in a family develops problems and another does not. In addition, several studies show that even after controlling for family size (delinquents tend to come from larger families), middle children are more likely to be delinquents than are their oldest or youngest siblings. Rutter suggests that parental actions could be the determinant, with delinquent children tending to be those who were singled out for abuse by quarreling parents.

Farrington and West analyzed criminal records among the families of the 411 London boys they studied. Having a criminal brother, they discovered, was approximately as criminogenic as having a criminal father. Data from Minnesota confirm the apparent criminogenic impact of sibling criminality. In 1974, Merrill Roff traced criminal records of approximately thirteen hundred sets of siblings born between 1950 and 1953. Males whose siblings had juvenile court records were about one and a half times as likely to have court records themselves as were those whose siblings did not have such records. Furthermore, those whose brothers had been juvenile delinquents were about twice as likely to have adult criminal convictions as those who were the only juvenile delinquents in the family.

Marriage and crime

Although crimes within the family typically go unrecorded, violence between husband and wife accounts for a significant proportion of recorded criminal assaults and homicides. Additionally, as has been noted above, criminal parents tend to rear delinquent children. Apart from these facts, relatively little is known about the relationship of crime to marriage.

Two links between crime and age of marriage have been forged in the literature. First, several studies suggest that delinquents marry at younger ages than do nondelinquents. Second, criminality tends to decline at about the time that marriage takes place. Perhaps because of the popular belief that marriage has a settling effect, researchers have sometimes concluded that marriage reduces crime. Yet at least three accounts of the relationship between marriage and crime can be given. Delinquents may marry when they are ready to settle down, delinquents who are less criminally inclined may be more likely to many (with marriage marking no change in motivation), or marriage may produce change.

One of the few studies with information sufficient to test whether marriage has a palliative effect is by Farrington and West. They compared men who married between the ages of eighteen and twenty-one with unmarried men at age twenty-one. The two groups had similar histories to the age of eighteen. These comparisons failed to show that marriage reduces delinquency.

Family intervention and crime

Because studies of the causes of crime implicate parents, treatment strategies have been aimed at changing parental behavior. Alan Kazdin summarized research on parent management training by noting that it "has led to marked improvements in child behavior" (p. 1351). One long-term follow-up study of home visiting during the first pregnancies of women suggest that such visits produce reductions in juvenile crime (Olds et al.). Unmarried pregnant women were randomly assigned to have a visiting nurse or to be in a comparison group. Those whose mothers received the home visits had less than half as many arrests fifteen years later. Evidence is mounting that training in parental skills can be successful, although more work is necessary both to develop effective strategies across a variety of cultural environments and to assure that the most dysfunctional families receive the training.

Interpreting the data

After World War II, scientists began to study socialization by producing in microcosm conditions that seemed important for understanding personality development. Early studies generally reflected the psychoanalytic perspective. Aggression was conceived as instinctual, and conscience was thought of as a "superego" that developed from identification with a parent. As Freudian influence declined, researchers began to consider alternative theories.

Laboratory experiments showing that observing aggression can produce aggressive behavior suggest why punitive parents may tend to have aggressive offspring. Imitation of aggression in the laboratory increases when aggression is described as justified. Parents who justify their use of pain as punishment may foster the idea that inflicting pain is appropriate in other contexts.

Much effort has been expended in investigating the role played by rewards and punishments in teaching children how to act. Although it has been demonstrated that prompt feedback increases conformity to norms, some studies also show the paradoxical effects of rewards and punishments. Rewards sometimes decrease performance, and punishments sometimes increase forbidden actions. These studies suggest that use of rewards and punishments can create ambiguous messages. Similar ambiguities may affect parent-child relationships. Lax discipline and the absence of supervision, as well as parental conflict, could increase delinquency because they impede communication of the parents' socializing messages.

Joan Mccord

See also Contributing to the Delinquency of Minors; Domestic Violence; Education and Crime; Family Abuse and Crime; Homicide: Behavioral Aspects; Rape: Behavioral Aspects; Rape: Legal Aspects; Sexual Offenses: Consensual.


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