Leslie Gordon Simons. 21st Century Criminology: A Reference Handbook. Editor: J Mitchell Miller. 2009. Sage Publication.
This chapter brings together research and theory from criminology, psychology, family science, and sociology regarding the role of family processes in the etiology of delinquent and criminal behavior. Theory and research in the area of crime and delinquency have increasingly emphasized the importance of family processes in explaining the development of deviant behavior. Hirschi’s (1969) social control theory, Sampson and Laub’s (1990) life course perspective, Akers’s (1973) social learning model, and Gottfredson and Hirschi’s (1990) general theory of crime, for example, all identify parental behavior as a cause of delinquent behavior. Furthermore, criminologists have begun to focus on family-related issues such as marital violence, child abuse, and the manner in which romantic partners influence each other’s involvement in antisocial behavior.
For the majority of Americans, the cultural ideal of the family emphasizes affection, consensus, harmony, and caregiving. There is, however, another side to families. Although families often function as an important source of nurturance and support, it is also the case that many categories of criminal and antisocial behavior are rooted in family processes or are directed toward family members. Most people have some awareness of this fact. Indeed, if asked why some individuals commit crimes, the average person is likely to provide an explanation that focuses on how the deviant individual was parented while growing up. Furthermore, in the last two decades, there has been an increase in the public’s awareness of domestic violence. Most individuals appreciate the fact that spouse and child abuse are a part of everyday life for many families; however, other connections between families and crime are less well understood. Few people are aware, for example, of the various ways in which a person’s criminal behavior or involvement with the criminal justice system tends to disrupt the lives of other family members, or of the role that marital partners often play in fostering or deterring their spouse’s involvement in crime.
Social scientists have defined the terms deviant behavior and family in a variety of ways. Although the family is a basic social institution in all societies, its form tends to vary considerably from one culture to another. “The family” is an abstract phrase used to denote an array of forms and practices that serve a common set of social and psychological needs for a group of two or more people who share kinship or affective ties. Given the wide variety of forms, perhaps the simplest and most straightforward approach to studying families is to focus on the two core relationships present in most families: (1) the parent–child relationship and (2) the committed relationship between two adults. The parent–child unit and the adult couple unit are fundamental components of a family, and a particular family may have one or both of these relational units.
Social deviance is any thought, feeling, or behavior that is viewed as objectionable by a group of people because it violates the social norms that the group members share regarding how a person should behave. The present discussion focuses on acts such as childhood aggression, adolescent delinquency, adult crime, and child and spouse abuse as they relate to family processes. Researchers often refer to persons who engage in such behavior as antisocial. Such actions stand in contradistinction to prosocial behavior, which takes into account the needs and concerns of others and thereby contributes to the welfare of the group. Antisocial behavior, on the other hand, is selfish, hostile, and disruptive, and it threatens the integrity of the group.
Expressions of antisocial behavior tend to vary by age. Antisocial behavior during the elementary school years tends to consist of actions such as bullying others, lying, refusing to comply with adult requests, showing extreme anger and resentment, deliberately annoying others, and being spiteful and vindictive. Delinquency during adolescence consists of antisocial actions that are illegal, such as initiating physical fights, shoplifting, stealing, setting fires, destroying property, or using illegal drugs. Finally, there is the antisocial behavior displayed during adulthood. This can involve a wide variety of criminal behaviors, such as robbery, burglary, physical assault, fraud, sexual coercion, and domestic violence. Individuals who engage in such acts also often display various deviant behaviors that are antisocial but not illegal. This includes actions such as lying, cheating, sexual promiscuity, substance abuse, and general irresponsibility.
This chapter is concerned with the relationship among the family and child, adolescent, and adult antisocial behavior. The family is a core social institution that exists in all societies. In addition to providing food and shelter to its members, the family is the context within which children learn fundamental social skills and satisfy their affective needs. Family relationships offer children a context for learning moral values, self-control, and to love and trust others. Families also meet the emotional and companionship needs of adults. Although individuals in modern society are influenced by many sources other than the family, family factors account for more variance in the rates of antisocial behavior than any other single variable. Therefore, it is essential to focus on the family when trying to gain a complete understanding of antisocial behavior.
Linking Parenting to Delinquency
One of the most widely accepted findings in criminology and developmental psychology is that childhood conduct problems are a strong predictor of subsequent involvement in antisocial behavior. Results from a variety of longitudinal studies show that children who are aggressive and noncompliant during elementary school are at risk for adolescent delinquency and adult crime (Caspi & Moffitt, 1995; Conger & Simons, 1997; Patterson, Reid, & Dishion, 1992; Sampson & Laub, 1993). These findings indicate that antisocial tendencies tend to become manifest during childhood. The roots of an adult antisocial lifestyle appear to be planted during the person’s formative years. Parents are generally seen as the primary agents of socialization in the early years of a child’s life. Although inborn traits involving temperament and personality are considered to be important, most social scientists assume that a child’s psychological and behavioral development is heavily influenced by the family environment provided by the parents.
Sociologists, psychologists, and criminologists have completed scores of studies that examined the relationship between parental behavior and delinquency. Various parenting behaviors, including parental warmth, monitoring, and consistent discipline, were all found to be inversely related to the chances that a child would become delinquent (L. G. Simons & Conger, 2007). A guiding framework for much of this work was the parenting typology developed by Maccoby and Martin (1983).
Maccoby and Martin’s (1983) typology is based in large part on the work of Diana Baumrind (1971) and is organized around two dimensions of parenting: (1) responsiveness and (2) demandingness.Responsiveness involves the extent to which parents are approachable, warm, supportive, and attuned to the needs of the child. Demandingness refers to the extent to which the parents exercise control over the child through supervision, disciplinary efforts, and a willingness to consistently impose consequences for violations of expected behaviors. These two dimensions of parenting can be used to generate a typology of four parenting styles. Permissive parents are high on responsiveness but low on demandingness, whereas authoritarian parents are low on responsiveness but high on demandingness.Neglectful/rejecting parents are low on both responsiveness and demandingness. Finally, authoritative parents are high on both responsiveness and demandingness. Baumrind asserted that the best approach to parenting is the style displayed by authoritative parents. In other words, children need support and nurturance combined with structure and control. Consistent with this contention, three decades of research has shown that authoritative parenting is positively related to school achievement, psychological well-being, and social adjustment and negatively related to conduct problems and delinquency. Further evidence regarding the importance of parenting was provided by longitudinal studies showing that aggression and conduct problems during childhood predicted adolescent delinquency and adult crime. This suggests that exposure to inept parenting during childhood may set the stage for a deviant life course trajectory.
One of the early criminological theories that included the parent–child relationship as part of an explanation for deviant behavior was Travis Hirschi’s (1969) social control theory. Although many researchers felt this theory began to address the importance of parental behavior in explaining child conduct problems, studies indicated that something more than the parent–child bond, as suggested by social control theory, explained this link. Later, self-control theory was proposed. In A General Theory of Crime, Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990) argued that it is persons low in selfcontrol who are attracted to crime. They described individuals low in self-control as impulsive, uncompromising, self-centered, insensitive, prone to risk taking, and unconcerned about long-term consequences. Such persons are attracted to crime, which provides immediate gratification, whereas they avoid activities that involve a lot of time, energy, and delayed gratification. According to Gottfredson and Hirschi, adolescent delinquents and adult criminals are lazy, lacking in self-discipline, and looking for the easy way to get what they want.
Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990) argued that we all enter the world low in self-control. Infants and toddlers, for example, are impulsive and self-centered, and they want immediate gratification. With time, however, most individuals learn to delay gratification. Instead of giving in to their desire for immediate reward, they exercise selfcontrol and act in a manner that takes into account the consequences of their actions for themselves and others. This being the case, where does this self-control come from? Gottfredson and Hirschi asserted that the answer involves parenting. In addition to being caring and supportive, the child’s primary caregiver must set behavior standards, monitor the child’s behavior, and be willing to discipline the child when the standards are not met. When caretakers do this in a consistent fashion, the child learns self-control. On the other hand, children fail to develop self-control if they are raised by caretakers who are lax in nurturance, monitoring, and discipline.
Overall, evidence from various studies suggests that self-control explains only a portion of the relationship between parenting and antisocial behavior. The available evidence suggests that the story of crime is more complicated than that suggested by Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990). Whereas social control theory emphasizes the impact of parental behavior on children, social learning theory focuses on the reciprocal or mutual influences that exist between parents and children, and it stresses the importance of peer effects as well as the manner in which parents influence their children’s friendship choices. Perhaps the best example of research based on this perspective has been conducted by Gerald Patterson (e.g., Patterson, 1982). Over the past several years, Patterson and his colleagues have pursued longitudinal studies concerned with the manner in which family and peer processes combine to produce child and adolescent conduct problems. The findings from this program of research provide support for their coercion model of antisocial behavior, which posits that delinquency and crime develop in the following fashion.
The process begins with an irritable, explosive parent. Regardless of the reasons for such a disposition, such individuals tend to engage in negative scanning of their child’s behavior so that even neutral actions evoke criticism and denigration. These verbal assaults often produce an angry, defiant response from the child, who feels unfairly attacked and mistreated. The result is an escalating spiral of aversive exchanges that operate to reinforce the child’s antisocial behavior and the parent’s inept parenting. It is important to note that in families with antisocial children, at least half of the time these escalating aversive exchanges terminate with the parent capitulating. The parent engages in verbal remonstrations and threats but little or no actual followthrough. The child responds defiantly, and the parent eventually backs down. Using the principles of social learning theory, the parent gives in to the child, thereby positively reinforcing the child’s oppositional and defiant behavior. The child learns that if he is nasty enough, he will get his way. Also, negative reinforcement is operating as the child’s aggressive behavior neutralizes or deflects the unpleasant intrusions of the parent. The child behaves aggressively, and the parent discontinues his or her criticism and threats.
Concomitantly, the parent is negatively reinforced for giving in to the child. Usually, once the parent backs down the child’s behavior improves, and his aggressive posturing gives way to a more pleasant demeanor. In addition, the parent experiences punishment when he or she tries to discipline the child. Any attempt to correct the child elicits a very unpleasant response from the child. Therefore, the interaction taking place within such families trains parents to be inconsistent and to back down while training children to use aggressive actions to coerce others into giving them their way. Instead of learning prosocial, problem-solving behaviors that involve sharing and compromising, these children learn to use anger and defiance as a way of solving problems and getting what they want from others.
This interpersonal style tends to be generalized to interactions with peers. The coercive child insists on having his or her way; refuses to compromise; and uses angry, aggressive behavior to bully others into complying with his or her wishes. Much of the time, this behavior is rewarded, because conventional children often give into this display of belligerence and hostility. Thus, interaction with peers tends to reinforce the aversive interpersonal style that the child learned at home. Although the behavior of the antisocial child often leads to immediate or short-term rewards, the long-term effect is usually quite different. Conventional youth do not want to play with someone who uses aggression and defiance to get his or her way. Thus, the long-term consequence of the antisocial child’s aversive behavior is rejection by conventional peers. What such children fail to recognize, however, is the manner in which their own coercive style of interaction contributes to their interpersonal and academic difficulties.
By default, these socially rejected youth establish friendships with each other, forming a deviant peer group. It is important to note here that affiliation with deviant peers is the primary avenue whereby a child’s coercive interpersonal style escalates to delinquent and criminal behavior. The deviant peer group provides a context for experimenting with various deviant behaviors. It serves as a training ground for shoplifting, drug use, fighting, and the like. Association with other deviant youngsters provides antisocial youth with attitudes, motivations, and rationalizations that support involvement in a wide variety of illegal activities.
The coercion model does not address the way parents influence a child’s selection of a peer group. There is rather strong evidence that parental behavior influences a child’s friendship choices. Past research indicates that parents often use a variety of strategies to structure their children’s peer affiliations: They encourage their children to join one group over another; they select the schools that their children attend; and they promote participation in various conventional activities, such as organized sports and other extracurricular activities at school. Such efforts reduce the probability that a child will affiliate with deviant peers.
The Corporal Punishment Controversy
As described earlier, several contemporary theories of deviant behavior agree that effective parenting behaviors decrease the probability of delinquent behavior. In recent years, some researchers have argued that there is convincing evidence for another generalization regarding the effect of parental behavior on child conduct problems. They contend that research has confirmed that children subjected to corporal punishment are at risk for delinquent and criminal behavior. Physical discipline has this effect, they argue, because parents who engage in this behavior inadvertently teach their children that aggression and coercion are legitimate approaches to solving problems, and corporal punishment fosters anger and generates opposition and defiance. Thus, instead of deterring misbehavior, it operates to amplify a child’s antisocial tendencies. These researchers consider exposure to corporal punishment during childhood to be a major cause of adolescent delinquency and adult crime and aggression. On the basis of arguments such as these, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Psychological Association have taken firm stances against the use of any corporal punishment. Some people believe that scientific support for this position is so strong that Congress should follow the example of several European countries and pass legislation prohibiting adults from using corporal methods to discipline children. Currently, parents are forbidden to use corporal punishment as a form of discipline in Austria, Cyprus, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Italy, Latvia, Norway, and Sweden.
The majority of American parents sometimes use corporal punishment to discipline their children. One investigation found, for example, that over 90% of American parents have spanked their children by the time they are 3 or 4 years of age (Straus & Gelles, 1986). The effects of corporal punishment are an empirical question. Moral objections are a separate issue. This chapter focuses on research findings and lets readers draw their own conclusions regarding the ethics of physical forms of punishment.
It is important to distinguish spanking from harsh physical punishment. In 1996, a conference of developmental psychologists defined spanking as an approach to physical discipline that is noninjurious and is administered with an opened hand to the extremities or buttocks. At most, such punishment inflicts only a minor, temporary level of physical pain. More severe forms of corporal punishment involving slapping, kicking, shoving, and hitting with an object would be considered abusive.
Research indicates that modeling often results in discriminative learning whereby we learn to recognize (or discriminate) between the circumstances under which an action is or is not appropriate. Consider the example of a parent who uses low-impact spanking (i.e., a swat to the buttocks using an open hand) as a last-resort punishment when her preschooler misbehaves, but never uses corporal punishment with her older children and frequently talks about the importance of people not being violent or aggressive with one another. Also, when she administers a swat to her preschooler, she explains the importance of the rule that her child violated and indicates that little children get spanked when they defy their parents’ guidance. In this case, the child might be expected to learn that it is legitimate for parents to sometimes spank a misbehaving preschooler whereas in general people should not hit each other.
Children often respond with anger, aggression, and defiance when they perceive that they have been treated unjustly. Past research shows that corporal punishment is most apt to be perceived as legitimate if it is mild, is used with young children, is administered by a warm and caring parent, and occurs within a cultural context that legitimates corporal punishment. Under such circumstances, physical discipline is apt to operate as a deterrent to child conduct problems. Conversely, physical discipline is likely to elicit perceptions of injustice and mistreatment when it is severe, is directed toward older children, is dispensed by a rejecting parent, or occurs within a cultural context that disapproves of corporal punishment. Under these circumstances, physical discipline is apt to generate belligerence, defiance, and other conduct problems.
Unfortunately, much of the research on corporal punishment usually does not distinguish between the consequences of mild forms of physical punishment and more extreme forms that might be considered abusive. The few studies that have taken severity into account, however, have found that individuals exposed to moderate levels of physical punishment are no more likely to engage in antisocial behavior than those whose parents did not use corporal punishment, whereas persons who experienced severe physical punishment show significantly higher levels of antisocial behavior than those who received either no punishment or moderate corporal punishment. Several studies have reported that physically abused children are at risk for a variety of antisocial behaviors, including delinquency and substance abuse. In general, the association between harsh parenting and antisocial behavior is stronger for children who have experienced more extensive abuse.
The effects of physical discipline are likely to differ by age of child. Although moderate spanking may be a deterrent for preschoolers, corporal punishment might be expected to escalate the deviant behavior of older children and teens. Past research provides support for this observation. Clinical studies with preschoolers or kindergarteners have found that spanking increases compliance, as well as the effectiveness of time-outs and reasoning, whereas those that focus on parental behavior during late childhood or early adolescence tend to find a positive relationship between spanking and antisocial behavior.
A child’s reaction to physical punishment may depend, at least in part, on the quality of the relationship that she has with the caregiver. Warm and supportive parents may be able to use corporal punishment to obtain child compliance. On the other hand, corporal punishment may foster defiance and aggression when it is administered by cold, harsh, or uninvolved parents. Although few studies have addressed this issue, the evidence suggests that corporal punishment tends to escalate child behavior problems when it takes place within the context of a troubled parent–child relationship. These negative effects are much less likely to occur when physical discipline occurs within a warm and nurturing family environment.
There are also differences in the effects of corporal punishment by ethnicity. Several studies have reported that physical discipline is more widely used and accepted by African American parents than by European American parents. Furthermore, research shows that European American children often view physical discipline as an expression of parental hostility and disregard, whereas African American children tend to accept such discipline as a valid expression of parental concern. Several studies indicate that African American children show less aggression and defiance, and more compliance, in response to physical punishment than European American children. It appears that corporal punishment tends not to have negative consequences when the family is part of a culture that legitimates such parenting practices.
In summary, physical discipline is apt to foster compliance and be perceived as legitimate when (a) it is mild (e.g., a spank to the buttocks with an open hand); (b) is administered by a caring, supportive parent; and (c) the child is between 2 and 6 years of age. In contrast, physical discipline is likely to foster defiance and aggression when (a) it is severe; (b) is administered by a harsh, rejecting parent; and (c) the child is a preadolescent or teen. However, the decision to use physical punishments to discipline children involves more than the question of efficacy; it is also an ethical matter. Whereas social scientists can address the question of effectiveness, it is beyond the scope of science to draw moral conclusions. Ultimately, each individual must determine the circumstances, if any, under which it might be appropriate to use physical discipline.
Family Structure and Delinquency
There has been a substantial increase in many types of adolescent problems since the mid-1960s. The rates of adolescent crime, substance abuse, suicide, school dropout, and teen pregnancy, for example, all have shown dramatic growth during this period. Some scholars have noted that the rise in child and adolescent problems parallels the increase in divorce, cohabitation, and births to never-married mothers that has occurred in recent decades. Indeed, several studies have reported strong associations between the proportion of female-headed households and adolescent and adult antisocial behavior. In most of these studies the effect of family structure is as strong as or stronger than variables such as poverty or race. Research conducted by Rob Sampson (1986), for example, found that rates of violent victimization are two to three times higher among residents of neighborhoods with high levels of family disruption.
Although family structure is a risk factor for child behavior problems, it is also true that there is great variability in outcomes among children from single-parent families and stepfamilies. The evidence indicates that the majority of these children do not manifest behavior problems. In fact, the rates for such behavior problems increase from 5% among children from intact, nuclear families to 10% to 15% of children from single-parent or divorced families (Hetherington & Stanley-Hagan, 1999, R. L. Simons & Associates, 1996). The vast majority of children from a single-parent family or stepfamily do not develop conduct problems; hence, such an expectation would turn out to be erroneous more often than not. Accurate prediction of which individuals are most vulnerable to a particular risk factor usually requires knowledge of the mechanisms by which the condition produces its deleterious effects. Thus, if we are to identify children from single-parent and stepparent families most at risk for adjustment problems, we need information regarding the manner in which family structure increases a child’s odds for developmental difficulties. Research indicates that in large measure, family stress and disrupted parenting explain which children are likely to manifest conduct problems (Amato, 2000).
Given that diverse family forms are an inevitable feature of American society, there is some controversy associated with conducting research on the consequences of variations in family structure. The findings of such research are often used by political groups that are opposed to diversity and gender equality. Also, most parents who divorce undoubtedly do so as a last resort, and the welfare of their children is of great concern to them. Some people have suggested that to do research on these families that highlights their problems may seem cruel in light of the other difficulties they face. Although these issues are important, social science is concerned with describing and explaining empirical reality. Hence, it is essential that we as scientists do our best to avoid denying or distorting facts because of personal values or ideology. Such a commitment is not only in the best interest of science but also is the approach most likely to benefit society. Research has clearly established a link between family structure and an elevated risk for developmental problems. This effect is quite modest, however, and appears to be largely explained by the fact that the stresses associated with single parents, divorced parents, and stepfamilies tend to compromise the quality of parenting that children receive.
The Effect of Poverty and Neighborhood Conditions
Although the family may be the primary agent of socialization for children, it does not exist in a vacuum. Families are embedded in a broader social environment that can operate to either enhance or undermine parental effectiveness. A family’s ability to effectively perform its socialization function is strongly affected by the social context in which it is embedded. This context consists of social institutions such as the economy, the polity, the church, and the neighborhood or community. The values, policies, and integrity of these social systems necessarily influence the functioning and efficacy of families.
Unfortunately, there is strong evidence that children who grow up in poor families are at increased risk for a variety of negative developmental outcomes, including conduct problems and delinquency. Past research indicates that poverty tends to have a disruptive effect on quality of parenting, and this is one of the major reasons that poverty increases a child’s chances of deviant behavior. Several studies have reported that economically stressed parents provide less support and monitoring and higher levels of inconsistent and harsh discipline than parents who are more affluent (Brody et al., 2001; Conger et al., 1992; R. L. Simons & Associates, 1996). There appear to be several reasons why financial hardship has a deleterious effect on parental behavior.
At least in part, the less effective parenting demonstrated by poor parents is a consequence of their being preoccupied and consumed with the challenges and stresses of everyday life. Given these concerns, they are often minimally involved in the parenting role until serious or flagrant child misbehavior jars them into action. Such transgressions are likely to demand a harsh response, so that the pattern of parenting displayed is inconsistent and explosive.
The psychological distress associated with economic hardship also increases the chances of ineffective parenting. Economic strain is apt to foster an irritable, aggressive psychological state that operates to decrease warmth and increase hostility toward others, including one’s children. Finally, depressed parents are more likely than nondistressed parents to be dissatisfied with social relationships, including the relationships with their children. Several studies have reported, for example, that depressed mothers tend to perceive their children as difficult, and parents are more likely to engage in harsh or punitive parenting when they perceive their children as difficult.
Thus, past research suggests several ways in which the preoccupation and psychological distress that accompany financial hardship tend to decrease warmth and monitoring while increasing inconsistency and hostility. As mentioned in previous sections, this approach to parenting places a child at risk for conduct problems and delinquent behavior.
Linking Childhood Delinquency and Adult Crime
Research indicates that antisocial behavior in children is one of the best predictors of antisocial behavior in adults. Children who are aggressive and noncompliant during elementary school are at risk for adolescent delinquency and adult crime. This finding indicates that the roots of an adult antisocial lifestyle appear to be planted during the person’s formative years. It is extremely rare that a person who was a model child and adolescent suddenly begins to engage in criminal behavior as an adult. Of course, the relationship between childhood conduct problems and adult antisocial behavior is far from perfect: Many delinquent children grow up to be conventional adults. So, what accounts for the link between past and future offending?
The criminological literature contains two very different views of antisocial behavior across the life span. Gottfredson and Hirschi’s (1990) self-control theory argues that differences in self-control are established by age 10 and remain reasonably stable throughout the life. Caregiver parenting practices and, to a lesser extent, child temperament are seen as the primary determinants of a child’s self-control. The theory views variations in levels of self-control as the primary explanation for individual differences in antisocial behavior throughout life.
Sampson and Laub’s (1990) life course approach, on the other hand, posits that the stability of antisocial behavior across the life course is a consequence of deviant behavior at early stages of development that undermines relationships and activities that are important sources of control during later stages. In addition to describing the causal process that accounts for the continuity of antisocial behavior, life course theory identifies events and circumstances that serve as the turning points, enabling individuals with a history of antisocial behavior to adopt more conventional lifestyles. In other words, life course criminologists are concerned with explaining both stability and change in antisocial behavior.
According to Sampson and Laub (1990), childhood conduct problems increase the chances of delinquency during adolescence because they reduce ties to parents, conventional peers, and school. More specifically, in response to childhood opposition and defiance, parents often reduce their efforts to monitor and discipline. A noncompliant attitude also increases the chances that a child will experience academic failure. Finally, conventional peers tend to reject difficult children, increasing the probability that they will drift into a deviant peer group. Unencumbered by parental controls, disinterested in school, and under the influence of a deviant peer group, these antisocial youngsters graduate from oppositional/defiant behavior to more serious delinquent acts. Childhood antisocial behavior leads to delinquency because of its disruptive effect on parents, school commitment, and peer affiliations.
Life course theory also notes, however, that numerous children who exhibit this sort of problem behavior do not follow this pattern. In fact, longitudinal research shows that that the majority of antisocial children go on to lead conventional lives. For example, past research shows that somewhere between 15% and 20% of 10-year-old boys are oppositional and defiant. They are aggressive, impulsive, self-centered, and noncompliant; tend to be rejected by their conventional peers; and represent a challenge to their parents and teachers. By age 18, a small proportion of the cohort, roughly 10%, is severely delinquent. They engage in fights, truancy, robbery, drug sales, and the like. Finally, a somewhat smaller proportion of the cohort, perhaps 5%, is involved in serious crime at age 26. Their criminal activities include a wide variety of illegal acts, such as robbery, burglary, drug trafficking, gambling, and prostitution. Nearly all adult criminals were seriously delinquent during adolescence, and virtually all of the seriously delinquent adolescents were oppositional/defiant at age 10. This does not mean that all antisocial children grow up to be criminals. Only about half of all children with conduct disorder go on to engage in serious delinquency during adolescence, and only about half of all seriously delinquent adolescents engage in criminal behavior as adults. Thus, although childhood deviance increases the chances of adult antisocial behavior, many individuals age out of their antisocial tendencies and adopt a more conventional way of life.
The finding that many antisocial individuals embrace a conventional lifestyle with the passage of time is contrary to self-control theory’s contention that by age 10, the window of opportunity for socialization is slammed shut, with those who have not acquired self-control being doomed to a life of delinquency and crime (Burt, Simons, & Simons, 2006). The evidence suggests instead that antisocial behavior shows both continuity and change: Some individuals manifest antisocial behavior throughout their lives, whereas others change and adopt a more conventional lifestyle. There is evidence that children who were highly oppositional but who subsequently experience improved parenting, increased school commitment, or reduced involvement with deviant peers show no more conduct problems during adolescence than boys who displayed little oppositional behavior during childhood. Furthermore, studies have found that job satisfaction and a committed, happy romantic relationship and other family ties mediated a significant proportion of the relationship between adolescent delinquency and adult crime (Simons & Conger, 2007). Thus, troubled adolescents who are able to achieve these successes are more likely to adopt a conventional lifestyle in adulthood, whereas those who fail to do so are more likely to continue on their troubled path toward adult criminal behavior.
Thus, recent longitudinal research tends to support the life course perspective over self-control theory. These studies explain why some individuals manifest antisocial behavior throughout their lives, whereas others desist and adopt a more conventional lifestyle. Studies generally have found that low commitment to conventional social activities and relationships explains much of the relationship between childhood measures of self-control and future deviant behavior. These investigations also show that antisocial individuals who buck the odds and develop strong commitments to such activities and relationships tend to discontinue their deviant lifestyles. These findings are consistent with the life course perspective but contradict self-control theory.
The first national survey of family violence was conducted by Murray Straus and his colleagues (Straus, 1974). Sixteen percent of married couples reported a violent incident in the preceding year, and 30% reported at least one incident at some point during the course of the marriage. Slightly more than 6% indicated that there had been an incident of severe violence. To the surprise of almost everyone, the data indicated that wives hit their husbands slightly more often than husbands hit their wives. This pattern has since been corroborated by many studies.
Although this is interesting, it should not be taken as an indication that husband abuse is a serious social problem comparable to wife abuse. This female-to-male pattern is typically confined to fairly minor acts of violence, such as slapping or shoving, and it is unlikely to involve injury. Police records, emergency room data, and criminal victimization surveys indicate that women are far more likely to sustain serious injury at the hands of men. Eighty percent of the partner assaults reported to the National Crime Victimization Survey involved men attacking women (Felson, 2002). Men and women vary tremendously in terms of size and strength, ability to deliver forceful blows, and capacity to defend or escape. Studies that have examined injury rather than just number of incidents conclude that men are much more violent toward their partners than women are.
Researchers have made distinctions between two types of intimate partner violence (Johnson & Ferraro, 2000). The first type, called common couple violence, occurs infrequently, does not escalate over time, and rarely results in physical injury or psychological trauma. This is not the type of violence that most human service workers, policymakers, or everyday citizens have in mind when they refer to spouse abuse or battering. Instead, it is the phenomenon called intimate terrorism that concerns society. This type of violence is frequent, persistent, and severe, and it results in physical injury and emotional trauma. It is in response to this social problem that people have established shelters, strengthened restraining orders, instituted mandatory arrest policies, and implemented treatment programs. This assaultive behavior is relatively rare and is usually committed by a man against a woman.
Past research indicates that two types of men tend to engage in intimate terrorism. The first group consists of men who engage in a wide variety of antisocial behaviors besides spouse abuse. For these individuals, severe partner abuse is an expression of a more general antisocial orientation. Their antisocial behavior appears to be, in large measure, a consequence of having grown up in a disorganized, violent family. In contrast, the second category of batterers displays the characteristics of borderline personality disorder and engages in little antisocial behavior outside of the couple relationship. Their intimate violence appears to be an expression of fear and anger regarding rejection instead of a component of a more general antisocial orientation. Some evidence suggests that these abusers often have grown up in a family characterized by emotional and physical abuse. Apparently, the parents of these individuals set rules and engage in the consistent discipline necessary to otherwise produce a basically conventional lifestyle. The rejection and abuse, however, result in a violent, turbulent approach to intimate relationships.
There is still much to be learned about the types of men who engage in severe partner abuse and the childhood factors that give rise to such behavior. Given the low base rate of intimate terrorism, it is difficult to generate samples of participants. As a result, most studies have focused on common couple violence. Thus, we know much more about minor acts of partner violence than we do about more extreme forms of assault.
Past research has established that there is a tendency for adults to repeat the abuse they experienced as a child (Heyman & Slep, 2002). This phenomenon is often labeled “the cycle of violence.” Although most victims of childhood abuse do not go on to abuse their offspring, they are 10 to 15 times more likely to be abusive parents than persons who were not exposed to abusive parenting. The most popular explanation for this finding involves the idea of modeling, from social learning theory. It is assumed that children observe the behavior of their parents and consider it to be normal or typical parental behavior. Later, when they achieve adulthood, they are likely to use these parenting scripts in a reflexive, rather unthinking fashion when parenting their own children.
Recently, some scholars have argued, largely on the basis of work by criminologists, for an alternative explanation for the cycle of violence phenomenon. These researchers argue that abusive parenting fosters a general antisocial orientation instead of simply teaching a dysfunctional approach to parenting. Abusive parenting is seen as increasing the chances that a person will grow up to engage in a wide variety of criminal and deviant behaviors, including harsh and abusive parenting practices. Furthermore, there is evidence that males who were the victims of harsh parenting practices have an increased risk of perpetrating intimate partner violence and sexual coercion (L. G. Simons, Burt, & Simons, 2008).
These two points of view suggest very different images of the abusive parent. The modeling perspective portrays perpetrators as ordinary citizens, conventional in all respects except for their abusive behavior. Scholars who support the antisocial orientation point of view, on the other hand, argue that most abusive parents are far from being ordinary; instead, parents who engage in extreme abusive practices are likely to have a history of involvement in a wide variety of criminal and deviant behaviors as well. We will have to wait for future research to establish which viewpoint is more correct.
Although this chapter has focused on a wide range of topics, it has provided clear and consistent support for a simple but important thesis: Exposure to inept parenting practices increases an individual’s risk for childhood conduct problems; adolescent delinquency; and adult antisocial behavior, including marital violence and child abuse. However, factors such as educational success, a conventional friendship network, a happy marriage, and a satisfying job can operate to moderate this risk. Unfortunately, individuals exposed to inept parenting often possess antisocial characteristics that reduce their probability of acquiring or gaining access to these moderators.
The theories and studies discussed in this chapter all suggest that inept parenting increases the chances of child conduct problems, adolescent delinquency, and adult crime; however, it is important to not overstate the case. On the one hand, it is true that the roots of an adult antisocial lifestyle appear to be planted during a person’s formative years, and parenting has much to do with the formation of these roots. The evidence reviewed in this chapter indicates that it is extremely rare that a person who was a model child and adolescent suddenly begins to engage in criminal behavior as an adult. On the other hand, the relationship between childhood conduct problems and adult antisocial behavior is far from perfect—indeed, the majority of delinquent children grow up to be conventional adults!
It is also important to remember that other factors besides parenting have been shown to influence involvement in delinquent and criminal behavior. Factors such as lack of occupational opportunity, living in a disadvantaged neighborhood, stressful events, and racial discrimination are associated with crime and delinquency. If society is to address the problems of crime and delinquency, it must pursue policies that address the full range of factors that influence participation in such behavior. It is important that social scientists and policymakers not overlook the family. Indeed, the effects of many of the social factors just mentioned may be mediated by family processes. Family religiosity, for example, appears to reduce delinquency, at least in part, because religious parents tend to engage in high levels of monitoring and consistent discipline. Also, there is evidence that part of the association between community disadvantage and delinquency is explained by the disruptive effect that such community conditions have on parental behavior. In the past, criminologists and sociologists have often ignored findings regarding a link between parenting and delinquency, treating such findings as narrow and socially conservative. Research results are not socially conservative, however, if they lead to social change.
It is important that social scientists and policymakers think systematically about steps that might be taken to enhance the quality of care provided to children, especially during the formative years. Unlike criminological theories concerned with economic and community factors, theories of deviant behavior that focus on family processes are often seen as having few policy implications. This is simply not the case. It is probably no more difficult to formulate policies that enhance quality of parenting and child care than it is to design policies that increase access to jobs or reduce poverty and discrimination. Instead of simply blaming parents for not doing a better job of raising their children, society needs to pursue social policies that strengthen families and enhance the quality of child care.