Families and Crime


I. Introduction

II. Linking Parenting to Delinquency

III. The Corporal Punishment Controversy

IV. Family Structure and Delinquency

V. The Effect of Poverty and Neighborhood Conditions

VI. Linking Childhood Delinquency and Adult Crime

VII. Marital Violence

VIII. Child Maltreatment

IX. Conclusion and Bibliography

I. Introduction

This research paper 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 research paper 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.

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