II. 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 self-control 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 self-control 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.