VI. 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.