Effects of Parents on Crime Rates
1. Role of Fathers
The absence of the father is the single most important cause of crime.1) In fact, boys who are fatherless from birth are three times as likely to go to jail as peers from intact families, while boys whose fathers do not leave until they are 10 to 14 years old are two times as likely to go to jail as their peers from intact families.2) According to Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation, children without a father are more than twice as likely to be arrested for a juvenile crime and are three times more likely to go to jail by the time they reach age 30 than are children raised in intact families.3) Adolescents who had a positive relationship with their fathers are less likely to be arrested, belong to a gang, damage property, steal, or run away compared to their peers with less positive relationships with their fathers.4) Along with the increased probability of family poverty and heightened risk of delinquency, a father's absence is associated with a host of other social problems. The three most prominent effects are lower intellectual development, higher levels of illegitimate parenting in the teenage years, and higher levels of welfare dependency.5) According to a 1990 report from the Department of Justice, more often than not, missing and “throwaway” children come from single-parent families, families with step parents, and cohabiting-adult families.
2. Role of Mothers
The early experience of intense maternal affection is the basis for the development of a conscience and moral compassion for others.6) According to Chuck Smith, a Kansas State University child development expert, “as a child grows and matures, the mother—whether biological or a stepmother—plays an important role in her child's development, character and attitudes.”7) If a child's emotional attachment to their mother is disrupted during the first few years, permanent harm can be done to the child's capacity for emotional attachment to others. The child will be less able to trust others and throughout his or her life will stay more distant emotionally from others. Having many different caretakers during the first few years can lead to a loss of this sense of attachment for life and to antisocial behavior.8) Separation from the mother, especially between six months and three years of age, can lead to long-lasting negative effects on behavior and emotional development. Severe maternal deprivation is a critical ingredient of juvenile delinquency. As John Bowlby, the father of attachment research, puts it, “Theft, like rheumatic fever, is a disease of childhood, and, as in rheumatic fever, attacks in later life are frequently in the nature of recurrences.”9) A child's emotional attachment to their mother is powerful in other ways. For example, even after a period of juvenile delinquency, a young man's ability to become emotionally attached to his wife can make it possible for him to turn away from crime.10) This capacity is rooted in the very early attachment to his mother. We also know that a weak marital attachment resulting in separation or divorce accompanies a continuing life of crime.11)
Many family conditions can weaken a mother's attachment to her young child. Perhaps the mother herself struggles with emotional detachment.12) The mother could be so lacking in family and emotional support that she cannot fill the emotional needs of the child. She could return to work, or be forced to return to work, too soon after the birth of her child. Or, while she is at work, there could be a change in the personnel responsible for the child's day care. The more prevalent these conditions, the less likely a child will be securely attached to their mother and the more likely they will be hostile and aggressive.13)
3. Effects of Parental Fighting
The empirical evidence shows that, for a growing child, the happiest, safest, and most tranquil family situation is the intact primary marriage.14) But even within intact two-parent families, serious parental conflict has bad effects. The famous studies of Harvard professors Sheldon and Eleanor Glueck in the 1950s found that one-third of delinquent boys in their sample came from homes with spouse abuse. The Cambridge-Somerville Youth Study observed that the incidence of delinquent behavior was higher in intact homes characterized by a high degree of conflict and neglect than it was in broken homes without conflict.15) As this and other studies have shown, the lack of emotional attachment to parents is more strongly related to delinquency than is an intact home.16) Professor Kevin N. Wright, in his review of the literature for the Department of Justice, lists 21 other major studies that clearly show the link between parental conflict and delinquency.17) The lesson is clear: conflict between parents hurts the child. The more frequent or intense the conflict, the more the child is hurt emotionally. Violence within families not only increases the likelihood that children in those families will engage in disruptive behaviors but also that they will reflect that abuse on their spouse and children when they are older.18)
4. Effects of Parental Breakup
In 2008, there were over 8 million divorced adults in the United States.19)Breakup of a child's parents' marriage during the first five years of their life places a child at high risk of becoming a juvenile delinquent.20) This breakup – through either divorce or separation – is most likely to occur three to four years after marriage. Therefore, a large proportion of very young children experience the emotional pain of the early and final stages of marital dissolution at a time when they are most vulnerable to disruptions in their emotional attachment to their parents.21) This instability continues to impact adolescents as they mature. Teens in blended or divorced families tend to have more behavioral problems, like using tobacco, binge drinking, weapon carrying, physical fighting, or sexual activity.22)
Conflict within “step families” (families where at least one of the married parents is not the biological parent of all the children) also has serious effects. According to the California Youth Authority study of female delinquents, conducted by Jill Leslie Rosenbaum, professor of criminology at California State University, “In the two parent families examined in this study a great deal of conflict was present. Of these parents, 71 percent fought regularly about the children. Since there were often 'his', 'hers' and 'theirs' present, the sources of conflict tended to result from one set of children having a bad influence on the others, the type of punishment invoked, or one particular child receiving too much attention.”23)
Rates of conflict are much higher outside intact married families.24) The rates of emotional and behavioral problems of children are more than double in step families.25) Given their impact on children, the marriage arrangements of parents have significant effects on the incidence of teenage crime.
5. Influence of Criminal Parents
(See Effects of Criminal Parents on Children)
Violent youth often come from violent parents. In 2007, over 1.5 million children had a father in prison, and over 147,000 children had a mother in prison.26) Violent youth are the most likely to have witnessed conflict and violence between their parents.27) They also are the most likely to commit a serious violent crime and to become “versatile” criminals – those engaged in a variety of crimes, including, theft, fraud, and drugs.28) Among these youths, physically or sexually abused boys commit the most violent offenses.29)
Internal family violence is only one major contributor to adolescent violence in these socially disorganized neighborhoods. The neighborhood itself (which includes the youth's violent peers, also rooted in their own broken families) is the other powerful contributor,30) especially to violent delinquency,31) and its culture of aggression and violence is imported into the school.
6. Quality of Parenting
As a child's emotional attachment to his parents ensures a well- adjusted adult,32) so parental rejection of the child has powerful opposite effects. Ronald Simons, professor of sociology at Iowa State University, summarizes the research findings: “Rejected children tend to distrust and attribute malevolent motives to others, with the result being a defensive, if not aggressive, approach to peer interactions…. Such [rejecting] parents not only fail to model and reinforce prosocial behavior, they actually provide training in aggressive noncompliant behavior.”33)
Rejection by the family, which is the child's first and fundamental “community,” sets the stage for another social tragedy. Rejected children tend gradually to drop out of normal community life. Professor Simons continues: “Parental rejection… increased the probability of a youth's involvement in a deviant peer group, reliance upon an avoidant coping style, and use of substances.”34) Many other studies in the professional literature replicate these findings.35) Bonding between children and parents is critical to helping protect against youth violence.36)
Parenting Dimensions Mean effect sizes for associations between parenting dimensions (support and various forms of control) and delinquency were all significant and ranged in strength from.12 for authoritative and authoritarian control to 0.23 for psychological control (Table 2). Differences in mean effect sizes between parenting dimensions were significant (Q(5) = 13.7, p < 0.05). Among the parenting dimensions the highest mean effect sizes were found for psychological control, referring to parents who keep their child dependent, try to change the feelings of their child, use guilt to control the child or ignore the child as a form of punishment. Furthermore, general control, referring to variables that combine various aspects of discipline into one construct, was significantly related to delinquency and had a relatively high effect size (ESr = −0.21). According to the criteria of Cohen (1988) for small, moderate and large effect sizes (r = 0.10, r = 0.24, and r = 0.37 respectively), the correlation between psychological control and general control, and delinquency are moderate in size. The remaining parenting dimensions, support, and authoritative, authoritarian and behavioral control, have small to moderate significant associations with delinquency. Post-hoc comparisons revealed that differences between the four types of control were significant (Q(3) = 8.8, p < 0.05) and that differences in effect sizes between support and control dimensions and between behavioral and psychological control were nonsignificant (Q(1) = 0.03, p > 0.10 for support versus control; Q(1) = 1.0, p > 0.10 for behavioral vs. psychological control). Given that scholars consider the support dimension as unidimensional (e.g., Ten Haaf et al. 1994), we initially did not further divide the support dimension into separate constructs with different meanings. However, we hypothesized that low levels of positive aspects of support might result in different mean effect sizes than high levels of negative aspects of support. For example, high levels of hostility and neglect may be more harmful for youngsters than low levels of understanding and support. In order to test this hypothesis we compared the effect sizes of negative versus positive aspects of support. Parenting behaviors such as trust, acceptance, supportive parenting, open communication, love, caring and warmth were considered as positive aspects of support (47 studies) and indifference, avoidance, neglect, hostility and rejection were regarded as negative aspects of support (seven studies). Several parenting variables included both positive and negative aspects of support, such as ‘parental acceptance’ (low scores reflect rejection and high scores reflect acceptance) and ‘parental care’ (low scores reflect parental neglect and rejection and high scores reflect warmth and understanding). These parenting variables were considered as a separate category (18 studies). Studies on negative aspects of support resulted in significantly higher effect sizes (ESr = 0.30, p < 0.001, k = 7) than studies on positive aspects of support (ESr = −0.17, p < 0.001, k = 47). The mean effect size of these sets of results appeared to be significantly different (Qb(1) = 4.30, p < 0.05).Fail-safe numbers were calculated for each parenting category in order to estimate the number of unpublished non-significant studies that would have to have been found in order to decrease the combined effect size to non-significant. If the critical value suggested by Rosenthal (1991) is 5 k + 10 is not exceeded, a file drawer problem is indicated. Fail safe numbers (p = 0.05) ranged from 534 to 34,771 and exceeded the critical value. Possible file drawer problems were therefore not indicated and the significance levels of the effect sizes can be considered robust.
Parenting Styles Studies on parenting styles were classified into the category general parenting (Table 2; ESr = −0.17). Very few studies analyzed specific parenting styles (Avenevoli et al. 1999; Hoeve et al. 2007; Simons et al. 2005; Steinberg et al. 1991) and surprisingly only one study included neglectful parenting (Avenevoli et al. 1999); therefore, we were only able to compute a mean effect size for authoritative parenting style (ESr = −0.19, p < 0.001, k = 4). Only the study by Avenevoli and colleagues (1999) analyzed all four parenting styles in relation to delinquency, including neglectful parenting (r = −0.20 for intact families and r = −0.17 for single-parent families). Thus, given the small number of previous studies on parenting styles and delinquency, definite conclusions on whether parenting styles have stronger links to delinquency than parenting dimensions or which parenting style has the strongest link to delinquency cannot be drawn.
Discrete Parenting Behaviors Because the parenting dimensions categories are rather broad and knowledge on potential links between discrete parenting behaviors may be useful for investigating which specific child-rearing characteristics could be effective ingredients of interventions, we further analyzed smaller sets of analyses (see the Appendix, second column). If at least three analyses were available we calculated mean effect sizes on discrete parenting behaviors (Table 2). Furthermore, we tested whether mean effect sizes concerning discrete parenting behaviors were significantly different within a parenting dimension. These analyses revealed that the results of various aspects of support differed significantly (Qb(4) = 15.3, p < 0.01). For example, we found a trend for a weak link between open communication and delinquency (ESr = −0.07, p < 0.10, k = 11), while supportive parenting was moderately linked to delinquency (ESr = −0.23, p < 0.001, k = 5) and negative aspects of support, such as combinations of neglect, hostility and rejection were strongly linked to delinquency (ESr = 0.33, p < 0.001, k = 3).
The magnitude of mean effect sizes varied considerably within the parenting dimension behavioral control (Table 2). For example, a significant but small link between permissiveness and delinquency was found (ESr = 0.09, p < 0.05, k = 10), whereas monitoring was found to have a significant moderate association to delinquency (ESr = −0.23, p < 0.001, k = 28). Differences in these effect sizes, however, were not significant (Qb(4) = 7.2, p > 0.05).
Within the remaining parenting dimensions (i.e., authoritative, authoritarian and psychological control), mean effect sizes of discrete parenting behaviors were relatively similar (Table 2). With respect to authoritarian control, mean effect sizes were relatively small, such as the link between physical punishment and delinquency (ESr = 0.10, p < 0.01, k = 12). The link between a combination of aspects of authoritarian control and delinquency was slightly stronger (ESr = 0.16, p < 0.001, k = 24). However, these mean effect sizes did not differ significantly (Qb(2) = 3.5, p > 0.05). Mean effect sizes within authoritative control such as of rewarding and inductive parenting were relatively similar in strength and ranged from −0.11 to −0.13 (Table 2). Moderate effect sizes were found for psychological control (ESr = 0.21, p < 0.001, k = 13) and overprotection (ESr = 0.21, p < 0.001, k = 7). Again, these mean effect sizes did not differ significantly (Qb(2) = 3.5, p > 0.05).
Indirect parenting behavior, which refers to parental knowledge and child disclosure, had a significant negative relationship with delinquent behavior (ESr = −0.26, p < 0.001, k = 47, for knowledge and ESr = −0.31, p < 0.001, k = 11 for child disclosure). The link between these variables and delinquency was relatively the same as the link between parental monitoring and delinquency (ESr = −0.23, p < 0.001, k = 28 for monitoring; Q(2) = 0.7, p > 0.10).
The remaining parenting behaviors (category: other parenting) ranged from r = −0.04, p > 0.10, for parental expectations (i.e., expecting the child to clean his or her bedroom, do the dishes, etc.) to r = −0.35, p < 0.05, for maternal problem solving statements during an interactive task with the child. A mean effect size was only computed for co-parenting as at least three studies focused on the link between this aspect of parenting and delinquency. A lack of parental agreement in upbringing was significantly related to delinquency (ESr = −0.13, p < 0.001, k = 4).
In sum, the strongest mean effect sizes were found for negative aspects of support such as neglect, hostility and rejection or combinations of these parenting behaviors (ESr ranges from 0.26 to 0.33). In addition, parental monitoring, either active monitoring by parents, parental knowledge or child disclosure, was relatively strongly linked to delinquency (ESr ranges from −0.23 to −0.31). Furthermore, moderate effect sizes were found for psychological control and overprotection (ESr ranges from 0.21 to 0.23). The smallest effect sizes were found for communication (ESr = −0.07), permissiveness (ESr = 0.09), and physical punishment (ESr = 0.10).
Because the effect sizes in each of the parenting dimensions, general parenting and indirect parenting categories all had significant within-group variability (Table 2), moderator analyses were conducted for all broader parenting categories. We analyzed both categorical moderators such as gender of the subjects and design of the study and continuous moderators such as year of publication and number of measurements. Moderator analyses using categorical moderators were only conducted if both groups of the moderator included at least three studies. The significant results of the moderator analyses on discrete variables are presented in Table 3 and those on continuous variables in Table 4. Trends are only presented in the text. Results are reported separately for each moderator or group of moderators.
Sex-Differences We did not find any differences between males and females with respect to the link between parenting and delinquency. However, we found some differences between the link between delinquency and paternal and maternal parenting (Table 3—actor). Fathers’ supportive behavior was more strongly related to delinquency (ESr = −0.22, p < 0.001, k = 20) than mothers’ support (ESr = −0.14, p < 0.001, k = 20). In order to analyze whether parents had more influence on a child with the same sex, we created a new moderator with the following categories: (1) fathers–sons and mothers–daughters, (2) fathers–daughters and mothers–sons. Because some groups did not meet our criterion of three studies, this moderator analysis could only be conducted with regard to three parenting dimensions. Within the category support this moderator was significant. The link between support and delinquency was stronger for fathers and sons and mothers and daughters (ESr = −0.27, p < 0.001, k = 13 for same sex versus ESr = −0.08, p > 0.10, k = 4 for different sex).
Short-Term vs. Long-Term Associations The moderators time interval between the measurements and design were nonsignificant, indicating that the parenting–delinquency link was relatively similar in longitudinal and cross-sectional studies. Because the participant’s age does not remain constant in longitudinal studies and is not representative in retrospective studies, we removed the longitudinal and retrospective studies and conducted the moderator analyses on the cross-sectional studies only (Table 4). Significant effects of age were found on general parenting (z = −2.05, p < 0.05, k = 9). The relationship between general parenting and delinquency was found to be stronger in younger adolescents and school age children than for older adolescents.
Delinquency Type and Source The moderator delinquency type was analyzed comparing studies on overt delinquency, such as violent offences, and covert delinquency, such as car theft or vandalism (Table 3). Because most studies focused on general delinquency and to a much lesser extent on overt or covert delinquency we were able to conduct moderator analyses for only two parenting dimensions (support and indirect parenting). A significant difference was found between studies that measured overt delinquency and studies that analyzed covert delinquency in relation to indirect parenting behavior (knowledge and child disclosure). Studies on overt delinquency resulted in stronger links between parental knowledge and child disclosure and delinquency (ESr = −0.23, p < 0.001, k = 5 vs. ESr = −0.07, p > 0.10, k = 3). We expected studies that used questionnaires with items on non-illegal problem behavior to result in weaker effect sizes than measures reporting illegal offences only. Instead, effect sizes in the studies with measures including a higher proportion of non-illegal problem behaviors were stronger in the category indirect parenting behavior (z = 2.36, p < 0.05, k = 41). Thus, studies on parental knowledge and child disclosure resulted in stronger effect sizes if delinquency questionnaires included relatively more items on non-illegal problem behavior (Table 4). The source of delinquency was not associated with effect size, indicating that no significant differences were found between studies using self-reported delinquency and studies relying on official delinquency.
Informant of Parenting Behavior Moderator analyses were performed in five categories of parenting dimensions with regard to the informant of parenting (Table 3). This moderator was significant with respect to authoritarian control. The studies on authoritarian control in which the child reported on the level of authoritarian discipline techniques, yielded significantly stronger associations than studies with a parent as informant (ESr = 0.05, p > 0.10, k = 10, parent informants vs. ESr = .17, p < 0.001, k = 23, child informants, ESr = 0.05, p > 0.10, k = 5, more than one informant respectively).
Study Quality and Methodological Characteristics Following Mullen’s (Mullen, 1989) advice to include studies of varying quality, no studies were excluded on the basis of the quality of their design. The reason for this is that assessing the quality of a study appropriately is complicated and often problematic. Instead, we examined study characteristics that address the issue of study quality as moderators such as sample size and reliability of parenting questionnaires. The following moderators that might refer to the study quality were analyzed: publication status, impact factor, sample size, number of items in the delinquency measure, number of items in the parenting measure, and reliability of the parenting measure. Because information about the reliability of the delinquency measure was unavailable most of the time, this study characteristic was not examined. Impact factor was significant in two parenting dimensions: authoritative control (z = −1.90, p < 0.06, k = 12) and general control (z = −2.28, p < 0.05, k = 10). Studies published in journals with a high impact factor reported smaller effect sizes than studies in low impact journals (Table 4). We found a trend for the moderator sample size in the parenting category indirect parenting behavior (z = −1.72, p < 0.10, k = 51). Studies with smaller sample sizes showed a larger effect size than studies with larger numbers of subjects. For the number of delinquency items in a questionnaire we found a trend in the category psychological control (z = 1.68, p < 0.10, k = 19), indicating that stronger links between psychological control and delinquency were found in studies that used measures with a larger number of items on delinquent acts. Reliability of the parenting measure was a significant moderator in one category: indirect parenting behavior (z = 2.76, p < 0.01, k = 30). We found a trend in the category authoritative parenting (z = 1.92, p < 0.10, k = 12), indicating a trend for the link between higher reliabilities and larger effect sizes. Publication status and number of parenting items did not moderate the effect size. Given that the study quality of retrospective studies is often questioned we conducted several analyses in order to investigate the potential influence of these studies. As mentioned above, study design was not associated with effect size. In addition, the recalculation of the mean effect sizes of studies excluding those with a retrospective design, did not lead to different conclusions, probably because there were so few retrospective studies.