Family Relationships and Crime
Single-parent Families And Crime
In contemporary Western societies, a nuclear family structure has been idealized. Conversely, deviations from this structure have been blamed for a variety of social problems, including crime. One of the signs of change, however, has been acknowledgment that not all single-parent families are "broken." Another has been renewed examination of family dynamics in a context in which effects of having a single parent in the home can be considered apart from concomitant poverty, or effects of poor supervision and disruptive child rearing.
Classical theories endorsed the popular view that good child development requires the presence of two parents. This view seemed to have been corroborated by studies showing that the incidence of broken homes was higher among delinquents than among the nondelinquents with whom they were compared. In line with the Freudian tradition, many believed that paternal absence resulted in over-identification with the mother. According to this view, delinquency is one symptom of compensatory masculine "acting-out." The theory purports also to explain why delinquency is prevalent among blacks and the poor, groups with high rates of single-parent families.
If delinquency were a response to excessive maternal identification, however, the presence of a stepfather should reduce the criminogenic effects of paternal loss. This does not occur. In fact, studies have consistently shown higher rates of delinquency for boys who had substitute fathers than those having no fathers in the home (Glueck and Glueck; Hirschi; McCord, McCord, and Thurber).
Despite the frequency with which both the popular press and participants in the legal system blame "broken" homes for failures to socialize children as willing participants in an ordered social system, their conclusion goes well beyond the facts. Research that takes into account the role of parental conflict, stress, or socioeconomic conditions in relation to single-parent families fails to show that single-parent families contribute disproportionately to crime.
Because poverty is related to both crime and single-parent families, studies that confound socioeconomic status and family structure have tended to nourish the belief that single-parent families account for crime (Crockett, Eggebeen, and Hawkins). Studies within a particular social class, however, show that neither British nor American children from single-parent homes are more likely to be delinquent than are their similarly situated classmates from two-parent families. Disruptive parenting practices and behavior account for most of the apparent effects of single-parent families on crime (Capaldi and Patterson; Gorman-Smith, Tolan, and Henry; McCord; DeKlyen, Speltz, and Greenberg).
Family conflict is particularly criminogenic (McCord; Rutter; West & Farrington), and the choice to divorce must typically be made by parents who do not get along. David Farrington found that marital disharmony of their parents, when boys were fourteen, predicted subsequent aggressive behavior among boys who had not been previously aggressive. Tracing the lives of a group of men forty years after they had participated in a youth study, Joan McCord contrasted effects of conflict between parents with effects of parental absence. Compared with boys raised in quarrelsome but intact homes, boys reared by affectionate mothers in broken homes were half as likely to be convicted of serious crimes. Criminality was no more common among those reared solely by affectionate mothers than among those reared by two parents in tranquil homes.
Michael Rutter was able to disentangle effects of parental absence and effects of parental discord in his study of children whose parents were patients in a London psychiatric clinic. Among those who had been separated from their parents, conduct disorders occurred only if the separations were the result of parental discord. Among those still living with both parents, disorders occurred when there was parental conflict. Furthermore the children's behavior improved when they were placed in tranquil homes.
No one has taken the position that single-parent families are superior to good two-parent families. But good two-parent families are not the option against which an adequate comparison of single-parent families ought to be measured. For many children, the option to living in a single-parent household is living with an alcoholic or aggressive father or living in the midst of conflict. Recent research has resulted in a considerable amount of evidence to suggest that if the remaining parent provides strong and supportive guidance, offspring in single-parent homes are no more likely to become delinquents than if there are two good parents in the home (Matsueda and Heimer).
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