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Family Relationships and Crime

Parental Attachment And Crime

The nuclear family structure places a special burden on parents. Because they are seen to be the primary socializing agents, parents are expected to provide warmth and protection as well as guidance. Conversely, absence of affection and inadequate discipline have been seen as sources of crime.

Psychoanalytic perspectives encouraged the use of case materials to develop facts for a science of human behavior. The view that maternal deprivation has dire effects on personality gained support from case histories documenting maternal rejection in the backgrounds of aggressive youngsters and from studies of children reared in orphanages, many of whom became delinquents. Indeed, John Bowlby suggested that the discovery of a need for maternal affection during early childhood paralleled the discovery of "the role of vitamins in physical health" (p. 59).

Critics of the conclusions reached in these studies noted the selective nature of retrospective histories and pointed out that institutionalized children not only lack maternal affection but also have been deprived of normal social stimulation. They wondered, as well, whether a father's affection was irrelevant. Around mid-century, several studies suggested that paternal affection had effects similar to those of maternal affection. For example, Travis Hirschi compared the impact of paternal affection with that of maternal affection in his study of California students. Hirschi's analysis indicated that the two parents were equally important and, moreover, that attachment to one parent had as much beneficial influence on the child as attachment to both.

Most of the evidence on parental attitudes toward their children has depended on information from adolescents who have simultaneously reported their parents behavior and their own delinquencies. Because these studies are based on data reporting delinquency and socialization variables at the same time and by the same source, they are unable to disentangle causes from effects.

Evidence from adolescents' reports of interactions with their parents when they were fifteen and of their own delinquency when they were seventeen years old suggests that friendly interaction with parents may deter delinquency (Liska and Reed). Relying on adolescents to report about their parents' child-rearing behavior assumes that the adolescents have correctly perceived, accurately recall, and honestly report the behavior of their parents. There are grounds for questioning these assumptions.

Experimental studies show that conscious attention is unnecessary for experiences to be influential, so salient features of their socialization may not have been noticed by the adolescents. Studies have also shown that reports of family interaction tend to reflect socially desirable perspectives. To the extent this bias afflicts adolescents' reports, real differences in family upbringing tend to blur. When parents report on their own behavior, they are likely both to have a limited and biasing perspective and to misrepresent what they are willing to reveal.

A handful of studies have used measures of parent-child interaction not subject to the biases of recall and social approval. Robert Sampson and John Laub reanalyzed data from the files compiled by Sheldon and Eleanor Glueck. Using multiple sources for information about parent-child relations, they found that parental rejection was a strong predictor of criminality. After coding case records based on home observations for a period of approximately five years, Joan McCord retraced 235 members of the Cambridge Somerville Youth Study. She found that those who had mothers who were self-confident, provided leadership, were consistently nonpunitive, and affectionate were unlikely to commit crimes. Thus, studies on emotional climate in the home present consistent results. Like parental conflict, negative parent-child relations enhance the probability of delinquency. Parental affection appears to reduce the probability of crime. Not surprisingly, parental affection and close family ties tend to be linked with other features of family interaction.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawFamily Relationships and Crime - Single-parent Families And Crime, Parental Attachment And Crime, Variations In Discipline And Crime