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Family Relationships and Crime

Single-parent Families And Crime, Parental Attachment And Crime, Variations In Discipline And Crime

"The most important part of education," said the Athenian in Plato's Laws, "is right training in the nursery" (li. 643). Through acceptance of Freudian theory, this ancient belief gained new credibility during the first half of the twentieth century. According to Freudian theory, successful socialization begins with an early attachment to the mother, an attachment that must later be modified by a conscience, or "superego," that develops through identification with a parent of the child's own sex (Freud). In the case of a young boy, the theory continues, attachment to the mother leads to the boy's jealousy of his father, but fear of his father's anger and punishment forces the child to control his incestuous and antisocial desires. Because Freud argued that the development of conscience for males depends on attachment to the mother and identification with the father, psychoanalytic explanations of crime focused on paternal absence and maternal deprivation. These emphases continue to guide psychological theories and research despite the decline in popularity of Freudian theory.

Toward the mid-twentieth century, sociological theories became influential. First Charles Cooley and then George Herbert Mead proposed that people develop self-concepts that reflect how they believe they are perceived by "significant others" (Mead). These self-concepts motivate a person's actions. The parents provide the first group of significant others from whom a child acquires a sense of identity. If parents are neglectful or abusive, the child develops self concepts that tend to lead to associations with others who similarly denigrate the value of individuals. Edwin Sutherland suggested in the 1930s that both delinquent and nondelinquent behavior is learned from "differential associations" with others who have procriminal or anticriminal values. Children reared by families with "criminalistic" values would accept a criminal lifestyle as normal. Children neglected by their families would be more strongly influenced by nonfamilial associates, some of whom might be procriminal (Sutherland and Cressey).

The second half of the twentieth century witnessed development of explanations for crime that took into account both psychological and sociological processes. Most popular among them are the "control theories," which assume that all people have urges to violate society's conduct norms and that people who abide by the norms do so because of internal and external controls. These controls trace to the family through "bonding" (internal control) and discipline (external control).

Control theories rest on an assumption that deviance is natural and that only conformity must be learned. Social learning theories, on the other hand, assume that both prosocial and antisocial activities are learned. They claim that a desire for pleasure and for avoidance of pain motivates behavior, and hence they focus on rewards and punishments. Social learning theories employ the notion of vicarious conditioning to explain how people learn by watching and listening, and direct attention toward the influence of parents as models for behavior and as agents for discipline. Some theorists, however, question the assumption that self-interested pleasure and pain govern all voluntary choices.

Regardless of what theory is used to explain how behavior is learned, Western cultures place a heavy burden on families through assigning responsibility for child rearing to them. Families in such cultures must transmit values so as to lead children to accept rules that they are likely to perceive as arbitrary. It should be no surprise, therefore, to find that family life bears a strong relation to juvenile delinquency (Kazdin). Perhaps the most significant changes in thinking during the last quarter of the twentieth century have been methodological. Increasingly, social scientists have become aware of retrospective and expectational biases, biases that occur when people are asked to recall their experiences—particularly when they have theories about the way people react to events of certain types. These biases affect data collection and interpretation. To overcome these biases, newer studies have used longitudinal approaches, studying people through time. These longitudinal studies provide a basis for reassessing theories about family relations and crime.


Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal Law