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Adolescence and Delinquency - Lecture 5

Timothy Mason (cv)

Université de Paris 8

Parents and Poverty

A : Recap :

A : We have seen that some characteristics associated with juvenile delinquency are possibly related to innate factors - but that the relationship between genetic factors and deviant behaviour is not straightforward or necessarily predictable. We will now look at up-bringing patterns to see to what extent these may predict subsequent delinquency.

B : Deprivation

Some children are deprived of one or both of their parents through abandonment, hospitalization, divorce, death or intervention of public agencies. There has been considerable discussion as to whether it contributes to the development of delinquency and how.

For example - John Bowlby, the British psychologist, - even a short absence on the part of the mother could have deleterious effects on the psychic well-being of the child. A child who is deprived of his mother goes through three phases

1. Protest - cries and screams for mother, shows panic, clings when she visits, and howls when she leaves
2. Despair - after a few days, child becomes withdrawn, sucks thumb - rocking
3. Detachment - loses interest in parents, and is not concerned whether they are there or not

When the child returns to the family - rejects them, then is difficult for several weeks, following mother everywhere - clings - is angry and demanding and may hit out. If parents react angrily, child becomes even more clinging.

According to Bowlby prolonged absence has even more deleterious consequences :

- development of an 'affectionless character' which in turn,
- predisposed the children to delinquent behaviour.

Among girls, this might lead them to turn to prostitution, among boys to thieving.

Bowlby studied a group of 44 young people - who attended a Child Guidance Clinic - and compared them with a control group 'who though emotionally disturbed, did not steal'. Fourteen of the thieves were 'affectionless characters' as against none of the controls. Seventeen of the thieves had experienced a complete and prolonged separation (6 months or more) from their mothers or foster-mothers during the first 5 years of life - only two of the controls.

However, in a later study of children who had been in a TB sanatorium for several months below the age of 4, it was found that, several years later, they had only slightly more behavioural disturbances than children who had not been to hospital (Bowlby et al, 1956).

Wadsworth, in his analysis of data from the National Survey of Health and Development - a longitudinal study of children born during a week in March, 1946, found that children who had spent some time in hospital before the age of five were significantly more likely to become delinquent in their teens than were those who had not. But - there were indications that children going into hospital were more vulnerable before hospitalisation than were those who did not - hospitalisation simply added pressure on those who were already fragile.

Later observations lead some observers to believe that it is not fact of separation in itself, nor even its length, which lead to distress and perhaps to subsequent deviance. Rather, it was the conditions under which the separation took place. Where a mother or the child was hospitalized, and no visits were allowed, and where no-one took it upon themselves to explain to the child what was happening results could be poor.

Bowlby's concentration upon the relationship with the mother was also misleading - where the mother is absent but replaced by another significant adult, the stress is not damaging. Indeed, the caretaker might be a stranger, if the environment was familiar

(Douglas, 1964 The Home and the School).

What about the working mother? Here, there is no hard evidence to suggest relationship with delinquency. Hopwever, Wadsworth found that although a working mother in the early years had no effect upon boys, it did have some effect on girls, making them more likely to become delinquent.

C: Institutionalisation

Children brought up in institutions are, in later life, more likely both to suffer from mental problems, and to behave in a deviant manner.

Rutter, Quinton and Hill (1990) examined a sample of 123 boys from Children's Homes ; the subjects were considerably more likely to be labelled delinquent than controls (around 48% as against 15%) and were also much more likely to be diagnosed as suffering from a personality disorder (c. 35% /c 12%). Amongst a similar group of girls, Personality Disorder was more common than delinquency, although both were far less common than among the boys (c. 25% and c. 17% respectively)

Note that not all deviant behaviour could be explained by the fact of institutionalisation in itself. Those who became deviant had had different experiences prior to placement from those who did not

- greater parental deviance, and
- greater disruption
- admissions into foster care
- separations of family through parental dispute,
- persistent family discord, etc.

On the other hand, the institution did not appear to offer any protection - of those admitted before 2 who remained in the institution until 16 or older, 44% of males and 45% of females showed poor social functioning at follow-up. But - the study found that three factors, at least, had a protective effect

- school success
- marriage to a supportive partner,
- the decision to plan for both career and (for the girls) marriage.

These are factors that had no effect on outcomes for the control group, and the authors speculate that this is because family support, and the fact of mixing with a more normal peer-group, protected them from bad marriages and job choices. The propensity to plan for both career and marriage is related to earlier school success, suggesting that this is the crucial variable, probably being related to self-image.


D : Divorce and Separation

Broken homes are associated with an increased risk in deviant behaviour. Wadsworth found that family break-down was a predictor of delinquency - 28.6% of men who had experienced it had become labelled delinquents by the age of 21, - as against 14.1% of those who had not. It also predicted ulcers and psychiatric illness. Those who had experienced break-up between the ages of 5-15 were also more likely to get divorced themselves. This was not true of those who had been through family break-down earlier than 5.

Why is this? It may be that

- the child suffers from the separation with one or other of the parents - but children one of whose parents has died are not as at great a risk as are children of divorced or separated parents
- the divorce is an index of parental discord, argument and stress, and that the damage had been done prior to the separation
- being brought up by one parent instead of two decreases the amount of surveillance which protects against delinquency
- divorce plunges the family into poverty, which is associated with deviance, or forces the family to find accommodation in a high delinquency area.
- people who divorce are less stable characters than normal, and pass their instability on to their children

Present evidence suggests that the most important factor is the second one. Children from homes in which there is a high degree of discord are likely to develop problems, even if their parents do not separate. (McCord & McCord, 1959, Power et al, 1974) However, some studies suggest that relations between parents may become even more bitter after a divorce (Wallerstein and Kelly, 1980). It is impossible to predict in any given case what the effect of a divorce will be.

E: Family Structure

Family size and birth position have both been found to have predictive effects. Both Wadsworth and Farrington found that family size was a significant predictor, as have other researchers. The reasons for this?

- large family - early childhood more likely to be spent in poverty - there is not a very significant relationship between large family size and delinquency in middle class families
- it means that there is less parental attention - Wadsworth found that parents of large families were likely to be seen by teachers as taking less interest in the school careers of their children
- it may mean that there is a greater chance of having a delinquent sibling, and this is a predictive factor. Offord (1982) found that delinquency was associated with the number of brothers in the family, but not with the number of sisters.
- members of large families may be more visible to processing agencies, members of which often disapprove of them - Farrington makes this suggestion, as does Wadsworth.
- members of large families have been found to be lacking in educational success and to score lower on IQ tests, and low intelligence, in turn, is correlated with delinquency.

The single-parent family - Studies are not unanimous on the relationship, and before studying the question it is as well to look closely at hypotheses as to why this structure may lead to increased delinquency

- it may be that, as the majority of single-parent families are the product of divorce, part of the effect is simply that of the strained relationships between the parents prior to family break-down -
- single-parents are much more likely to be living in poverty, or living in a high-delinquency area than are married parents, and both these factors are known to predict delinquency
- single-mothers may find it more difficult to control their children during late childhood and adolescence, and this is yet another criminogenic factor
- the population of single-mothers may have a larger than expected number of women with personalities and behaviours which produce delinquent children, whether married or not
- the fathers of the children of single-mothers may have criminogenic personalities and behaviours such as criminal behaviour or alcoholism, and may have influenced their children prior to family break-down.
- agents of control institutions may have beliefs about the children of single-parent families which make them more likely to negatively label those children, and renders them more socially visible.

McCord (1992) - sample of boys born in an urban area near Boston Mass, between 1926 & 1933,

- parental absence did make some difference to chances of becoming delinquent, but mainly because of the presence of other factors
- maternal incompetence (as measured by counsellors' ratings of whether she was capable of overcoming problems or not)
- quality of the fathers' interaction with their children.

She believes part of the explanation is that where two parents are present, the qualities of the one may offset the lack of qualities of the other, but that in a one-parent family this is not the case.

Also, children reared in broken and mother-alone homes frequently

- had alcoholic or criminal fathers and
- had been exposed to parental conflict,

which suggests that the damage had been done prior to family break-down. It needs to be said that these data have been collected for a population born at a period when divorce and separation were less common than they are today.

F : Relations Between Parents and Children

The strongest predictive factor for delinquency is having criminal parents. Whilst a very small part of this effect may be accounted for by genetic factors, most of it must be related to the relationship that the parents have with their children. It may be that parents provide a model of behaviour for the children to copy - but this would not be direct, as parents rarely take their children along with them on their criminal activities. It may be that they provide a model of aggressive and antisocial behaviour which in turn leads to delinquency. On the other hand, it is also likely that delinquent parents are criminogenic parents in other ways.

Discipline - Where discipline is erratic or harsh, children tend to become delinquent in adolescence. Such parents differ from normal parents in punishing harshly, and in giving many commands. They carry on long sequences of coercive negative interchange and their commands are more vague.

Causality here is not necessarily all one way - certain children are extremely difficult to discipline - shouting and incessant commands are a parental reaction to the child's constant misbehaviour. Nevertheless if the parents were to behave otherwise, the problems would be less rather than greater.

General bad feeling within a family may also contribute - where mother and father quarrel a lot between themselves, where there is constant argument and shouting, and hostile and negative attitudes are expressed - this is probably one of the reasons why children from broken homes show a greater tendency to commit deviant acts.

However, it should also be noted that these are factors that are correlated with family visibility - lower class families, large families and families which allow their behaviours to be observed by sociologists, control agencies etc., are more likely to be seen as having these characteristics. But, as Rutter points out, the fact that parents of normal children can make their children behave worse simply by giving more commands is an indicator that discipline is a shaping factor.

It may also be, as with discipline, that the child is to some extent responsible for the bad family atmosphere because of his bad behaviour. It is not always possible to verify whether family malfunctioning predates or postdates the onset of bad behaviour on the part of the child. This may, as we have seen with Hyperactivity, begin very early in the child's life.

Supervision. - assessed in terms of whether or not parents had rules about the child saying where he is going or about when he has to return home, whether the mother knows where he is, and whether he is allowed out in the streets at night.

Wilson (1980) found this to be the most powerful predictor.

It seems likely that many of the forms of parental behaviour which predispose children to delinquency are shaped by poverty.


The family can contribute to the delinquency of the child in a number of ways - through poor heredity, poor earnings, providing models, or not providing adequate surveillance. They also contribute through the way they discipline the child and through the way they interact with each other. Finally, they contribute through their size.

How useful are the family indicators? Wadsworth, using the data on birth order, family size and growth, parental divorce, separation by child's fifth birthday, prolonged or frequent hospital stay and social class found the following:

Discrimination of delinquents and non-delinquents (actual numbers)

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Predicted as delinquent

Predicted as not delinquent

Actually delinquent



Not in fact delinquent



This table is a little unfair, as the figures are highly general. The predictors are in fact much more accurate for serious crimes. Even so, they are by no means accurate enough to be of a great deal of use in setting up programs to prevent delinquency. Nor, once again, do they explain why it is that crime and delinquency rates should vary in time and from one country to another, unless we can show that e.g., the British family has become more criminogenic with time, or that the American family is radically different from the French one. This may be so, but it will need more data than we have at present.

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