The Criminologist’s Guide to Parenting

Five tips from fighting crime to assist in familial bliss

Kids and crime are two different worlds, at least for young parents mollified by their beloved offspring. But criminologists look at parenting from a somewhat different angle. Kids can misbehave and break the “laws” that parents establish at home. Parents often find themselves in the role of sheriff, judge (doling out punishment for naughtiness), or jury (listening to Child A say that Child B pulled her hair first, and vice versa). Criminologists like us turn to theory to explain crime and suggest policies for prevention. But we’re also a father of four and a father of two. Odd as it may sound, we have been able to see parallels between undesirable behavior of criminals and my own children—transgressing established parameters, to varying degrees, is not all that different for a seven year old with “house rules” and a twenty-seven year-old expected to abide by the rules of a state. To be sure, explaining crime has always been a rather complicated affair for many reasons. One of them is the long list of biological, psychological, social, and societal factors that have been proven to influence the occurrence of crime and delinquency. But to figure out the precise direction of causation between all factors, often involving sensitive topics like IQ, broken families and the bias in the criminal justice system, turns the whole exercise in a never-ending academic story.

Most criminologists these days no longer focus on specific factors that would provide a complete explanation for certain crimes, but rather attempt to identify factors that are associated with an increased or decreased likelihood that someone will commit crimes in the future. So how is parenting related to crime?

The Parenting - Crime Link

One of the main theories within the field of criminology, and inherently linked with parenting, is the “self-control theory,” developed by Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990). They claim to explain all types of crime with the single concept of low self-control. Self-control is instilled in individuals around the age of eight, according to these criminologists, and does not significantly change after that. High self-control is the result of constant monitoring of the child’s behavior, and the recognition and immediate punishment of deviant behavior. Thus, effective parenting involves a “socialization” process through external control of the child’s behavior. Ineffective parenting will lead to low self-control, and this leads to all kinds of unwanted behavior, like drunken driving, using drugs and being prone to accidents. Furthermore, it is low self-control that explains many factors that are known for their influence on delinquency, like unemployment or dropping out of school.

Whereas self-control theory focuses on the necessity of punishment of deviant behavior, the labelling approach, on the contrary, points at the risks of punishment. This holds that the formal and informal processes of social control can have the effect of increasing criminal behavior, because the labelling process increases the likelihood that the person will develop a criminal self-image.

If you’ve heard that it’s better to say to your misbehaving child “You’re normally such a good girl, but this time you did something naughty,” instead of saying “You are a naughty girl,” then you’ve already made the association with this criminal theory. Thus control turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy: because someone is labelled as criminal, he will internalize this image and start to act like a criminal. If your child hears often enough that they are naughty, as opposed to good but occasionally doing something naughty, they risk thinking of themselves definitively as a naughty person, for whom it is therefore normal and to be expected that they should behave in naughty ways.

Usually it is meant for majorities, stereotyping minorities without real ground in the beginning, and thus stimulating an actual increase in crime among these groups at a later stage. While developed in the 1960s, adjusted versions of this approach are still in use, and one focuses specifically on parents and juveniles. Matueda (1992) and others found that delinquency is significantly affected by juveniles’ perception that other people think of them as “rule-violators,” and that this perception itself is significantly affected by the actual label that parents place on their youth.

See, here’s the catch-22 parents are in, while trying to be incorporate science into their day-to-day parenting. To provide the offspring with a decent conscience, consistent punishment is required. But by punishing, the parent risks labeling their child as a “rule-violator,” and turning them into a little criminal… So what can parents glean from our first criminological theory? It’s important that the child identifies as inherently good, but has their periodic bad behaviors pointed out. Do not say that your child is bad. Say that they are good but have done something bad.

Before throwing all seemingly contradictory criminological textbooks aside, another theory should be looked upon. Australian criminologist Braithwaite (1989) merged the logic of labelling, social-control theories and anomie theories into a new approach. Re-integrative shaming stresses the need to strongly condemn deviant behavior, but at the same time reintegrate the deviant individual in society. This way shaming is used to motivate offenders to walk the line again, instead of getting caught in a criminal subculture. For parents, this seems a plausible synthesis of trying to instill a set or moral values in their children, without alienating them with fierce punishments.

The stress on reintegration can be connected with the insights of what is called “operant conditioning.” The conclusion from research on punishments and reinforcements seems to be that the effect of rewarding behavior is much stronger than that of punishing behavior. This is clearly at odds with the intuition of many parents, who feel the need to punish all kinds of unwanted behaviors by their kids, and of bystanders who believe that severe punishment would automatically cure deviant behavior forever. From here, it is a small step to the insights of control balance theory, developed by Charles Tittle (1995). Deviance here is the result of an imbalance between the control that is exercised on someone, and the extent to which one can escape this control.

One of the most popular parenting approaches today pools these insights into a concept of assertive discipline. Instead of physical punishment or shouting, parents should discuss rules with their kids, and try to use rewards as much as possible to steer behavior in the right direction. In practice, this means that parents should not just punish bad behavior, but reward good behavior. Good behavior can be used to earn back the punishment for naughtiness. For instance, parents might try a red star/black dot system. On a calendar, draw a red star on a day that your child does something particularly well (brushes their teeth without your asking, helps a sibling with homework, eats all their broccoli), but draw a black dot if they misbehave and continue misbehaving even after being given a warning. If they get two red stars in one day, they get a special treat (cartoons or ice cream, for example). If they get a black dot they have a special treat revoked or they have to sit in a time-out spot for a few minutes as punishment. But three red stars cancel out one black dot, so the child can earn their way out of the punishment with enough good behavior. The rewards and punishments, and what constitutes extra good (or bad) behavior should be tailored by the parents to the child, their age and preferences. But the basic principle is to reward as well as punish, and empower the child to work hard to follow the rules and be kind and thoughtful, so they do not just absorb and internalize punishment.

Finally, criminological research has shown that crime seems to be related to a certain phase in life. The age crime curve shows that crimes are most prevalent during mid to late adolescence. At the same time, Terrie Moffitt, an American psychologist, showed how offenders fall into two main groups: the adolescence-limited and the life-course persistent offenders. Whereas the large majority only commits crimes during adolescence, a small group start to behave anti-social during early childhood and continue into adulthood. This links to our last theory, called “broken windows.” The concept is that minor deviant behavior (like throwing rocks to break the windows of an abandoned building, or something innocuous like “loitering” which is a crime in some jurisdictions) must be “nipped in the bud,” because someone seeing that they can successfully get away with one, minor form of deviance will be empowered to think they can get away with other, more severe forms. It encourages them to escalate bad behavior. If you see that you can get away with shoplifting a candy bar, for instance, you might feel empowered to try to steal a video game. This theory can be seen in children when they try to do something slightly naughty (pull their sister’s hair when Mom isn’t looking) and, if they see that they got away with it, they try something more problematic (knock their sister over when Mom isn’t looking). For parents, it’s important to keep and maintain a consistent and omnipresent authority. Stop minor transgressions immediately and consistently. Letting them slip by empowers children to try more elaborate transgressions, and makes them think that their parents are weak or easily fooled.

Takeaways from Criminology

  • Make sure positive behavior is rewarded. This will have a much bigger influence than the punishment of unwanted behavior.

  • Despite rule 1: always respond to (relevant) unwanted behavior and clearly condemn it.

  • Don’t provide children with an easy “neutralization” of rule-breaking behavior, however. Disproportionate or inconsistent punishment of unwanted behavior may transform into a justification of any delinquent act in the eyes of the children, besides further negative psychological consequences.

  • Always “reintegrate” children into the family after punishment for bad behavior inside or outside the family. Make sure they do not associate as a “bad child” or it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

  • Remember the crime age curve and the prevalence of happy endings. Whatever mistakes you made while raising your kids, most of the kids will be fine anyway in the end. If they seem problematic in adolescence, remember that delinquency will most of the time be a temporary hiccup. Happy endings are the rule rather than exception!

Cowritten with Noah Charney.