Family Structure and Parental Behavior: Identifying the Sources of Adolescent Self-Control

By Phythian, Kelli; Keane, Carl et al. | Western Criminology Review, December 2008 | Go to article overview

Family Structure and Parental Behavior: Identifying the Sources of Adolescent Self-Control


Phythian, Kelli, Keane, Carl, Krull, Catherine, Western Criminology Review


Abstract. According to Gottfredson and Hirschi and their general theory of crime (1990), self-control - defined as the degree to which individuals are vulnerable to temptation - is a relatively stable, universal trait that accounts for individual differences in criminal, deviant, and reckless behavior. Self-control is said to develop in early childhood, while the family is still the most important socializing agent. Thus, the absence of self-control and subsequent deviant activity are a result of familial factors. Using a large, nation-wide sample of Canadian children, this study examines the effect of parenting on children's self-control while considering the role of such factors as parental composition and household size. Analyses reveal that self-control varies by family structure, whereby children living with two biological parents report higher levels of self-control than children in reconstituted and single parent families. However, this relationship is offset, in part, by parental monitoring. Overall, regardless of family structure, it is evident that a nurturing, accepting family environment is positively associated with self-control.

Keywords: self-control; adolescence; family structure; parental behavior

Introduction

Gottfredson and Hirschi's assertion that their general theory of crime explains "all crime, at all times and, for that matter, many forms of behavior that are not sanctioned by the state" (1990:117) has proven to be one of the most controversial claims made by criminologists in recent years. According to Gottfredson and Hirschi, self-control, defined as the degree to which individuals are vulnerable to temptation, is a relatively stable, universal trait that accounts for individual-level differences in criminal, deviant, and reckless behavior. Indeed, they use the term synonymously with criminality, or the propensity to commit crime, giving an indication of how large the role of self-control is thought to play in the commission of criminal acts. Later, they soften their assertions about the primacy of self-control; age, gender, and race are also said to be important determinants of criminal activity (Hirschi and Gottfredson, 1995). Nevertheless, self-control is thought to be the primary social characteristic that leads to crime and delinquency. To be sure, Gottfredson and Hirschi express in no uncertain terms, low self-control is "the individual-level cause of crime" (1990:232).

Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990) argue that their theory of crime is general in that it accounts for a multitude of criminal and noncriminal behaviors that transcend cultural boundaries. They define crime as any act of "force or fraud undertaken in the pursuit of self-interest" (1990:15). Crime, then, is not restricted by definition to those activities that violate the laws of a particular society at a particular point in time. The authors contend that, because their definition of crime does not follow cultural, behavioral, or legalistic guidelines, the general theory is valid across time and space. That is, low self-control is the primary cause of all types of crime and deviance, at all times and in all cultures. Furthermore, self-control is said to develop in early childhood, while the family is still the most important socializing agent. The absence of self-control, the authors contend, is therefore a result of familial factors. It is this aspect of the general theory that is the focus of the present investigation. While the contention that low self-control leads to criminal and analogous acts has received much empirical attention, the claim that the family is the source of low self-control has to date been of less interest to criminology researchers. As will be discussed in further detail, research that has sought to test this latter proposition is contradictory and offers only a modest degree of support for the general theory.

Self-Control

Central to the general theory of crime is the assumption that humans have an innate tendency to seek immediate gratification of desires.

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