• By Kevin Mount
  • Posted on Wednesday 30th July, 2008

Poor parents are still getting it in the teeth

What is it that explains all crime, at all times? Self-control. So declared Michael Gottfredson and Travis Hirschi almost twenty years ago. It was a bold, astringent statement, and experts on crime, such as Robert Sampson of Harvard University, have called their critique of the prior research on crime and their argument for A General Theory of Crime “a tour de force”.If poor self-control leads to crime, what leads to poor self-control? Again, Gottfredson and Hirschi are unequivocal. Criminals aren’t born with the problem, their parents foster it. In a nutshell, poor parenting=poor self control=crime.The General Theory of Crime does a pretty good job of explaining the behavior of criminals in the US. According to a range of studies, criminal behavior tends to be associated with poor self-control, and both poor self-control and criminal behavior tend to be associated with poor parenting. More specifically, individuals who seek immediate gratification and don’t consider the long-term consequences of their actions, tend to have parents who didn’t set and enforce clear rules. What remains relatively unclear is whether the theory will hold up in other countries and cultures. Gottfredson and Hirschi predict it will. They maintain that culture has nothing to do with crime. It all boils down to self-control.To test that prediction, three American researchers, Cesar Rebellon and Murray Strauss of the University of New Hampshire and Rose Medeiros at UCLA looked at information collected from young adult respondents in 32 Western and non-Western settings on “all six humanly habitable continents”. The young adults were all university students, so their answers to questions about self-control and crime might not be representative of all adults in their respective countries.According to this data, Gottfredson and Hirschi appear to be right, at least in part. In line with the General Theory of Crime, the researchers found that students in all of the settings who had poor self-control tended to be more violent and more likely to commit crimes than those who did a better job controlling themselves. They also found that those who experienced poor parenting tended to have problems with self-control, regardless of their country. But the researchers also found something that Gottfredson and Hirschi did not predict. Students who lived among other students who received poor parenting were more likely to have trouble with self-control than students who were surrounded by well-parented peers. In other words, even students who had good parenting were at risk for poor self-control if their peers had difficult family lives. This finding seems to support the idea that it “takes a village” to raise a child – that not only parents, but the community of adults, affect how children behave. Research that tracks children over time from different countries, and from different backgrounds within those countries, is needed to firm up such predictions. In the meantime, it seems that those wanting to reduce crime could do worse than focus on parenting and self-control. • Summary of “Self-Control in Global Perspective: An Empirical Assessment of Gottfredson and Hirschi's General Theory Within and Across 32 National Settings” by Rebellon C J, Straus M A and Medeiros R in European Journal Of Criminology, Vol. 5, No. 3, pp 331-361, July 2008.

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