Captain John J. O'Connor, U.S. Air Force 
Graduate Student 
Florida State University 
School of Criminology and Criminal Justice 

E-Mail:  jjo4271@garnet.acns.fsu.edu 
Home Page:  http://garnet.acns.fsu.edu/~jjo4271/

CCJ 5605: Criminology Theory

Parental Denial and Juvenile Delinquency
June 18, 1998
 
    As a member of the U.S. Air Force Security Forces, I have spent six years working in law enforcement capacities in several locations.  During this time, I became involved in several minor incidents involving juveniles.  I quickly noticed that many parents will deny their children had committed any wrongdoing, and place the blame on others.  I believe this is a problem of the parents’ desire to ignore their childrens transgressions in order to maintain an outer appearance of normalcy in their families.  This is a theory regarding the parents and their reactions to juvenile delinquency and is aimed at juveniles who live in what in what can be considered good areas, away from poverty and crime.  I believe children living in higher-crime areas face many serious factors which can lead to delinquency.  My theory will attempt to explain why children with favorable backgrounds commit delinquent acts through parental ignorance.  I base this theory of juvenile delinquency theory largely from the observations and experiences from my career in law enforcement.  As such, I must point out that my personal background does not give me a great wealth of first-hand knowledge on the subject.

    I was born and raised in the suburbs of Northern Virginia, near the nation’s capital.  I lived in the same house until I moved away to attend college and later joined the Air Force.  My parents both graduated from college and held stable white-collar jobs.  My two sisters and I all earned Bachelors Degrees and work in professional jobs.  I never experienced many of the serious social problems faced by many juvenile delinquents, such as homelessness, divorced parents, frequent moves, or living on welfare.  Now, as an adult I have never raised children of my own nor lived with delinquent children.  Therefore, I do not have personal knowledge of parenting.  However, I can understand why parents may defend their childrens’ actions and protect them from punishment.

    Based on my experience in law enforcement, I now dread cases involving juveniles.  This attitude is the result of the past frustration in dealing with the juveniles’ parents.  All to often, despite the evidence, parents will deny their children had committed the act and attempt place the blame on others, particularly the police.  I believe parents react in this manner for two reasons.  First, their natural instinct is to aid their children when they experience trouble, which is completely understandable.  Second, they are acting out of denial, refusing to admit that their child is capable of such acts.  Their wish is to maintain the belief that their family is normal, and to avoid the negative impression that could accompany the child’s actions.  In our society, people place great value on outer appearances, therefore, a favorable impression is very important.

    I recall one occasion where one of my subordinates issued a speeding citation to the son of a senior military officer.  While the officer (who was not a witness) freely admitted his son was speeding, he argued that another car was following his son too close, forcing his son to speed (an invalid excuse for speeding) and the other car should have been cited for following too close.  The issuing patrol officer observed the other car however, it was not following too close at the time.  The speeding citation infuriated this officer, who was apparently worried how it could impact his professional reputation.  Although this was a minor legal infraction, the father's refusal to hold his son accountable and blaming others was an example of how parents can blame their childrens’ actions or failures on others.

    It is not difficult to understand parents’ motivations in protecting their children and defending their actions.  While I have no children, I have noticed that parents take great pride in their childrens’ achievements, and frequently compare and brag about their children amongst one another.  Likewise, parents are likely to feel a sense of failure and shame when their children have brushes with the law and will seek to shield them.  Since parents are concerned for the reputation of their family, they may live in denial of their childrens’ mistakes.  It would be very difficult for any parent to admit that their child is potentially a problem child.  It is much easier for the parent to ignore any problems, turning a blind eye to unfavorable information, and acknowledging only the good.

    This denial of parental responsibility can be considered an expansion of the neutralization theory by Sykes and Matza.  They argue that deviants justify their behavior by placing the blame elsewhere for their actions in order to continue with their deviant behavior (Pfohl, 1994:306).  This theory expands on the neutralization theory since the denial passes from the child to the parents.  In the scenario described herein, children effectively deny their responsibility by accusing others, while their parents deny their own responsibilities to punish their children.  Meanwhile, children adapt to this type of behavior and learn that they can manipulate their parents, thus avoiding punishment.  Once children discover that their parents will not punish them if they can find a scapegoat, they will use this tactic to avoid blame for their actions.  The same reasoning would apply to educational failures, where children and their parents blame their poor grades on ineffective teachers.  Such activity by the children can be construed as operant conditioning, where an organism learns how to avoid punishment while getting what it wants from the environment (Vold and Bernard, 1986:207).

    This theory attempts to explain why some parents are unlikely to hold their children accountable for their actions.  In this model, children commit delinquent acts because they do not fear punishment from their parents, who by legal definition, are responsible for their children.  The parents choose to displace their children's delinquent acts in order to maintain an aura of normalcy within their family and community.  This model would best describe minor infractions committed by juveniles where punishment is a parental responsibility.  However, this model has difficulty explaining crimes that are too serious to warrant punishment by the parents.  This would include felonious crimes, or crimes where the child is not released to the custody of the parents.  In such serious crimes, the child would most likely know their parents cannot come to their aid, although the child may still attempt place the blame elsewhere.  In these cases, the criminal justice system would be responsible for issuing punishment.

    If the criminal justice system is able to determine that a delinquent child’s parents are unable or unwilling to punish the child, the courts should order punishment and ensure it is enforced.  Removing the child from the home and placing them in foster care is another option is such cases.  Although their usefulness is questionable in empirical terms, boot camps may be appropriate for children who lack discipline in their homes.  However, this model argues the problem lies in parental skills, therefore, counseling should be made available for parents who are unable to control their children.

    This model would be difficult to study in a qualitative manner, therefore I would recommend a qualitative assessment.  Researchers could work with police and observe the interaction between police, parents, and juveniles in incidents involving juvenile delinquency.  The researchers could determine if the parents act in denial when confronted with unfavorable information about their children.  This would constitute a non-scientific convenience sample, but sufficient to lend credence to the theory.

    In conclusion, this essay covers a very broad topic, that of parental responsibilities to delinquent children.  As previous stated, this theory is based on my own observations and would be difficult to test empirically, if at all.  Having mentioned parents who would deny their children’s actions, I should mention that many other parents hold their children accountable for their actions and punish them if necessary.  I believe children who are held responsible for the actions become more responsible as adults.  I will further argue that children with submissive parents and shield them from accountability will eventually have less respect for their parents.  Meanwhile, their parents are excessively concerned with how they and their children are appear to the community, and choose to remain ignorant and seek excuses for their childrens’ deviant behavior.

References

Pfohl, S. (1994) Images of Deviance and Social Control: A Sociological History, 2nd ed.
         McGraw-Hill, Inc., 528 pp.

Vold B. and Bernard, T. (1986). Theoretical Criminology, 3rd ed. Oxford University
          Press. 374 pp.