Are Parents Responsible for Juvenile Crime?

Brank, E. M., Greene, E., & Hochevar, K. (2011). Holding parents responsible: Is vicarious responsibility the public’s answer to juvenile crime? Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 17(4), 507-529.

Laws have been enacted in jurisdictions across the U.S. that hold parents responsible for the delinquent behavior of their children. Yet, little information is available on public support for these laws. Brank, Greene, and Hochevar (2011) argued that this information is important because level of public support could influence authorities’ enforcement of, and parents’ compliance with, current laws. Although responsibility is typically attributed to the person who directly causes an action, previous research has identified instances of vicarious responsibility in which responsibility is attributed to someone who is not the direct cause of the action. This most often occurs when the individual is seen as having some control over the actor’s behavior. In addition, previous research has indicated that acts of omission (failing to prevent an action) are seen as less intentional than acts of commission (contributing in some way to the action). Three studies were conducted in which participants responded to vignettes varying characteristics of the offense and the offender. For student respondents, greater parental responsibility was assigned for younger juveniles, more serious crimes, and acts of commission (i.e., letting the juvenile use a weapon) rather than omission (i.e., failing to lock up a weapon). For respondents who were parents of middle or high school students, only age of the juvenile was significant in the analyses, with greater parental responsibility assigned when the child was younger. Although there was no effect for gender of respondent in the student sample, in the parent sample mothers were significantly more likely than fathers to assign responsibility to the juvenile’s parents. Across studies, participants attributed more responsibility to the juvenile than the parent, but parent respondents were more likely than student respondents to attribute responsibility to parents. The authors suggested that this may be due to a self-serving bias, in which the parents distanced themselves from parents of delinquent juveniles, imagining that they would never be in such a position. Alternatively, they proposed that this result may be due to a selection bias in that parents who responded to the questionnaire may be more responsible individuals or more involved in their children’s lives. The authors concluded that the weak support for parental responsibility demonstrated in their studies may be one reason for the lack of enforcement of parental responsibility laws.

Making Connections

Child rearing
Selection bias
Self-serving bias

Media Supplement

See interviews, links, and resources on juvenile justice from the Frontline film Little Criminals.