Family structure and juvenile delinquency


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Family structure and juvenile delinquency the mediating role of social learning variables
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ix, 173 leaves : ill. ; 29 cm.
Page, Edwin R., 1966-
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Thesis (Ph.D.)--University of Florida, 1998.
Includes bibliographical references (leaves 164-172).
Statement of Responsibility:
by Edwin R. Page.
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Copyright 1998


Edwin R. Page


I express my most heartfelt gratitude to Natalee Waters

for the love, friendship, and support that she gave me during

my work on this research.


ACKNOWLEDGMENTS ....................... .................. iii

LIST OF TABLES ............................................. vi

ABSTRACT ................................................. viii


1 INTRODUCTION ............................................. 1

2 FAMILY STRUCTURE AND DELINQUENCY ..........................5

Family Relationships ...................................... 5
Parental Criminality ...................................6
Parental Discipline and Punishment .....................7
Abuse in the Family ....................................9
Other Family Relationships ............................15
Family Structure and Broken Homes ........................18
Conceptual and Methodological Issues ..................19
Research on Family Structure ..........................23


Social Learning Theory ..................................42
Differential Association ..............................44
Definitions ...........................................45
Imitation .............................................47
Differential Reinforcement ............................48
Temporal Sequence and Reciprocal Effects in Social
Learning Theory ....................................49
Social Structure and Social Learning: The Case of
the Family and Delinquency .........................51
Research on Social Learning Theory.......................53
Social Learning Theory and Delinquency ................53
Family, Social Learning Theory and Delinquency .......60
Hypotheses............................................... 65
The Present Research .....................................68

4 METHODOLOGY ..............................................71

Data..................................................... 71
Measurement of Variables .................................76
Delinquency Index ....................................76
Family Structure ......................................78

Social Learning Variables ............................80
Sociodemographic Variables ............................87
Plan of Analysis.........................................95

5 ANALYSIS AND RESULTS .................................... 100

Hypothesis One: Family Structure and Delinquency........101
Hypothesis Two: Family Structure and Social Learning... 102
Hypothesis Three: Social Learning and Delinquency....... 104
Hypothesis Four: Family Structure, Social Learning,
and Delinquency ...................................... 106
Additional Analyses ..................................... 115
Structural Effects of Sociodemographic Variables .....115
Logistic Regression ..................................116
Controlling for Sex ..................................121

6 CONCLUSIONS .............................................130

Summary .................................................130
Implications for Policy .................................140
Limitations and Suggestions for Future Research......... 144


A VARIABLE MEASUREMENT ITEMS .............................150

B ADDITIONAL REGRESSION TABLES .................... ..........156

REFERENCES ................................................164

BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH ....................................... 173


Table page

1. Correlation Matrix .................................... 93

2. Analysis Plans for Family Structure, Social
Learning, and Delinquency: Years in which
Dependent, Independent, and Sociodemographic
Variables are Measured ............................96

3. Percentage Distributions of Self-Reported
Delinquency (SRD) ................................100

4. Crosstabulation Summary: Percent Nondelinquent by
Family Structure for Each Analysis Plan ..........101

5. Zero-Order Correlation Coefficients for Self-
Reported Delinquency (SRD) and Family Structure
in Four Analysis Plans ...........................102

6. Zero-Order Correlation Coefficients for Family
Structure and Social Learning Variables in Four
Analysis Plans .................................. 103

7. Crosstabulation Summary: Self-Reported Delinquency
(SRD) across Averaged Social Learning Scale
Items for Each Social Learning Variable .......... 104

8. Zero-Order Correlation Coefficients for Self-
Reported Delinquency and Social Learning
Variables in Four Analysis Plans ................. 105

9. Family Structure, Social Learning, and Delinquency:
One-Year Lagged Analysis Plan (1) with Self-
Reported Delinquency Measured in Year Two ........ 107

10. Family Structure, Social Learning, and Delinquency:
One-Year Lagged Analysis Plan (2) with Self-
Reported Delinquency Measured in Year Three ......109

11. Family Structure, Social Learning, and Delinquency:
Two-Year Lagged Analysis Plan (3) with Self-
Reported Delinquency Measured in Years Two and
Three ............................................ 111

12. Family Structure, Social Learning, and Delinquency:
Temporal Sequence Analysis Plan (4) with Self-
Reported Delinquency Measured in Year Three ......112

13. Family Structure, Social Learning, and Delinquency:
Analysis Plan 1 Using Logistic Regression ........ 118

14. Percentage Distributions of Self-Reported
Delinquency (SRD) for Males and Females .......... 122

15. Family Structure, Social Learning, and Delinquency:
Analysis Plan 3 for Male Subsample ...............123

16. Family Structure, Social Learning, and Delinquency:
Analysis Plan 3 for Female Subsample ............. 124

17. Family Structure, Social Learning, and Delinquency:
Analysis Plan 4 for Male Subsample ...............125

18. Family Structure, Social Learning, and Delinquency:
Analysis Plan 4 for Female Subsample .............127

19. Sociodemographic Variables, Family Structure,
Social Learning, and Delinquency: OLS
Regression ....................................... 156

20. Family Structure, Social Learning, and Delinquency:
Analysis Plan 2 Using Logistic Regression ........ 157

21. Family Structure, Social Learning, and Delinquency:
Analysis Plan 3 Using Logistic Regression ........ 158

22. Family Structure, Social Learning, and Delinquency:
Analysis Plan 4 Using Logistic Regression ....... 159

23. Family Structure, Social Learning, and Delinquency:
Analysis Plan 3 Using Logistic Regression for
Male Subsample ...................................160

24. Family Structure, Social Learning, and Delinquency:
Analysis Plan 3 Using Logistic Regression for
Female Subsample .................................161

25. Family Structure, Social Learning, and Delinquency:
Analysis Plan 4 Using Logistic Regression for
Male Subsample ...................................162

26. Family Structure, Social Learning, and Delinquency:
Analysis Plan 4 Using Logistic Regression for
Female Subsample .................................163


Abstract of Dissertation Presented to the Graduate School
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy



Edwin R. Page

August, 1998

Chairman: Ronald L. Akers
Major Department: Sociology

There has been relatively little research to date

connecting the behavioral process in social learning theory

to elements of social structure in accounting for criminal

and delinquent behavior. The linking of social structure to

crime and delinquency through the social learning process is

the next step in the development of social learning theory.

The theory would hypothesize that the variables specified in

social learning theory mediate the effects of social

structure on deviant behavior.

Seeking to establish intervening variables in the

relationship between family structure and delinquency, a

three-level theoretical model is presented with six measures

representing three components of social learning theory. A


longitudinal analysis is conducted on three waves of a

nationally representative sample, permitting generalizability

of findings. The panel data of the National Youth Survey

enable the observation of particular individuals in terms of

their family structure and their scoring on social learning

measures, and their subsequent involvement in serious

delinquent or criminal behavior. Correlational and

regression analyses are used to establish relationships

between the three levels of measurement, and to test the

central hypothesis that social learning variables mediate the

effects of family structure on delinquency.

Results provide support for the hypotheses that family

structure is associated with delinquency, that family

structure is associated with social learning variables, that

social learning variables are associated with delinquency,

and that selected social learning variables generally reduce

the strength and significance of the effect of family

structure on delinquency. These findings persist after

controlling for sex. It is concluded that the social

learning variables significantly mediate the impact of family

structure on delinquency.


Although crime rates have moderated and declined in the

past few years, between 1965 and 1990 the arrest rate for

violent crime by juveniles rose from approximately 130 per

100,000 to 430 per 100,000, according to the FBI (U.S.

Department of Justice, 1992). During the same period of time

there also has been considerable change in the structure of

families. The divorce rate (per 1,000 married women), for

example, rose from 9.2 in 1960 to 21 in 1988, having peaked

in 1981 at 22.6 (U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the

Census, 1994a). The rising divorce rate has accompanied a

general change in family structures. The amount of single-

parent families, for example, increased from 12 percent of

families with dependent children in 1970 to 27 percent in

1993 (U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census,

1994b). Many researchers have sought to specify a causal

link between the increase in crime and the changes in

families. Families are an intuitively appealing place to

look for an explanation of delinquency because of the

prominent role that they occupy in the process of


Family has long been an important variable in the

etiology of delinquency in both social and biological

research (see Akers, 1994; Siegel and Senna, 1991; Hagan and

Sussman, 1988; Vold and Bernard, 1986). The sociological

literature suggests a variety of ways by which family

variables affect delinquency (Jensen and Rojek, 1992). For

example, strain theories position the family as an important

determinant of social class and thereby the likelihood of

delinquency. Social learning theory suggests that families

are an important shaper of conforming or deviant attitudes

and behavior. For control theories, families are an

important source of bonding by which youths are directed

toward conformity and away from delinquency.

It is easy enough to understand how the family would

usually have a considerable impact on delinquency. "The

family has typically been viewed as the most crucial

institution in our society for shaping a child's personality,

attitudes, and behavior," (1992, p. 262) according to Jensen

and Rojek. Children typically spend most of their early

years in the presence of other family members. Even after

reaching school age the family remains one of the most

important institutions of socialization, along with schools

and peer groups.

Socialization in the family remains significant today

even if the social functions of families have declined and

individuals spend less time in the family setting. With the

increased complexity of modern life and the variety of

available leisure activities, individuals today are more

likely than their forebears to live a greater portion of

their lives outside of the home. The typical household size

itself declined as individuals increasingly moved away from

their family of origin and the nuclear family became more

common. Census data show that the average household size

declined from 5.4 persons in 1790 to 4.2 in 1900, to 3.3 in

1940, and to 2.6 in 1988 (Eshleman, 1991). Despite changes

such as these, families remain central socializing forces

today. "Although the family may have been a more important

social institution at earlier points in history, most

scholars are still willing to accept that it remains a major

setting for socialization in American society" (Jensen and

Rojek, 1992, p. 263).

The present study adds to the empirical and theoretical

body of knowledge relating to the connection between family

structure and delinquency in a variety of ways. While it

will be shown that the empirical validity of social learning

theory has been well demonstrated in the literature, there

has been relatively little research to date connecting the

behavioral emphasis of the theory to elements of social

structure. The linking of social structure to crime and

delinquency by the social learning process is the next step

in the development of social learning theory (Akers, 1994).

In looking to establish intervening variables in the

relationship between family structure and delinquency, a

three-level theoretical model will be presented with six

measures representing three components of social learning

theory. The theory would hypothesize that the variables in

social learning theory mediate the effects of social

structure on deviant behavior.

Additionally, the methodological design employed here

attempts to improve on the shortcomings of much previous

research on family and delinquency. In a review of the

literature, Free (1991) concluded that a major weakness of

previous studies is their overreliance on cross-sectional

data and that there has been an overemphasis on minor

offenses. A longitudinal analysis will be employed similar

to that used by Heimer and Matsueda (1994) but using more

recent data spanning three years. The use of a nationally

representative sample will allow a broad generalizability of

findings. The panel data of the National Youth Survey and

the use of longitudinal analysis will enable the observation

of particular individuals who have experienced a change in

family structure and their reactions to that change in terms

of serious delinquent or criminal behavior.


In this chapter a variety of literature pertaining to

family and delinquency will be reviewed. First, the impact

of family relationships will be considered, including the

effects that parental criminality, parental discipline and

punishment, various types of abuse, and other family

relationships have on delinquency. This part of the review

will provide a background for the subsequent review of the

literature on family structure and delinquency. As will be

shown, some researchers maintain that family structure

affects delinquency, at least in part, through family

relationships such as those to be discussed here. As the

exogenous independent variable in this study, the concept of

family structure and the implications of its measurement will

be discussed. Finally, research pertaining to the

relationship between family structure and delinquency will be


Family Relationships

Given that families are a key socializing institution,

they may be implicated in delinquency to the extent that the

socialization they provide is inadequate or deviant.

Parental criminality is one way that delinquency may be based

in the family. Delinquency has also been investigated as a

product of the method used by parents to discipline and

punish their children. Family violence and abuse is another

way in which socialization may result in delinquent behavior.

Furthermore, other nonviolent and seemingly healthy family

relationships may conceal pathological interaction and

involve socialization toward delinquency.

Parental Criminality

Parental criminality has been found to be related to an

increased likelihood of delinquency. Using official records

from the Cambridge Study in Delinquency Development, West

(1982) found that criminality in both fathers, mothers, and

brothers was highly predictive of delinquent behavior. Sons

with criminal fathers were approximately twice as likely to

engage in criminal activities by age 22 compared to those

with noncriminal fathers. The presence of multiple criminal

influences further increased the likelihood of a son engaging

in delinquency. "The chances of a man being a delinquent

were some three and a half times greater if he had more than

two other family members with a record than if he belonged to

a conviction-free family," (1982, p. 45) according to West.

In a recent article using data from the Cambridge Study, Rowe

and Farrington (1997) suggested a genetic explanation for the

familial transmission of convictions. Their findings

indicated that parental criminality affected child

criminality directly and not via the effects of family

environment. However, they could not rule out the role of

family environment altogether due to a small family

environment effect in their findings and the possibility of

other unmeasured effects.

Lattimore et al. (1995) found parental criminality to be

one among several family variables, including family

violence, that was significantly related to violent

recidivism in a cohort of male parolees. In a Danish cohort

study, Mednick et al. (1987) found that fathers' criminality

was directly associated with general crime in their young

adult sons. Mednick et al. (1990) found that fathers'

criminality influenced adult sons' criminality, in part

through an increased risk of family instability. Laub and

Sampson (1988; see also Sampson and Laub, 1993) found that

criminality in either parent, and especially substance abuse,

had a strong indirect influence on delinquency by way of

disrupted social control in the family. Analyzing data

collected in the 1940s by Sheldon and Eleanor Glueck, Laub

and Sampson found that significant effects exhibited by

parental criminality and drunkenness on serious delinquency

were largely mediated by family process variables such as

attachment, supervision, and erratic parental discipline.

Parental Discipline and Punishment

Over 90 percent of American parents use physical

punishment to correct their children's misbehavior, according

to Straus (1991). Most research is in agreement that

inconsistent parental discipline, whether too harsh or too

lenient, is related to delinquent behavior (Jensen and Rojek,

1992; Siegel and Senna, 1991). In a research review, Snyder

and Patterson (1987) report strong evidence of a link between

ineffective disciplinary practices and the families of

delinquents. "In both lax and enmeshed discipline styles,

punishment is not used consistently, contingently, and

effectively to discourage the aggressive, antisocial behavior

of the child," (1987, p. 223) according to Snyder and

Patterson. Agnew (1983) found that while physical punishment

slightly decreased the likelihood of self-reported

delinquency among children who perceived their parents as

consistent, where discipline was inconsistent children were

more likely to report delinquency. Krohn et al. (1992) found

that consistent punishment and spanking were significantly

related to a decrease in self-reported delinquency. McCord

(1991) found that consistent, nonpunitive discipline by

mothers helped to insulate sons from delinquent influences.

Investigating the sex differences in delinquency, Jensen and

Eve (1976) suggested that the more restrictive supervision

received by females may partly account for their lower

involvement in delinquency.

Using the Glueck data, Sampson and Laub (1993) also

found that the use of erratic and punitive discipline or

punishment by mothers and fathers affected official and

unofficial delinquency. Moreover, they found that background

variables, such as father's alcoholism and criminality,

affected discipline and punishment by either parent,

suggesting "the possibility that some, if not all, of the

effect of father's criminality on the son's delinquency may

be attributable to family discipline" (Sampson and Laub,

1993, p. 79). Finally, they found that discipline and

punishment, among other family process variables, mediated

the effects of structural background variables on official

and unofficial delinquency.

Abuse in the Family

violence in the family may take the form of child abuse,

including sexual abuse, as well as violence between parents

or siblings. Child abuse may refer to the overt physical

aggression against a child or to neglect, wherein children

are deprived of attention, food, shelter, or other care. Any

type of violence or abuse in the family, directly involving a

child or not, may increase the likelihood of that child

engaging in delinquency.

The issue of child abuse has gained much recognition

since the 1960s. Although the true extent of abuse is not

known due to the difficulty in obtaining accurate data and

the methodological differences of various reports, most

researchers agree that child abuse is a significant problem

(Gelles and Conte, 1991; Pagelow, 1984). Straus and Gelles

(1986), for example, found that parents reported incidents of

severe violence toward their children at an annual rate of 19

per 1,000 children aged three to 17. Their measure of severe

violence included kicking, biting and hitting with a fist;

beating up; and using a gun or knife. The findings by Straus

and Gelles were considered conservative because the sample

included only those children living with both parents and the

violence was self-reported, and there may have been an

increased consciousness of the unacceptability of child abuse

by the mid-1980s. Additionally, this finding includes only

the most serious type of abuse. Although Straus and Gelles

report that this figure represented a decline in violent

abuse compared to their findings in 1975, other studies

suggest that child abuse has increased (see Gelles and Conte,


Sexual abuse is a more specific form of child abuse that

poses serious social-psychological threats to children

(Gelles and Conte, 1991). It may range from rewarding a

naive child for inappropriate sexual behavior, to fondling

and other inappropriate touching, to using force or the

threat of force for the purposes of sex (Siegel and Senna,

1991). Findings on the amount of sexual abuse vary but

typical estimates are that 19 percent of females and nine

percent of males are sexually abused before age 18

(Finkelhor, 1984). Sex abuse within the family usually

occurs across generations. The victims are more often

female, although sex abuse of boys is more likely

underreported, and the abusers are overwhelmingly male

(Pagelow, 1984; Finkelhor, 1984).

In their national survey of family violence, Gelles and

Straus report that children from violent homes are "three to

four times more likely than children from nonviolent homes to

engage in illegal acts" (1988, p. 129). While they were not

able to establish causality, Gelles and Straus suggest that

their research and other studies show evidence of a cycle of

violence existing in many homes. "Violent experiences set

the stage for the individual and social traits that lead to

trouble. The trouble is responded to with more violence"

(1988, p. 129).

The effects of child abuse and its relationship with

delinquency are not clear even though it is generally agreed

that abuse does have detrimental long-term consequences.

"Definitive support for a direct causal relationship between

an abusive childhood and delinquency is lacking, but

researchers generally agree that abuse and neglect may have a

profound effect on behavior in later years," (1991, p. 265)

according to Siegel and Senna. The authors said that this

agreement is partly based on a number of studies showing that

many delinquents and criminals have a history of child abuse.

In a cohort study comparing serious, officially

recognized abuse cases with a control group Widom (1989a)

found that 29 percent of the abused group later had adult

criminal records for a nontraffic offense compared to 21

percent of the control group. Widom's measures of abuse

included violent physical abuse, sex abuse, and neglect.

Considering demographic variables, Widom found that those who

were older at the time of abuse, male, and black were at

highest risk of criminality while being young, white, and

female was associated with lower risk. While abused youths

were more likely to become criminal than nonabused youths,

the relatively small difference between the two groups,

compared to what might be expected, points to the indirect

nature of the relationship between family variables and


Widom (1989b) reported that children who were neglected,

and especially, violently abused had a significantly greater

risk of becoming delinquents, criminals, and violent

criminals. More recently, Widom (1996) also found a greater

likelihood of arrest as juveniles and as adults for the

victims of childhood abuse or neglect. These findings

applied to arrests for both drug-related offenses and

property crimes. Widom also found that "the victims of

sexual abuse are not more likely than other victims of

physical abuse or neglect to become involved with crime"

(1996, p. 50).

Widom (1989b) suggested that her findings, and similar

findings by other researchers, have a mixed message for the

cycle of violence hypothesis. Considering the large number

of abused children that do not become delinquent or criminal,

Widom (1989b, 1996) suggested that many victims apparently

manifest their abuse in more subtle ways. This may be the

case particularly for females, who are both more likely to be

sexually abused and less likely to become delinquent. Widom

said that attention should focus on possible mediating

variables that buffer or protect abused or neglected children

from delinquent outcomes.

Reviewing the literature on the effects of childhood sex

abuse, Finkelhor (1984) reported that a variety of studies

have shown high proportions of various troubled populations,

including delinquents, were sexually victimized as children.

While he said the case apparently may be easily made that sex

abuse leads to injurious outcomes, Finkelhor cautioned, "It

is possible that the long-term effects seen in these cases

are a function not of the sexual abuse but of other

pathological elements, such as psychological abuse, parental

neglect, or family disorganization" (1984, p. 189).

Similarly, Pagelow (1984) warned that the finding of a

strong relationship between childhood violence and later

deviant behavior may overlook the issue of causality. "Such

a blanket assumption would be hazardous because there are too

many possible intervening variables that can influence

outcomes not included in simple 'cause and effect' models"

(1984, p. 229). Pagelow also suggested that official records

may be misleading. "Connections between child protection

agencies and the juvenile justice system are clear. Entering

the first, by becoming an identified case, can serve to

increase an abused child's chances of entering the second"

(1984, p. 255).

Reviewing the literature on family violence and neglect,

and its relationship with children's deviant behavior, Koski

(1988) reported a complex and often contradictory array of

findings. The research "remains largely descriptive and

piecemeal and leads to only one fairly obvious conclusion:

unhealthy families tend to produce deviant children, although

not always in the ways expected" (1988, p. 43). Koski also

said that research appears to suggest that a child's whole

family environment, where more than one type of abuse may

exist, may be more critical to understanding deviance and

delinquency than any single type of abuse.

The family environment includes not only the direct

physical abuse and neglect of a child by a parent discussed

above, but also violence involving other family members.

Straus and Gelles (1986) reported that cases of severe

violence by husbands toward their wives numbered 30 per 1,000

couples in a 1985 national survey. Controversially, they

also found that the rate of severe violence by wives toward

husbands was 44 per 1,000 couples. Straus and Gelles added

that a number of studies show that violence on the part of

wives is often committed in retaliation or self-defense, and

that this explanation is supported by the fact that females

are relatively nonviolent outside of the home. Some studies

have shown that a child's exposure to spousal violence as

well as violence committed by other family members is related

to the child's use of violence (Pagelow, 1984) and to later

family and nonfamily violence by the grown child (Fagan and

Wexler, 1987).

Other Family Relationships

While much research has focused on overt, physical abuse

and neglect, delinquent or other deviant behavior may result

from more routine experiences within the family setting.

Social groups such as families exert considerable influence

over the individuals within that group. "The relationships

of persons in a [family] nexus are characterized by enduring

and intensive face-to-face reciprocal influence on each

other's experience and behavior" (Laing and Esterson, 1971,

p.7). An individual may derive from others within their

group a sense of self-fulfillment or they may derive feelings

of alienation, even to the point of madness (Laing, 1962).

Laing and Esterson (1971), for example, make the case that

schizophrenia is socially based within dysfunctional family


Satir (1972) distinguishes between "troubled" and

"nurturing" families. "Troubled families make troubled

people and thus contribute to crime, mental illness,

alcoholism, drug abuse, poverty, alienated youth, political

extremism, and many other social problems" (1972, p. 18).

The factors that determine whether a family is nurturing or

troubled--individual feelings of self-worth, communication

with each other, family rules about proper feelings and

behavior, and the way that the family's members relate to

other people and institutions outside the family--are largely

learned, primarily within the family, Satir said. The more

that self-worth is high, the more direct and honest the

communication, the more flexible the family's rules, and the

more open a family is to society, then the more likely a

family will be nurturing. These variables are important to

family quality whatever the nature of family structure--

whether it is a family with two biological parents, a single-

parent family, a family including stepparents, or an

institutional family not involving parents, according to

Satir (1972).

Snyder and Patterson (1987) describe positive parenting

as interactions between parent and child which foster growth

skills and encourage the development of normative values and

standards of behavior. They said these ends are fostered in

part "when the parents demonstrate and communicate interest

in the child in a positive, noncritical fashion, when the

parents communicate support and caring to the child, and when

the parents and child share mutually pleasurable leisure

activities" (1987, p. 223). According to Snyder and

Patterson, a variety of research suggests a link between the

absence of positive parenting and delinquent behavior. "A

failure by parents to foster a child's skills, to model and

encourage normative values, and to provide a caring

environment, places a child at risk for delinquency" (1987,

p. 225).

McCord (1991) found that a combination of family

variables which she labeled "poor child rearing" increased

the risk of officially recorded delinquency. This

combination included variables from three sets of items

measuring mother's competence, father's interaction with the

family, and family expectations. Of these three groupings,

McCord found that mother's competence and family expectations

were strongly related to serious criminality as a juvenile,

while father's interaction with the family had a more

important role in affecting adult criminality.

McCord's data consisted of case studies on male youths

from homogeneous socioeconomic backgrounds collected in the

Boston area in the 1940s and tracked in the late 1970s.

McCord's measures of mother's competency included self-

confidence in handling problems, affection for her son,

nonpunitive discipline, and family leadership role. Father's

interaction with the family included affection for son,

esteem for mother, esteem in the eyes of the mother.

Father's interaction also included, negatively, parental

conflict and father's aggressiveness. Finally, the family

expectations cluster included maternal restrictiveness,

parental supervision, and demands placed on the son.

In a meta-analysis of the research on families and

delinquency, Loeber and Stouthamer-Loeber (1986) reported a

significant relation between marital discord and children's

delinquency and aggression. The measures of marital

relations include ratings of happiness, amount of conflict,

lack of warmth, and hostility. Generally, Loeber and

Stouthamer-Loeber found that variables such as parent-child

involvement, parental supervision, and parental rejection had

the largest impact on crime and delinquency. They also

reported that many studies have shown that broken homes have

an impact on delinquency, although not as strongly as in the

case of marital discord.

Nevertheless, much research has focused on the question

of family structure. The following section will review the

research literature on the delinquent outcomes related to

broken homes and to family structure. Despite the large

amount of research in this area there remains some

inconclusiveness regarding the relationship between these

measures of family and delinquency.

Family Structure and Broken Homes

Research addressing family structure has often been

grouped under the label "broken homes." Thus, the two terms

often have been used interchangeably in previous literature.

In order to avoid confusion, a distinction should be made

between the terms family structure and broken homes. A

broken home is one in which a two-parent structure has been

reduced to a single-parent structure, whether by divorce,

separation, or death. Family structure refers more generally

to the number or type of parents living in a household.

Family structure may be measured by the presence of mothers

or fathers, and biological parents or stepparents. Thus, a

broken home more specifically describes a particular family

situation, compared to the broader description of family


As will be seen in the remainder of this chapter and in

the review of the research literature pertaining to social

learning theory in Chapter 3, many researchers have focused

on an increase in divorce and a growing number of single-

parent families as correlates of delinquency. The assumption

is that the disintegration of the family is a significant

cause of inadequate socialization, which in turn should have

an effect on the likelihood of delinquency. In fact,

however, family disintegration manifests itself in a variety

of forms which may be captured with varying success by the

dichotomy of "intact" and "broken" homes or by measures of

family structure. The first part of this section will

address the potential for confusion about the concepts of

broken homes and family structure, and the implications of

this distinction for measurement. Second, empirical research

on the relationship between family structure and delinquency

will be reviewed.

Conceptual and Methodological Issues

In the section above on family relationships it was seen

that "intact," or two-parent family structures, may be

variously integrated. "Broken," or single-parent families as

well are variously disintegrated, and perhaps not broken at

all. For example, single parenthood may result not simply

from divorce or other family conflict. There are single

parents, such as some who adopt, who have not at any time

been united with another as a couple and neither parent nor

children experience the stress of divorce. Furthermore,

family conflict may result in divorce, separation, or in no

recognizable change in family structure. Stepfamilies are

another source of complication for the study of families, as

they may vary in the quality of life they provide for


According to Wells and Rankin, "Broken homes are

invariably defined from the reference point of children vis-

a-vis their relationship with parents, whereas sibling

structures are ignored" (1986, p. 70). A broken home refers

to an impaired or disrupted family structure. Broken homes

are typically measured as those in which the mother and

father are divorced (e.g. Furstenberg and Teitler, 1994;

Paternoster and Brame, 1997). Such a measure does not

necessarily distinguish the sex of a single parent. Using

single parenthood as a proxy for divorce would overlook the

alternative possibilities of separation, death of a parent,

or a never-married single parent.

Measuring divorce itself is suited to a focus on the

process and outcome of marital breakdown with the implication

that children suffer adverse consequences as a result of

their parents' divorce or separation. According to Wells and

Rankin (1986), the sudden change in living routines which

accompany divorce can generate stress and conflict that may

result in antisocial behavior. Thus, delinquency may result

not from the change in family structure but from "parental

conflict that precedes and attends the separation, and the

sudden change in circumstances affected by the separation"

(1986, p. 77). Furstenberg and Teitler (1994) suggested that

the quality of earlier family life may have significant

consequences for children whether parents separate or not.

They found that some family characteristics typically thought

to occur with divorce, such as marital conflict, economic

stress, and poor parenting practices, actually existed prior

to divorce.

The conditions associated with divorce that have an

influence on delinquency may only be temporary, existing

until individuals adapt to new routines. The results of

Furstenberg and Teitler (1994) suggest, however, that the

impact of divorce may be more long-lasting. They found that,

compared to their counterparts from intact families, children

of divorce were more likely to express discontent with life,

more likely to experience teen pregnancy, less likely to

finish high school and attend college, more likely to engage

in substance abuse and delinquency, and more likely to be


In contrast to the focus on divorce, many researchers

alternatively look to the number of adults in the household,

hypothesizing that a change in family structure that results

in fewer parents will be associated with a decreased level of

social and economic resources and conventional socialization

compared to what would be expected from two-parent families.

Thus, single-parent homes are thought to be at a social and

economic disadvantage due to the reduced resources and

opportunities available to single, and typically female,

parents (Wells and Rankin, 1986; see also Smith and Krohn,

1995). In such cases, divorce leads to a reduction of

economic resources and perhaps to poverty which, through a

variety of pathways, may lead to delinquency (Curran and

Renzetti, 1996). For example, poorer families are more

vulnerable to stress and conflict that may result in less

effective parenting and child behavior problems. According

to Gove and Crutchfield, "Single-parent families tended to be

of lower socioeconomic status than the intact families, and

children of single-parent families were also more likely to

be delinquent" (1982, p. 307). In a review of social

psychological research pertaining to female-headed families

published between 1970 and 1980, Cashion (1982) found that

after controlling for socioeconomic status children from

female-headed families fared as well as children from two-

parent families, in terms of juvenile delinquency rates and

other measures.

Measures of family structure also may take into account

the presence of stepparents. Some researchers divide their

family structure measure into categories for two biological

parents, a biological parent combined with a stepparent, and

a single-parent (e.g. Coughlin and Vuchinich, 1996;

Cernkovich and Giordano, 1987). Another approach is to

elaborate on this typology by distinguishing each type of

parent by sex (e.g. Johnson, 1986). Another way of measuring

family structure is to simply count the number of parents in

the household, whether they are biological parents or

stepparents (e.g. Van Voorhis et al., 1988). This measure

differs significantly from the previously described measure

in that it focuses on the number of parents rather than on

the type of parents.

Research on Family Structure

The varying ways in which family structure may be

defined and measured suggest the difficulties that may be

encountered when dealing with the concept. In fact, the

empirical evidence on family structure and delinquency

reveals varied and sometimes contradictory findings. The

following two paragraphs illustrate the point.

In favor of a family structure effect, in their

nationally representative self-report survey of youths aged

12 to 17, Dornbusch et al. (1985) consistently found a

greater number of delinquents among mother-only households

compared to households with both biological parents. This

relationship was consistent for a variety of self-reported

and officially recorded delinquency, including law contacts,

as well as across sex and social class. Reviewing the

literature on family and delinquency, Gove and Crutchfield

(1982) cite overall findings consistent with Dornbusch et al.

"An intact home with harmonious marital and family

relationships will be closely associated with a lack of

delinquency and a lack of harmonious marital and family

relationships and/or a single-parent home will be associated

with delinquency" (1982, p. 304). More recently, Wells and

Rankin systematically analyzed 50 studies and concluded that

there is "a consistent and real pattern of association"

between broken home and delinquency variables, showing a

bivariate correlation of .10 to .15 (1991, p. 87). They said

this association is stronger for milder forms of juvenile

misconduct and weakest for serious and violent crimes.

On the other hand, in their study of high school

students in a large midwestern city, Hennessy et al. (1978)

found no effect of broken homes on a wide range of self-

reported delinquency, including being picked up by police and

appearances in court. They measured a broken home as any one

that did not include both a biological mother and a

biological father. While finding no broken-home effect, they

did suggest that other patterns of interactions within the

family may be related to delinquency. For example, Salts et

al. (1995) found in their study of males aged 12 to 19 that

family structure variables were not related to self-reported

violence, theft, or other delinquency. However, they found

that other family variables such as conflict and cohesion

were related to violence in the expected directions. Jensen

and Rojek concluded in their text, "At the present time there

is little conclusive evidence to suggest that the broken home

is a critical variable in the understanding of delinquency"

(1992, p. 270). In another text, Curran and Renzetti claim

there is "little evidence to support the broken home

hypothesis," while at the same time they acknowledge that

"research indicates that parents' relationships and

interactions with their children are correlated with the

children's involvement in delinquency" (1996, p. 349).

Consistent with Curran and Renzetti's contention and the

findings of Salts et al., many researchers have addressed the

complicated findings relating to broken homes and delinquency

by drawing a distinction between the number and type of

parents in a household (family structure), and the quality of

parenting in a household (often referred to as family

function). "It is not family structure in itself that

affects delinquency but the personal relationships within the

family unit which result from family disorganization in

single-parent families," (1984, p. 363) suggested Farnworth.

For example, Van Voorhis et al. (1988) compared the

effects of structure versus quality of relationships in the

family on self-reported delinquency. Using a sample of high

school students from a small midwestern town, they found in

both correlational analyses and multivariate tests that

family structure had weak effects for status offenses only,

while measures of home quality were more strongly related to

a variety of delinquency. Family structure was measured in

two ways: intact versus broken homes, and two-parent versus

single-parent homes. Family quality measures included scales

on supervision, affection, enjoyment of home, conflict, and

abuse of children.

Using data from the National Survey of Youth, a 1972

self-report survey of youths aged 11 to 18, Rankin and Kern

(1994) found that the likelihood of delinquency was the same

for all children who were strongly attached to one parent,

regardless of whether they lived in an intact or single-

parent family. They also found the likelihood of delinquency

to be lower for those living in intact families and attached

to both parents than for those living with and attached to a

single parent. Rankin and Kern suggested that single-parent

families may have higher rates of delinquency due to more

sporadic parental supervision, monitoring, and discipline.

Thus, measures of family quality may mediate family

structure. Attachment was measured as a composite of

intimate communication, family activities, supervision, and

affection. Rankin and Kern's results applied to a variety of

delinquency but not to property offenses such as theft and


In their study of youths aged 12 to 19 in a single

metropolitan area, Cernkovich and Giordano (1987) found that

family structure was unrelated to a wide range of self-

reported delinquency. Family quality variables, on the other

hand, were significantly related to delinquency. Their

measure of family structure was divided into responses for

living with both biological parents, with the mother only,

and with the mother and a stepfather. Significant family

quality variables were supervision or monitoring, identity

support, parental caring and trust, instrumental

communication, parental disapproval of peers, and conflict

with parents. Only intimate communication was not related to

delinquency. Cernkovich and Giordano said that their family

quality variables were similarly related to delinquency

across different types of family structure. "While this does

not necessarily mean that home status is an unimportant

variable in delinquency involvement, it does suggest that

similar family dynamics are operating within various types of

family structure" (1987, p. 312). Noting their finding of no

broken-home effect, Cernkovich and Giordano said their

results do not suggest that family interaction mediates

broken homes, as many have assumed.

Indirect and direct effects of family structure

Other research has substantiated that family structure

does have an effect on delinquency. A number of studies have

suggested that family quality variables mediate the

delinquent effects of family structure. Using a larger

sample from the Richmond Youth Project (a 1965 self-report

survey of junior and senior high school students in

California's Contra Costa County) Matsueda and Heimer (1987)

showed that the effect of family structure on delinquency may

be mediated by intervening variables that relate to family

function, or quality. Investigating general self-reported

delinquency, they found for both blacks and whites that

"broken homes influence delinquency by impeding the

transmission of antidelinquent definitions and increasing the

transmission of prodelinquent patterns" (1987, p. 835).

Their broken home variable measured the absence of either the

mother or the father from the respondent's household. As

mentioned above, in their reanalysis of the Gluecks' data

comparing delinquent and nondelinquent adolescent males, Laub

and Sampson (1988) found that significant effects exhibited

by parental criminality and drunkenness on serious

delinquency were largely mediated by family quality variables

including attachment, supervision, and erratic or threatening

parental discipline.

Using a longitudinal, nationally representative data

set, McLeod et al. (1994) also investigated the extent to

which family structure affects antisocial behavior.

Specifically, they found that single-parent motherhood (both

never-married and previously married) affected mother's use

of alcohol, use of physical punishment, and frequency of

affection. These variables in turn were related to

antisocial behavior on the part of the children, such as

disobedience, bullying, and destructiveness. While their

measures of family quality also affected delinquency, McLeod

et al. (1994) report that their family structure measures

directly affected antisocial behavior. Living with a never-

married mother led to antisocial outcomes for blacks while

for whites antisocial behavior depended on living with a

previously married mother.

Johnson's (1986) findings from a sample of high school

sophomores also support the direct effect of family structure

on delinquency. He reported that while white males with

stepfathers self-report significantly more delinquent

behavior than those from intact homes, attachment to a parent

did not mediate the relationship. Also, the relationship for

white females between mother-only family structure and self-

reported official trouble was not mediated by any variables,

including the quality of parent-child relationship. Findings

such as those by McLeod et al. (1994) and Johnson (1986)

suggest either that family structure, as measured by broken

homes or number of parents in the family, has some direct

relation to delinquency.


As we have seen, there has been an increasing focus on

variables measuring quality of family relationships and

delinquency. Other researchers have maintained their focus

on the impact of family structure, considering not just

mother-only or single-parent families but also stepfamilies

and other variations on the two-parent family. For example,

Johnson said that "family structure, independent of the

effects of the quality of parent-child relationships,

predicts certain measures of delinquency for certain

categories of adolescents" (1986, p. 78). He found that the

presence of a stepfather tended to increase self-reported

delinquency for males, while family structure in general made

little difference for female self-reported delinquency.

Coughlin and Vuchinich (1996) reported that males from

mother-only families and stepfamilies were both more than

twice as likely to be arrested than those from families with

two biological parents. Similarly, Dornbusch et al. (1985)

found similar levels of male self-reported delinquency and

self-reported arrests in stepfamilies and mother-only

families. For females, those from two-parent stepfamilies

were less delinquent than those from mother-only families,

although they were still more delinquent than those living

with both biological parents. For males, they found similar

levels of delinquency in stepfamilies and mother-only

families. The authors concluded that their data provided

little support for the belief that two adults in the

household are more likely to prevent adolescent deviance than

are single parents.

Given the findings reported above from Johnson (1986),

however, the similar levels of male delinquency in

stepfamilies and mother-only families may result from

different influences. That is, males in stepfamilies may

experience conflict with their stepfathers while males in

mother-only families may have less parental contact. In

their review of the literature on broken homes, Wells and

Rankin (1985) found results on the stepparent issue to be

inconsistent and inconclusive.

Additional research

In this section a variety of research will be reviewed,

including studies of the delinquent effects of living with a

single mother compared to living with a single father and

investigations of whether the timing or nature of parental

disruption affect delinquency. Also reviewed here is

research on the effects of sociodemographic variables in the

relationship between family structure and delinquency. The

section will conclude with a look at several aggregate-level

studies that address the question of how family structure is

related to delinquency.

Comparisons about the delinquent consequences of mother-

only families versus father-only families have been made

infrequently due to the relatively small percentage of

father-only families. Approximately 12 percent of the

children living in single-parent families live with a father,

and this figure was much lower a generation ago (U.S.

Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, 1994a). But in

their research review, Wells and Rankin concluded that "which

parent is absent makes no difference in predisposing to

delinquency" (1985, p. 260). However, Wells and Rankin noted

that some researchers have reported an interaction between

gender of parent and gender of child. That is, father-

absence may be more harmful for males while mother-absence

may be more harmful for females. Research in this area has

yielded mixed results and the issue remains unsettled.

Some researchers have examined the extent to which the

timing and the nature of family breakups are relevant to

delinquent outcomes. Mednick et al. (1987), dividing timing

of divorce into three levels based on the child's age, found

that it did not relate to number of arrests. West (1982)

found no difference in delinquency whether family disruption

occurred early or later in the child's life. Similarly,

using nationally representative, longitudinal data,

Furstenberg and Teitler (1994) reported no difference in the

effects of divorce whether parents separated early in the

child's life or later. Mednick et al. (1990), on the other

hand, did find that instability during adolescence was a

comparatively stronger predictor of young male crime than

instability earlier in childhood. The authors used a more

elaborate measure of stability by combining two scores on

family constellation changes, one score for prior to age 12

and the other score for age 12 and older.

Turning to the nature of parental disruption, it might

be reasoned that divorce or separation would have a greater

influence on delinquency than the death of a parent. This

might be the case because a divorce likely signifies conflict

and stress in family relationships. Otherwise, as some

research has suggested, the presence of stepparents may

result in a greater likelihood of conflict, especially

between sons and stepfathers. On the other hand, family

stress and the arrival of stepparents may also follow the

death of a parent. Stepparents aside, whatever the nature of

family disruption, at least a temporary result will be a

single-parent family. If delinquency is related to the

number of parents in the household, then one might expect the

nature of family disruption to have little effect on

delinquency. In their analysis of previous research, Wells

and Rankin reported, "The association with delinquency is

slightly (albeit not significantly) stronger for families

broken by divorce or separation than by death of a parent,"

(1991, p. 88).

Researchers have also examined the extent to which the

relationship between family structure and delinquency varies

by sex and race. Looking first at sex, Wells and Rankin

(1991) report that research generally shows no consistent

differences between males and females in the impact of family

structure. Wells and Rankin noted that their use of broken

homes as a measure of family structure was likely complicated

as a result of their research being an analysis of previous

studies, given the variety of ways by which broken homes may

be measured. In contrast to the findings of Wells and

Rankin, Gove and Crutchfield (1982) found that parental

marital status had little impact on delinquency for females

while males with unmarried parents were more likely to be

delinquent than those from two-parent homes. Gove and

Crutchfield's data differed from most self-report studies in

that they measured parents' reports of their children's

behavior. Using self-report data on youths aged 13 to 16,

Thomas et al. (1996) also found that the deleterious effects

of family structure were concentrated among males. Johnson

(1986) found family structure to be more significant for

males' self-reported delinquency as a result of the

stepfather relationship. For females, Johnson said family

structure did not appear to be as important. While girls

from mother-only families were more likely to be officially

delinquent, Johnson said this finding may reflect bias by

school officials and police.

Other researchers reporting sex differences locate these

differences within the mediating variables of family quality.

Among her small sample of blacks at age 15, Farnworth (1984)

found that while family structure had only a small impact on

delinquency for males and no effect for females, variables

based on parents' expectations and perceptions of the parent-

child relationship were significant for females, suggesting

that home socialization is more important for females than

males. Pointing to a similar conclusion in their nearly all-

white sample, van Voorhis et al. (1988) found that the

intervening effect of home quality in the relationship

between broken homes and delinquency was significant for

females across a wider variety of self-reported delinquency

than was the case for males.

Although Wells and Rankin (1991) reported that previous

research generally does not indicate racial differences in

the relationship between broken homes and delinquency, Salts

et al. (1995) found that family variables, including time

spent away from the home and with friends, predicted self-

reported violence among blacks and whites. For both racial

categories, family structure was not a significant predictor

of violence. Similarly, Smith and Krohn (1995) found in a

longitudinal study of urban teens that family structure was

not related to general self-reported delinquency for either

blacks or whites, although it did have a direct effect on

Hispanic delinquency. Overall, Smith and Krohn reported that

family measures, including family structure and family

quality, explained about 10 percent of the variance in

delinquency for both blacks and whites, and about 20 percent

for Hispanics.

However, Rosen (1985) concluded that both family quality

and family structure were related to official delinquency

among blacks, whereas only structural variables were

important for white delinquency. As mentioned previously, in

their nationally representative, longitudinal study, McLeod

et al. (1994) found that the particular measure of family

structure affecting antisocial behavior depended on race.

For blacks, antisocial outcomes were associated with living

with a never-married mother. For whites antisocial behavior

was related to living with a previously married mother.

However, Thomas et al. (1996) found a higher rate of black

self-reported delinquency among those in mother-only families

that included father involvement. Whites, on the other hand,

were more delinquent in mother-only families where there was

no father involvement. Delinquency was reduced for blacks

and whites living with two biological parents.

Matsueda and Heimer (1987) found for both blacks and

whites that broken homes influence delinquency indirectly

through delinquent definitions and delinquent peers, but the

relationship is considerably stronger for blacks. Smith and

Krohn (1995) found that parent-child attachment and the

perception of parental control directly affected delinquency

for blacks and whites, but they reported no indirect effects

involving family structure as an exogenous variable.

Generally, although greater differences were found for

Hispanics, the relationships between family variables and

delinquency appear to be similar for blacks and whites.

A variety of ecological research has been carried out on

the relationship between family structure and delinquency,

contributing additional support for the association between

family structure and delinquency. However, any inference of

causality for corresponding individual-level measures would

not be warranted due to the use of aggregate measures in this

research. In a series of studies, Sampson and various

associates have shown a connection between family structure

and delinquency while identifying antecedent variables that

pertain to the relationship, such as inequality, joblessness,

sex ratio, and racial segregation. Sampson (1985) found that

family structure, measured by the percentage of female-headed

families in a neighborhood, strongly affected serious

property and violent victimization. Analyzing data from 171

U.S. cities, Sampson (1987) and Messner and Sampson (1991)

found that official rates of serious violence were strongly

affected by the percentage of female-headed households with

children under age 18, and more strongly affected by

percentage of female-headed households. Smith and Jarjoura

(1988) found that neighborhoods with larger percentages of

single-parent households had higher victimization rates of

violent crime (robbery and assault) and burglary.

Additionally, family structure helped explain the significant

relationship between poverty and rates of burglary. Using

census data for 158 cities, Shihadeh and Steffensmeier (1994)

found that the percentage of female-headed black households

had a significant effect on officially reported black

violence. Female householding itself was affected by income

inequality within black communities.

These studies and others suggest a relationship between

family structure and delinquency using a variety of

variables, while pointing to various antecedent variables

that are associated with family structure. While much of the

research reviewed earlier positions family structure as an

exogenous variable that affects delinquency through various

mediating variables, this research hypothesizes a weakened

family structure as an endogenous variable intervening

between economic difficulties and crime (see Petras and

Davenport, 1991).


Wherever family structure is positioned in analytical

models, throughout the literature review it has been seen

that the broken-home measure of family structure is actually

an imperfect measure of a more general family process and

that the broken-home effect is an unclear one which interacts

with other variables and depends upon context (Gove and

Crutchfield, 1982; Hennessy et al., 1978). Such ambiguity

necessitates a precise definition of family measures such as

broken home and single parenthood, and the delineation of

potentially intervening variables that are affected by a

broken home or single parenthood and in turn produce

delinquent outcomes for children.

One cannot conclude from the existing literature that

any one measure of family structure is the best. The only

conclusion is that the measure used should be clearly defined

and appropriate for the purposes of the research. The

present study will employ a measure emphasizing the

structural makeup of the family rather than the occurrence or

conditions of divorce. This measure is chosen with the

assumption that two parents will be better able than one

parent to provide a consistent learning environment for


For example, Dornbusch et al. (1985) found that

adolescents in mother-only households are more likely to be

delinquent as a result of making decisions without parental

input (see also McLanahan and Booth, 1989). Using a similar

measure of family structure, Rosen (1985) found significant

relationships with delinquency for both blacks and whites.

Gove and Crutchfield (1982) included a similar measure in

their study that found family structure to be more important

for male delinquency, while family interaction was more

central for females. But for their equivalent family

structure measure, Van Voorhis et al. (1988) found no

significant effects on a variety of delinquency measures.

McLeod et al. (1994) also investigated single-parent families

compared to two-parent families, distinguishing between

previously married and never-married parents. Both single-

parent family types were related to antisocial behavior.

Thomas et al. (1996) offered another approach to measuring

family structure by the number of parents present, comparing

families with two biological parents, single-mother families

that had nonresident father involvement in child

socialization, and single-mother families without nonresident

father involvement. White males were more delinquent the

lower the level of father's involvement, while black males

were more delinquent where nonresident fathers were involved

in the family.

Dornbusch et al. (1985) and other researchers have also

indicated that the presence of stepparents may increase the

likelihood of delinquency, especially in the case of

stepfathers and their stepsons. Johnson (1986) distinguished

between both number and type of parents, finding that males

living with a mother and a stepfather were most delinquent

while females in mother-only families were most delinquent.

Coughlin and Vuchinich (1996) found that youths from

stepfamilies and mother-only families were more likely to be

arrested. These findings call for the coded separation of

two biological parents from those two-parent families

consisting of one biological parent and one stepparent.

Much of the research reviewed in this chapter points to

the variables that intervene between family structure and

crime and delinquency. Many researchers have called for the

continued explication of these and other potentially

intervening variables (e.g. Smith and Jarjoura, 1988; Wells

and Rankin, 1986). According to Van Voorhis et al. (1988),

family structure usually is considered to be an indirect

cause of delinquency, predisposing family members to other,

more direct influences such as lack of affection, poor

supervision, shortage of economic and time resources, and

limited opportunities for modeling, among others. Wells and

Rankin said, "Few if any analyses presume ... a direct and

automatic causal link. Rather, family structure affects

delinquent behavior through intervening interactional

processes (engendered by structural conditions)" (1986, p.

87). While acknowledging that the relationship between

family structure and delinquency is a weak one, Wells and

Rankin (1985) argue that it is consistent and there is a need

to clarify the process by which the family relates to


The present study will focus on social learning as

intervening processes between family structure and

delinquency. Specifically, it draws upon the social learning

theoretical perspective to explain the effects of family

structure on delinquent behavior. Various components of

social learning theory will be hypothesized to mediate the

relationship between family structure and delinquency. In

the next chapter, social learning theory will be discussed

and additional research focusing specifically on the theory

will be reviewed.


The last chapter discussed a variety of research

findings that link family variables to delinquent behavior.

In this chapter, social learning theory will be discussed and

considered as a useful approach to understanding the

relationship between the family and the delinquent behavior

of adolescents. The theory is well suited to explaining the

relationship between family variables, including family

structure, and delinquency because it focuses on the process

of interaction, particularly within primary groups. The

family normally is the first primary group that individuals

encounter. "Social learning models emphasize the importance

of parents as reinforcers and models of socially appropriate

behavior. Parental availability, supervision, and affection

are important factors in influencing the effectiveness of

their modeling and reinforcement strategies," (1988, p. 239)

according to Van Voorhis et al. Moreover, the family

typically has a considerable impact on other primary groups

that gain significance later, such as the peer group (Jensen

and Rojek, 1992). Thus, it is reasonable to expect that

changes in family structure may affect youths via social

learning processes in their interaction with parents, and

subsequently, with friends. The nature of the social

learning that occurs in these important primary groups may be

expected to significantly affect whether behavior is

conforming or delinquent.

Social Learning Theory

Social learning theory was developed by Akers and

Burgess (Burgess and Akers, 1966) as a reformulation of

Sutherland's (1947) theory of differential association.

Akers (1973; 1977; 1985; 1997; 1998) has continued to develop

and test the theory. Central to the theory is the idea that

delinquency is learned in interaction with others, primarily

within intimate, personal groups such as family and friends.

According to Sutherland, "A person becomes delinquent because

of an excess of definitions favorable to violation of law

over definitions unfavorable to violation of law" (1947, p.

6). Sutherland said that this process of differential

association varies by frequency, duration, priority, and

intensity. Thus, the commission of a criminal act results

from a complex ratio wherein the influence of criminal

patterns and definitions exceeds the influence of conforming


Sutherland's theory was one of the first to suggest that

deviance results from the effects of environmental conditions

on biologically and psychologically normal individuals (Vold

and Bernard, 1986). According to Sutherland, "The process of

learning criminal behavior by association with criminal and

anti-criminal patterns involves all of the mechanisms that

are involved in any other learning" (1947, p. 7). If

criminal behavior is learned as is other behavior, then

Sutherland's theory of differential association also directs

us toward the social context or structure (differential

social organization as Sutherland would put it) in which

learning takes place for a further explanation of crime and

delinquency. Family structure would be one context that may

indirectly affect delinquency via the process of differential


Burgess and Akers (1966) broadened Sutherland's

differential association by integrating it with behavioral

learning theory, particularly the concept of differential

reinforcement, whereby behavior is conditioned by rewards and

punishments. Their theory originally was called differential

association-reinforcement, but now is usually referred to as

social learning theory.

The theory is intended to apply to any form of deviant

behavior, including criminal and delinquent behavior. "The

basic assumption in social learning theory is that the same

learning process, operating in a context of social structure,

interaction, and situation, produces both conforming and

deviant behavior" (Akers, 1998, p. 50). Akers said that the

difference between conforming and deviant behavior lies in

the balance of influences on behavior. Social learning

theory focuses on four central concepts to account for these

influences. These are differential association, definitions,

imitation of models, and differential reinforcement. While

these four concepts influence conformity in one direction, in

his central proposition of social learning theory Akers

describes the way in which they combine to instigate and

strengthen deviance in the other direction:

The probability that persons will engage
in criminal and deviant behavior is
increased and the probability of their
conforming to the norm is decreased when
they differentially associate with others
who commit criminal behavior and espouse
definitions favorable to it, are
relatively more exposed in-person or
symbolically to salient criminal/deviant
models, define it as desirable or
justified in a situation discriminative
for the behavior, and have received in
the past and anticipate in the current or
future situation relatively greater
reward than punishment for the behavior.
(Akers, 1998, p. 50; emphasis added)

Rewards and punishment are the alternate ways in which

differential reinforcement is distributed. The four concepts

and other aspects of the theory will be explained in greater

detail below.

Differential Association

Differential association in social learning theory

encompasses interaction with others in intimate primary

groups, as well as in secondary groups and indirect

association with reference groups of individuals throughout

the community and the mass media. Modalities of association

combine to determine the effects of various associations.

"Those associations which occur first (priority), last longer

(duration), occur more frequently (frequency), and involve

others with whom one has the more important or closer

relationships (intensity) will have the greater effect"

(Akers, 1994, p. 96). In addition to this interactional

dimension there is a normative dimension of differential

association, which more widely refers to the different

patterns of norms and values to which individuals are


"Differential association refers to the process whereby

one is exposed to normative definitions favorable or

unfavorable to illegal or law-abiding behavior" (Akers, 1994,

p. 96). Additionally, it is through differential association

that one is exposed to other mechanisms of social learning,

including models to imitate and differential reinforcement

for criminal or conforming behavior. These three concepts--

definitions, imitation, and differential reinforcement--will

be discussed next.


Definitions are evaluative norms, attitudes, or

orientations regarding a particular behavior as good or bad.

A positive definition exists when behavior is considered good

while a negative definition exists when behavior is seen as

undesirable. A neutralizing definition exists when behavior

is justified or excusable. This type of definition includes

techniques of neutralization and rationalizations that are

used to disclaim responsibility or fault.

Conventional definitions about criminal behavior are

negative toward deviant behavior. However, the more one

holds ideas favorable to crime or deviance, the more one is

likely to engage in criminal or deviant behavior. In this

case the definitions about criminal behavior are positive.

Thus, the use of the terms positive and negative should not

be mistaken as synonymous with conforming and deviant,

respectively. For example, at the decisive moment a

conforming person may define conformity as positive and

deviance as negative while a nonconforming person may define

deviance as positive and conformity as negative. More

typically however, definitions favorable to crime and

delinquency are "conventional beliefs so weakly held that

they provide no restraint or are positive or neutralizing

attitudes that facilitate law violation in the right set of

circumstances" (Akers, 1994, p. 98).

Definitions are beliefs that may be general or specific.

General beliefs include religious, moral, and other

conventional ideas favorable to conformity and unfavorable to

deviance or criminality (Akers, 1994). Specific beliefs are

held about particular acts or types of acts. Thus, one may

believe that it is wrong to do harm to others but that it is

all right to harm those who are the source of frustration or


Definitions are learned through imitation and

reinforcement, and once learned, they serve as discriminative

stimuli for conforming or deviant behavior. According to

Akers, "Discriminative stimuli are stimuli which become

associated with reinforcement. In addition to the

reinforcers, other stimuli are ordinarily present when

behavior is reinforced--the physical surroundings, one's own

feelings, others' behavior, one's own and others' spoken

words, and so on" (1985, p. 49). Discriminative stimuli

occur before or as the behavior occurs, signaling the actor

as to the appropriateness of the behavior and whether

reinforcement or punishment is forthcoming.


Imitation is the process of acquiring social behavior,

whether conforming or deviant, by observing and modeling the

behavior of others. Models, like definitions, may be drawn

from primary, secondary, or reference groups. Additionally,

imitation may occur immediately, at some later time, or not

at all. Imitation is a complex process as its likelihood of

occurrence depends on the characteristics of the model as

well as the model's observed behavior and the outcomes

produced by that behavior. "[Imitation] is more important in

the initial acquisition and performance of novel behavior

than in the maintenance or cessation of behavioral patterns

once established, but it continues to have some effect in

maintaining behavior" (Akers, 1994, p. 99).

Differential Reinforcement

The primary learning mechanism in social learning theory

is operant conditioning, or instrumental learning, wherein

behavior is shaped by the stimuli which follow the behavior.

Operant conditioning is distinguished from respondent

conditioning, wherein behavior is shaped by antecedent or

eliciting stimuli, in that it is "developed, maintained, and

strengthened depending on the feedback received or produced

from the environment" (Akers, 1985, p. 42). Thus, while a

respondent is controlled by the preceding stimulus and

unaffected by the outcome it creates for the environment, an

operant is controlled by the stimulating reinforcement and

punishment following or contingent on it.

Positive reinforcement occurs as rewards, such as

approving words, money, or pleasant feelings, increase the

probability that an act will occur or be repeated. The

likelihood of an act occurring or being repeated also is

increased through negative reinforcement, when one avoids

unpleasant consequences. For example, a motorist who exceeds

the speed limit will likely continue to do so, and perhaps to

a greater degree, so long as a citation is not received.

Punishment also may be positive or negative. Positive

punishment occurs when unpleasant consequences are attached

to a behavior, such as when the speeding motorist receives

that citation. Negative punishment occurs when pleasant

consequences are removed. For example, a worker receives

negative punishment when a paycheck is docked.

Deviant or conforming behavior may be continuously

reinforced but is more likely reinforced on an intermittent

schedule, the uncertainty of which helps account for the

variety, complexity, and stability of behavior.

Reinforcement depends on the values of those with whom one

interacts, as behavior is regarded differently across time

and place. Modalities of reinforcement--amount, frequency,

and probability--affect the extent of reinforcement. The

greater the amount of reinforcement for one's behavior, the

more frequently it is reinforced, and "the higher the

probability that behavior will be reinforced (as balanced

against alternative behavior), the greater the likelihood

that it will occur and be repeated" (Akers, 1994, p. 98).

Temporal Sequence and Reciprocal Effects in Social Learning

Social learning theory has most often been posited as

preceding delinquent behavior. However, Akers maintains that

the relationship between social learning variables and

delinquent behavior does not simply occur in one direction.

Akers stresses that "social learning is a complex process

with reciprocal and feedback effects" (1994, p. 99).

Akers (1998) explains how these reciprocal and feedback

effects are integrated into social learning theory. First,

association with family members and friends typically

precedes the commission of delinquent acts, and

reinforcement, modeling, and exposure to definitions occur

within these groups prior to the onset of delinquency.

Second, after the initial event imitation becomes less

important while the balance of the other social learning

variables continue to be used in determining repetition.

Third, actual consequences of the event (social and nonsocial

reinforcers and punishers) affect the probability and

frequency of repeated events. Consequences include the

actual effects of the behavior itself, the actual reactions

of others present at the time or who find out about it later,

and the anticipated reactions of others not present or

without knowledge of the behavior. Fourth, both the overt

behavior and the definitions favorable or unfavorable to it

are affected by these consequences, which in turn affect

further behavior. Definitions, for example, may be applied

retroactively as justification for a previous act. At the

same time, such justification precedes future acts as it

variably mitigates sanctioning (punishing reinforcement) by

others or oneself. Finally, progression into more frequent

or sustained behavior again occurs in the context of

reinforcement, modeling, and definitions.

Differential association shares a complex relationship

with delinquency, according to Akers (1998). Social learning

theory recognizes that youths may choose to associate with

friends based on a similarity in delinquent behavior that

already exists. Similarly, youths confined for delinquent

offenses will have little choice but to associate with

delinquent peers. However, because associations are

typically formed around circumstances and attractions such as

neighborhood proximity that have little to do with co-

involvement in deviant behavior, delinquent behavior most

often results from delinquent peer association (Akers, 1994).

Akers (1998) concludes that there is both a tendency for

persons to choose to interact with others based on behavioral

similarities (known as "flocking" or "selection") and a

tendency for persons who interact to have mutual influence on

each other's behavior (known as "feathering" or

"socialization"). Both are part of the social learning

process and both are explained by the same variables.

Social Structure and Social Learning: The Case of the Family
and Delinquency

Akers (1998) has presented a Social Structure-Social

Learning (SSSL) theory of crime and delinquency. The theory

basically assumes that social learning is the primary process

linking social structure to individual behavior. It

primarily proposes that "variations in the social structure,

culture, and locations of individuals and groups in the

social system explain variations in crime rates, principally

through their influence on differences among individuals on

the social learning variables" (Akers, 1998, p. 322). Social

structural variables that have an effect on individual

behavior include various broad measures of society and

community; common demographic variables such as age, sex,

class, and race; and other more immediate variables such as

family and peer group.

Social learning theory is useful in the explanation of

the effects of family structure on delinquency because the

family and peer groups are identified in the theory as the

most significant primary groups implicated in differential

association. Thus, the components of social learning theory

may be presented as intervening variables between the social

structural variable of family structure and the individual-

level variable of delinquent behavior. Differences in the

effects of family structure on rates of delinquency depend on

the extent to which each type of family is able to "provide

socialization, learning environments, and immediate

situations conducive to conformity or deviance" (Akers, 1994,

p. 101). For example, a single-parent family may be less

likely than a two-parent family to provide a consistent

learning environment, and a single parent may be less able

than two parents to oversee children's behavior. More

precisely, a two-parent family may offer greater

opportunities for differential association, the transmission

of values or definitions, the imitation of parental role

models, and differential reinforcement for conforming

behavior, compared to smaller family structures. The linking

of family structure to delinquent behavior, therefore, can be

seen as a special case of Akers' SSSL model. The present

study is one way of testing the SSSL model, as it will focus

on social learning theory as a link between social structure

and individual delinquent behavior by hypothesizing a

mediating effect of social learning variables on the

relationship between family structure and delinquency.

Research on Social Learning Theory

A variety of researchers writing on crime and

delinquency have cited social learning theory as a valuable

perspective for explaining deviance, and the findings of

numerous studies have supported or are consistent with the

theory (see Akers, 1998).

Social Learning Theory and Delinquency

Akers and various associates have demonstrated support

for the relationship between all four social learning

concepts and delinquency in a variety of studies, including

tests of social learning theory by itself and in comparison

with other theories (Akers, 1994).

Akers et al. (1979) provided a thorough test of the

explanatory power of social learning theory in relation to

self-reported alcohol and marijuana use and abuse among

adolescents. A combined 15 social learning variables

measuring all four concepts of social learning theory--

differential association, definitions, differential

reinforcement, and imitation--explained 55 percent of the

variance in use of alcohol and 68 percent of the variance in

use of marijuana in a sample of more than 3,000 adolescents.

For alcohol and marijuana abuse, the variance explained by

the social learning variables was 32 percent and 39 percent,


Akers et al. (1979) distinguished between social

differential reinforcement (actual and anticipated) and a

second group of differential reinforcement measures which

combined social with nonsocial factors. Comparing the five

subsets of variables, differential association was most

effective in explaining variance in alcohol and marijuana use

and their abuse. Consistent with the findings of numerous

other studies, the most important single variable for

explaining both the use and abuse of alcohol and marijuana

was differential peer association. For substance use, the

second-most effective social learning concept was

definitions, followed by the combined social and nonsocial

subset of differential reinforcement measures, social

differential reinforcement, and imitation. A similar ranking

was found for abusers, although social-nonsocial

reinforcement was more important than definitions among

alcohol abusers. According to Akers et al., "In substance

abuse the user comes more and more to respond to direct

reinforcement, especially from the drug effects themselves"

(1979, p. 650).

Of the items measuring definitions, the respondent's own

approval or disapproval of use had the strongest effect on

both alcohol and drug use, and drug abuse, over neutralizing

definitions and attitudes about the law. For alcohol abuse,

attitudes about the law was more important. Of the items

measuring social differential reinforcement, friends'

rewarding or punishing reactions had a stronger effect on

substance use than parents' rewards or punishment and

deterrence items (being caught by parents or the police).

Friends' reactions was also important for substance abusers,

although marijuana abusers were equally concerned about the

interference it would have on other activities such as school

and athletics. Additionally, parental reactions was found to

be curvilinearly related to abuse, with a lower probability

of abuse being associated with parents who react moderately.

With the exception of imitation, four of the five

subsets explained a substantial proportion of variance in

both alcohol and marijuana use. The authors took these

findings as support for the theory as a whole. "Friends

provide social reinforcement or punishment for abstinence or

use, provide normative definitions of use and abstinence,

and, to a lesser extent, serve as admired models to imitate"

(1979, p. 644).

Akers and Lee (1996) found that social learning theory

explained adolescent smoking. Using five-year longitudinal

data, measures of differential association, definitions, and

differential reinforcement significantly affected future

smoking. Also consistent with social learning theory, the

authors identified reciprocal effects of smoking on

differential association, although similar effects were weak

or nonsignificant for definitions and differential

reinforcement. According to Akers and Lee, "As smoking

behavior develops, it is shaped by association with peers,

exposure to their normative definitions of smoking, and

social reinforcement, but then over time, one's own smoking

behavior comes to exert influence over patterns of

association with friends" (1996, p. 336). Menard and Elliott

(1994) identified reciprocal relationships between delinquent

peer association, attitudes toward delinquency, and self-

reported minor offending and index offending. However, the

stronger causal direction was clearly indicated by the

effects of social learning on delinquency.

Boeringer and Akers (1993) found that social learning

variables also explained violent behavior in the form of

sexual aggression among college males. They reported that

social learning models, including measures of all four of the

theory's central concepts, accounted for over 20 percent of

the variance in sexually aggressive behavior. This outcome

variable included nonphysical coercion, use of drugs or

alcohol as a coercive sexual strategy, and attempted or

completed rape with or without force. The social learning

models also accounted for 40 to 55 percent of the variance in

rape proclivity.

Additional support for social learning theory has come

from other researchers. In a sample of ninth-grade students,

Winfree et al. (1994) found that pro-gang attitudes

contributed significantly to the prediction of several self-

report crime measures, including alcohol and drug use,

property offenses, and violence. Analyzing eight waves of

the National Youth Survey, Elliott (1994) found that

delinquent peers, attitudes toward deviance and neutralizing

definitions (Elliott's "peer normlessness") all had strong

direct effects on the onset of violent offending.

Also using eight waves from the National Youth Survey,

Esbensen and Elliott (1994) found that social learning

variables accounted for the initiation of drug use. A

measure of differential association, exposure to drug-using

peers, was most strongly related to the initiation of

alcohol, marijuana, and other drugs such as amphetamines,

cocaine, and heroin. Differential reinforcement variables

also were significant in their findings. The anticipated

disapproval of friends decreased the likelihood of initiating

alcohol and marijuana use, while the anticipated disapproval

of parents decreased the likelihood of beginning alcohol use.

A similar measure of the anticipated disapproval of parents

was found to increase the likelihood of initiating alcohol

use, although it also slightly decreased the probability of

onset of marijuana and other drug use. Attitudes against

drug use, a measure of definitions, decreased the probability

of starting to use drugs such as heroin and cocaine. Another

measure of definitions, attitudes against delinquent

behavior, was not significant for drug use.

Esbensen and Elliott (1994) found that social learning

variables generally were not as significant in terms of the

termination of drug use, although exposure to drug using

peers reduced the likelihood of discontinuing the use of

marijuana and other drugs, and negative attitudes toward

delinquency increased the likelihood of termination of

marijuana and other drugs. In summary, Esbensen and

Elliott's results indicate variably significant effects on

drug use for a variety of social learning concepts, including

differential association, definitions, and differential

reinforcement. Measures of neutralizing definitions were not


Using two waves of the National Youth Survey, Warr and

Stafford (1991) found that differential association, as

measured by friends' delinquency, was strongly related to

self-reported cheating, petty larceny, and marijuana use.

Friends' delinquency also affected self-reported delinquency

indirectly through respondents' definitions. Friends'

attitudes, an indirect measure of differential reinforcement,

indirectly affected delinquency through respondents'

attitudes (definitions), but the direct relationships between

friends' attitudes and delinquency were weak or


Elliott et al. (1989), using the first three waves of

the National Youth Survey, found involvement with delinquent

peers to have the strongest effect on both general

delinquency and index offending rates. Other theoretical

variables affected both types of delinquency only indirectly

through involvement with delinquent peers. Attitudes toward

delinquency and neutralizing definitions ("normlessness" in

their usage), for example, were found to affect involvement

with delinquent peers but had no direct effect on

delinquency. Elliott et al. (1989) concluded in the test of

their integrated theoretical model that learning theory

provides the principal explanation for delinquency and

substance use. Using waves three through five of the NYS,

Menard and Elliott (1994) also found delinquent peer

association to significantly affect minor offending and index

offending, while the effects of attitudes toward delinquency

were weak and inconsistent.

In this section it has been shown with a variety of

cross-sectional and longitudinal research that social

learning variables are related to various delinquent

outcomes, including smoking, alcohol and drug use, general

delinquency and violent behavior. Differential (peer)

association, typically measured as having delinquent or

substance using friends, emerges as having the clearest

relationship with delinquency of the four social learning

concepts. In nearly every study reviewed, friends'

delinquency or substance use was most strongly related to

one's own delinquency or substance use. Indeed, in their

review of the empirical literature on broken homes and

delinquency, Wells and Rankin note, "Peer influence

constitutes the variable most consistently and strongly

predictive of delinquency across a variety of studies" (1985,

p. 265).

Various measures of definitions and differential

reinforcement also indicate direct effects on delinquent

behavior. A few studies suggest that some social learning

variables affect delinquency indirectly through other social

learning variables. For example, Elliott et al. (1989) found

that measures of definitions, including neutralizing

definitions, affected delinquent peer association. For Warr

and Stafford (1991), however, delinquent peer association and

the differential reinforcement of peers (friends' attitudes)

affected one's own definitions.

Family, Social Learning Theory, and Delinquency

Research has demonstrated the intervening effects of

social learning variables between various structural

variables and delinquency. For example, Krohn et al. (1984)

found that social learning variables explained much of the

variance in self-reported alcohol and marijuana use across

urban and rural community types. Akers and Lee (1997)

reported that social learning variables explained the effects

of age for adolescent marijuana users. Boeringer et al.

(1991) found that social learning variables mediated the

effects of fraternity membership on sexually aggressive

behavior among college males. In this section research will

be reviewed which links family variables, including family

structure, to social learning variables and delinquency.

Thereby it will be shown how social learning provides the

process through which the social structure of the family has

an impact on individual behavior. "As the main conventional

socializer against delinquency and crime, the family provides

anti-criminal definitions, conforming models, and

reinforcement for conformity through parental discipline,"

according to Akers (1998, p. 165). Later, he said, family

socialization remains important as it competes against or is

undergirded by socialization in peer groups.

Consistent with the findings reported above on the

primacy of differential peer association, Elliott et al.

(1985) found delinquent peer association to have a strong

effect on self-reported serious and nonserious delinquency.

Using the first three waves of the National Youth Survey, the

authors also found that weak and antisocial relationships

with family members and friends contributed to an increased

involvement with delinquent peers. Definitions, measured as

attitudes toward deviance, had little effect on delinquency.

Neutralizing definitions did not have a direct effect on

delinquency although the variable was associated with an

increased involvement with delinquent peers.

Heimer (1997), also using the first three waves of the

National Youth Survey, found that definitions relating to

interpersonal violence were associated with subsequent

violent delinquency among males. Definitions mediated the

delinquent effect of concurrent association with delinquent

peers, which mediated the effect of prior parental

supervision of friendships. Patterson and Dishion (1985)

likewise suggested that parents' monitoring practices

contribute to the parents' failure to discipline antisocial

or delinquent behavior and to their lack of control over a

child's association with delinquent peers. Applying social

learning principles with an emphasis on the roles that

parental reinforcement and punishment play in socialization,

Patterson and Dishion found that parental monitoring had a

direct effect in reducing male delinquency, as well as an

indirect effect by ways of delinquent peer association and

social skills. According to Patterson and Dishion, "The

parents' failure to track provides ample opportunity for the

child to engage in delinquent acts and to seek out deviant

peers, who in turn further exacerbate the problem" (1985, p.


Warr (1993) also reported a strong relationship between

association with delinquent peers and self-reported

delinquency. His findings showed that the strength of this

relationship was significantly reduced by the quantity of

time spent with one's family. Compared with what has been

seen to be the typical sequencing, in this case the variables

representing family and social learning are inversely

ordered. Warr concluded that peer influence may be overcome

only by avoiding the company of delinquent peers altogether.

"This may be achieved either by inhibiting the formation of

delinquent friendships in the first place (as attachment to

parents seems to do) or by reducing the time that adolescents

spend with their delinquent friends" (1993, p. 259).

The studies reviewed to this point have employed family

variables relating to family quality. A few studies have

investigated the relationships between family structure,

social learning, and delinquency. In a cross-sectional test

of differential association theory using Richmond Youth

Project data, Matsueda and Heimer (1987) found that

delinquent peer association had the largest total effect on

self-reported male delinquency. Their findings showed that

broken homes, measured as mother or father absence, influence

delinquency by directly fostering an excess of prodelinquent

definitions. Matsueda and Heimer said that broken homes also

influence delinquency more indirectly "by attenuating

parental supervision, which in turn increases delinquent

companions, prodelinquent definitions, and ultimately,

delinquent behavior" (1987, p. 836).

Heimer and Matsueda (1994) found that delinquent peer

association and attitudes toward delinquency both were

related to self-reported delinquency among males. In a

longitudinal analysis using the first three waves of the

National Youth Survey (NYS), they reported that these social

learning variables (at wave two) mediated the effect of

family structure (measured as father absence at wave one) on

serious and nonserious delinquency (at wave three). Heimer

(1997), also using the first three waves of the NYS, found

support for the mediating effects of social learning on male

violence. Her findings indicated that broken homes (those

without both biological parents present) were related to less

supervision, which led to an increase in subsequent

delinquent peer association and then violent definitions,

which finally led to subsequent violent delinquency.

Using longitudinal data from Houston-area junior high

schools, Chen and Kaplan (1997) found that delinquent peer

association and definitions, including attitudes toward

deviance and neutralizing definitions, mediated the effect of

family structure on self-reported delinquency. Measured as

having both biological parents present, family structure also

maintained a modest, direct effect on delinquency. Chen and

Kaplan reported that separate analyses yielded similar

results for both serious delinquency and general delinquency,

which included drug use, theft, and violence. A unique

feature of their research was the eight to 16 years that

elapsed between their measurement of the independent

variables and delinquency. This arrangement permitted the

investigation of the effects of family structure and the

mediating variables in early adolescence on deviance in young


The literature reviewed in this section has

demonstrated, both cross-sectionally and longitudinally, the

mediating effects of social learning variables between family

variables, including family structure, and delinquency.

Again, delinquent peer association emerges as the dominant

social learning variable, playing a significant mediating

role in each of the studies reviewed. Definitions also

played a significant intervening role in about half of these


studies, sometimes mediating the effect of delinquent peer

association on delinquency. The self-reported delinquency

measures in these studies included nonserious and serious

general delinquency, and in one case, violent delinquency.


Based on the empirical findings of the literature

reviewed to this point and the reasoning of social learning

theory, hypotheses may be deduced about the concepts to be

investigated. Below are four hypotheses specifying the

expected relationships between family structure, social

learning, and delinquency.

(1) Research has demonstrated the importance of families

as socializing agents both in the initial stages of life and

continuing through childhood, adolescence and into adulthood.

Although less clear, research also has suggested that a

reduced number of adult socializers increases the likelihood

of a reduced quality of socialization for a child. This

relationship is suggested by empirical evidence showing that

children from single-parent homes are more delinquent than

children from two-parent homes.

Therefore it is first hypothesized that family structure

predicts delinquency. Family structure as used here refers

to the number and type of parents in the household, as

contrasted to measures focusing on the occurrence of a

divorce or the absence of a particular parent. Specifically,

youths living with a single parent are expected to be more

delinquent than youths living with two parents. It also is

expected that youths living with neither parent in a non-

parental household will be more delinquent than youths living

with a single parent. Additionally, youths living with one

biological parent and one stepparent are predicted to have

delinquency levels between those of youths living with two

biological parents and those living with one parent.

(2) The literature review has shown that family

structure has an impact on social learning variables. For

example, Heimer and Matsueda (1994) found that father absence

increased the level of definitions favorable to delinquency

and increased the extent of associations with delinquent

peers. Other studies suggested that a reduced number of

parents resulted in reduced supervision, which resulted in an

increase in association with delinquent peers and the

adaptation of delinquent attitudes. Social learning theory

recognizes the family as an important source of both

conforming and deviant reinforcement, models, attitudes, and

association. The theory would suggest that living with fewer

parents would mean a weakened parental association with

conforming patterns, the absence of parental reinforcement,

the reduction of parental influence, and the loss of parental

role models. Thus, single parents will be less likely than

two parents to instill conforming attitudes and discourage

delinquent ones, guide their children toward conforming

associations and away from deviant ones, and to reinforce

conformity and punish delinquency.

Accordingly, it is hypothesized that family structure

affects the social learning process conducive to delinquency.

It is expected that having fewer biological parents will be

correlated with scores on social learning measures in the

delinquent direction, such as having more delinquent friends

and adhering to delinquent attitudes.

(3) Perhaps the strongest of the research findings

regarding social learning theory was that delinquent peer

association leads to delinquent behavior. Research also

indicated that having prodelinquent definitions increases the

likelihood of delinquency. Social learning theory holds that

one who has an excess of delinquent associations, adheres to

an excess of prodelinquent definitions, is reinforced toward

delinquent behavior and away from conformity, and has

delinquent role models will be more likely to engage in


Specifically, it is hypothesized that the more

delinquent one's friends are, and the more delinquent friends

one has, the more likely the respondent will also be

delinquent. Similarly, the more delinquent definitions one

possesses, the more likely he or she will be to engage in

delinquent behavior. Moreover, the weaker the punishment for

delinquent behavior, and the stronger the reinforcement for

it, the greater the likelihood of delinquency.

(4) Akers proposes that social learning theory is

capable of explaining how social structures such as the

family shape individual behavior (1997; 1998). The last

section of the preceding literature review cited several

studies that demonstrated the mediating role of social

learning theory. In particular, differential peer

association and definitions were shown to be important

mediating concepts between family structure and delinquency.

Therefore the fourth and final hypothesis, and the one

most central to the present research, is that social learning

variables will mediate the effect of family structure on

delinquency. Specifically, the introduction of social

learning variables into the analysis will reduce the strength

and significance of the relationship between family structure

and delinquency. It is expected that an attenuated family

structure will be associated with an increase in delinquent

friends, an increase in delinquent attitudes, and an increase

in rewards for delinquency along with a decrease in

punishment for delinquency. It is expected that these

conditions of social learning will be associated with an

increase in delinquent behavior, and will substantially

reduce or render nonsignificant the relationship between

family structure and delinquency.

The Present Research

The intent of the present research is to further

investigate the mediating effects of social learning between

family structure and delinquency. This will be accomplished

by expanding upon previous research in a variety of ways.

Where social learning variables have been included in

previous research on this topic, they typically have appeared

one or two at a time and usually as part of another

theoretical construction. As an explicit test of social

learning theory, this study will employ six social learning

measures of three of the theory's four central components to

provide a test of more complete social learning/social

structure models.

Secondly, most of the previous research in this area has

combined nonserious and serious offenses into a general

delinquency measure. Indeed, measures of serious delinquency

are much less common in self-report studies than nonserious

or general delinquency measures. One exception is the

research by Heimer (1997), reviewed above, that focuses on

violence. The present study will employ an index of serious

delinquency combining serious property and violent offenses.

Thirdly, the present study will expand on previous

research by using a different measure of family structure.

Previous studies in this area have used dichotomous measures

based on the presence of two biological parents or on father

absence. Here family structure will be based on the number

of parental figures in the household, be they biological or

stepparents. The distinction is noteworthy because this type

of measure differentiates between single-mother families and

two-parent, mother-stepfather families. Given the importance

of parental monitoring or supervision suggested by several of

the studies reviewed in the previous section, and a presumed

difference between the monitoring ability of a single parent


versus two parents, the number of parental figures in the

household may have significant consequences for social

learning and delinquency.

Finally, the present study differs from previous

research by using more recent longitudinal data on males and

females. While a few of the studies cited above employed the

first three waves of the National Youth Survey, this study

will use waves three through five of the NYS.



The purpose of the present study is to conduct a

nationally representative, longitudinal test of social

learning as a mediating process between family structure and

serious, self-reported delinquency. The study employs wave

one (1976) and waves three through five (1978, 1979, 1980) of

the National Youth Survey (Elliott et al., 1985; Elliott et

al., 1989). Hereafter, waves three through five will be

referred to as years one through three, respectively. Use of

the first wave, 1976, is limited and separately identified

(see below).

In addition to the extensive work of Elliott and his

associates, various waves of the NYS data set have been used

by different researchers. These include Heimer (1997),

Paternoster and Brame (1997), Heimer and Matsueda (1994),

Lauritsen (1993), Warr (1993), and Warr and Stafford (1991).

For the present research, tape data on the NYS are obtained

through the Inter-University Consortium for Political and

Social Research (ICPSR).

The NYS uses a panel design with a national probability

sample of households in the continental United States based

upon self-weighting, multistage, cluster sampling. The

sample contained 2,360 eligible youth aged 11-17 in 1976, the

year of the initial wave. Of those eligible, 1,725 (73%)

agreed to participate in the study and completed interviews,

which were conducted for each year in the first three months

of the following year. Elliott et al. (1989) report that the

representativeness of the sample with respect to reported

delinquency and other variables was not significantly

affected by nonparticipating youth or by panel attrition.

The age range for the present study is 13-19, as

determined by the waves selected and as a result of excluding

those respondents aged 18 and over at the time of family

structure measurement in year one or year two. The dependent

variable of delinquent behavior is variously measured in year

two (1979) and year three (1980). The effective sample size

for the present study ranges from 1,020 to 1,200 (see Table

3, below). There are roughly 250 respondents at each age.

Further details regarding the design of the present study and

sampling distributions will be presented below.

Elliott and Ageton (1980) note that self-report measures

and official statistics typically offer different findings on

delinquent behavior and its social correlates. While both

types of data reveal significant age and sex differences, the

magnitude of these differences is often smaller with self-

report data than with official statistics. Also, self-report

studies generally have found fewer differences in delinquent

behavior by race or class than are found in studies of

official delinquency.

Based on these differences in findings, self-report data

have long been considered useful for eliminating the

potential bias of official statistics wherein minority or

lower-class youths are more likely to be labeled delinquent

(see Hirschi, 1969). Likewise, youths from broken homes have

been found to be overrepresented in official statistics

(Jensen and Rojek, 1992; Wells and Rankin, 1985) and it may

be that these reflect systematic disparities in official

decisions about youth from broken homes versus those from

intact homes. Thus, the self-report survey would be a more

valid approach to the study of the relationship between

family structure and delinquency.

However, Elliott and Ageton (1980), using wave one of

the NYS, found significant race and class differences with

self-reported general delinquency. They attributed these

findings to the extended frequency range used on their

delinquency measures. Hindelang, Hirschi, and Weis (1979)

similarly suggest that the discrepancy between official

statistics and self-report surveys, with respect to sex,

race, and class, is largely illusory, at least for the

relatively minor types of delinquency typically found in

self-report data. They concluded that the apparent

differences between self-report data and official statistics

are a result of these methods effectively measuring different

behavior. Addressing these claims, Akers et al. (1981)

distinguished between serious and nonserious self-reported

delinquency, and between low- and high-frequency offenders.

Their findings suggested that previous self-report studies

were correct in their findings of nonsignificant differences

in delinquency across sociodemographic variables such as race

and class.

Whatever the extent of discrepancy between the two

methods of data collection, one inherent strength of self-

report surveys is their ability to avoid the potential bias

of which official statistics may be susceptible. They also

are useful for the measurement of "hidden" crime and

delinquency that escapes the notice of the justice system

altogether and therefore does not show up in police reports.

Self-reports also permit the avoidance of a self-selective

sample of all delinquent youths wherein the dependent

variable has little variance. On the other hand, self-report

surveys have been criticized for a number of weaknesses

involving issues of reliability and validity.

With the National Youth Survey, Elliott and his

associates attempted to overcome the weaknesses common to

self-report data. Elliott et al. (1989) suggest that while

self-report measures generally appear to be reasonably valid

and reliable, the reporting of trivial events may be the

greatest threat to the validity of self-report surveys.

Typically a general delinquency measure will include many

trivial acts that result in the unrepresentativeness of the

measure. The NYS includes serious index offenses of property

and violent delinquency and these are the exclusive domain of

this study. The reporting of trivial events is likely to be

a smaller problem when measuring strictly the most serious


Another threat to the validity of self-reports is recall

error. The NYS has recall periods of one year with the

Christmas holiday providing specific, memorable reference

points for the respondents. Additionally, the serious

delinquency that is the focus of this study may be better

remembered than less serious acts. The year-long periods

also eliminate the possibility of seasonal variation.

Another threat to validity is deliberate falsification.

Elliott et al. (1989) report that much evidence on self-

report measures indicates that this is a relatively rare

problem. Akers et al. (1983), for example, used a

biochemical measure of smoking behavior to confirm that

respondents reported their smoking quite accurately. Given

the present focus on serious delinquency, deliberate

falsification may reasonably be considered a greater

potential problem. The NYS personal interviews typically

took place in the privacy of the respondents' homes. Privacy

and confidentiality were protected and guaranteed by official

certificates from the United States government.

A variety of methods were used to analyze the validity

of delinquency scales from wave one through six of the NYS

(Elliott et al., 1989). These included an analysis of

detailed follow-up questions, an analysis of the proportion

of trivial responses that did not qualify as delinquency, and

a comparison of self-reported delinquency with arrest

records. Each of the methods used generally confirmed the

validity of the delinquency scales. These scales included a

variety of item groupings based on type and seriousness of

offense. The felony theft scale and the felony assault

scale, comprised of a combined seven offenses, contained five

of the six serious delinquency measures included in the

present study.

The reliability of self-report measures is generally

well established (Elliott et al., 1989; Hindelang, Hirschi,

and Weis, 1979). Using the test-retest method of reliability

assessment on wave five (1980) of the NYS, Huizinga and

Elliott (1986) reported the highest reliability for index

offenses. Elliott et al. reported that for their delinquency

scales from waves one through six of the NYS, "reliabilities

were adequate to excellent for the total sample and all

demographic subgroups (e.g., test-retest reliabilities ranged

from .7 to .9 in the total sample)" (1989, p. 15).

Measurement of Variables

Delinquency Index

The dependent variable is self-reported delinquent

behavior (SRD), combining self-reports of violent and

property offenses. The violent offenses include personal

attack, sexual assault, and use of force on another person.

The property offenses include motor vehicle theft, theft

involving a value of $50 or more, and breaking into a

building or vehicle. The delinquency index is a three-point

scale coded as follows: no reported property or violent

offenses (0); at least one reported occurrence of either

property or violent delinquency (1); and at least one

occurrence of both property delinquency and violent

delinquency (2). See Appendix A for a complete description

of the delinquency items. Alternatively coding delinquency

0-6, representing the total number of delinquent activities

engaged in by respondents, produced no more variation in the

dependent variable and yielded a weaker correlation with

family structure. Subsequent analyses indicated that

findings were not significantly different for this variation

of the dependent variable compared to the three-category,

ordinal coding described above and employed in the analyses

reported below.

The scale used here as a measure of serious delinquency

follows the constructions of Elliott and other researchers

employing NYS data. For example, the three items measuring

property delinquency were included by Elliott and Huizinga

(1983, p. 156) in their "felony theft" category, while the

three items measuring violent delinquency were used by

Elliott (1994, p. 3) to characterize "serious violent


Family Structure

The primary independent variable is the respondent's

family structure, using a measure focusing on the parental

makeup of his or her household. Recall from the literature

review that a measure of family structure stands in contrast

to measuring the occurrence or effects of divorce.

Furthermore, the particular way in which the family structure

measure will be coded here looks at not simply father absence

but at the number of parents living in the household.

Responses to the question, "With whom are you now

living?" (LIV) were used to measure family structure (see the

question and response categories in Appendix A). The

responses were collapsed into three categories: (1) living

with at least two parents, either two biological parents or

one biological parent and one stepparent (original codings 1,

4, 5, 14, and 15; see Appendix A); (2) living with a single-

parent, either male or female (original codings 2 and 3); and

(3) living with neither parent (original codings 7, 8, 9, and

16). This third category includes living with a boyfriend or

girlfriend, living alone, living with a roommate, or living

with nonparental relatives. Several response categories,

such as "mother and other relativess)" were deleted in order

to maintain clear distinctions between the recorded

categories. Deleted original codings include 6, 10, 11, 12,

13, and 17. Age is limited to 17 and younger at the time

family structure is measured (usually in year one, but in

year two for Model 2) so that the measure would not be

complicated by respondents moving away from home at age 18.

These three categories of living with two parents, with

one parent, and living with no parents are coded and treated

as a three-point ordinal scale of an underlying continuum of

family structure ascending from the most complete, parent-

intact family to the most incomplete, parent-absent family.

Initially this was intended as a four-point scale

differentiating between two-parent family living arrangements

with two biological parents and those with one biological

parent and one stepparent. However, analysis showed that

there were no differences in delinquency between youth living

with two biological parents and those living with a

biological and a stepparent (r=.05, p=.16). Further,

consideration was given to whether the sex of the parent in

single-parent families would make for any difference in

delinquent behavior by the children. Consistent with

previous research (Wells and Rankin, 1985), no difference in

delinquency for those respondents living with only a father

compared to those living with only a mother (r=-.02, p=.77)

was found in the NYS data. Thus, separate categories for sex

of single parent were not included in further analyses.

There were too few cases in these data to investigate the

effects of male or female respondents living with a single

parent of the same sex compared to that of a different sex.

But the data did show that of those living with a single

parent, 85 percent of males lived with their mother and 92

percent of females lived with their mother.

In a longitudinal analysis spanning three years, any

change in family structure in the second year may presumably

have a significant impact on delinquent outcomes in the third

year. However, preliminary correlational analyses determined

that in these data there were few changes in family structure

in the time period included. Family structure at year one

was strongly correlated with family structure at year two

(r=.78, p<.01) and at year three (r=.71, p<.01), suggesting

little change in the family structure variable over time.

Moreover, comparisons were made of the effect on

delinquency of whatever changes in family structure did

occur. A variable, change in family structure, was created

based on the change in the number of parents in the household

from year one to year three. Change in family structure was

coded as one=increase in number of parents in the household,

2=no change in number of parents in the household, and

3=decrease in number of parents in the household. This

variable was unrelated to subsequent delinquent behavior

(r=.006, p=.89).

Social Learning Variables

Six measures are employed to represent three major

concepts in social learning theory: differential

reinforcement, definitions, and differential association.

The fourth major component of social learning theory,

imitation or modeling, is not included in this study due to

the absence of an appropriate measure in the National Youth

Survey. See Appendix A for a listing of the NYS items used

here as social learning variables.

Differential reinforcement

Recall that differential reinforcement refers to the

balance of rewards and punishment that is received in

response to behavior, and it depends on the values of those

with whom one interacts. The two groups of people with whom

youths most often interact are their parents and their peers.

Thus, one variable will be used to measure the differential

reinforcement of each of these two groups. The measures tap

the reaction that the respondent anticipates from their

parent or peer in response to given delinquent acts, be that

reaction approving (rewarding) or disapproving (punishing).

Variables based on the same measures from the National Youth

Survey, although with varying scale items, were used by

Esbensen and Elliott (1994).

The two reinforcement variables are: the anticipated

parental reactions for one's own delinquency (APR) and the

anticipated friends' reactions for one's own delinquency

(AFR). Both variables are measured on five-point Likert

scales with 1 being strong disapproval and 5 being strong

approval. The APR index is an eight-item scale, measuring

the respondent's anticipated parental reactions to the

following acts: stealing something worth less than $5,

selling hard drugs, using marijuana, stealing something worth

more than $50, hitting or threatening to hit someone without

any reason, using alcohol, purposely damaging others'

property, and breaking into a vehicle or building to steal

something (alpha = .85). The AFR index includes nine items,

measuring the respondent's anticipated reactions of friends

to the following acts: stealing something worth less than

$5, selling hard drugs, using marijuana, stealing something

worth more than $50, hitting or threatening to hit someone

without any reason, using alcohol, pressuring or forcing

someone sexually, purposely damaging others' property, and

breaking into a vehicle or building to steal something (alpha

= .90).

Items measuring actual consequences experienced by

youths committing delinquent behavior are not available in

the NYS data set. However, both APR and AFR are adequate

measures of differential reinforcement in that they measure

anticipated rewards or punishments that would follow from

delinquent acts. The more a respondent anticipates, for

example, that breaking into a vehicle or stealing something

will be met with tolerance or even approval by parents and

peers (rewards), then the more likely the respondent will be

to commit those acts. The more the respondent anticipates

parental or peer disapproval (punishment) for those acts, the

more likely the respondent will be to refrain from



In the last chapter definitions were defined as

evaluative norms, attitudes, or orientations regarding a

particular behavior as good or bad. A definition is positive

or negative, depending on whether behavior is seen as

appropriate or undesirable, respectively. Alternatively, a

neutralizing definition exists when behavior is considered

justified or excusable. The respondent's attitudes toward

delinquent acts (ATT) and the respondent's attitudes toward

interpersonal violence (IPV) measures one's positive/negative

definitions. Similar variables based on the same measures

from the National Youth Survey were used in Heimer (1997),

Heimer and Matsueda (1994), Matsueda and Heimer (1987), and

Elliott et al. (1985). The respondent's endorsement of

deviant neutralizations (EDN) measures neutralizing

definitions. Similar variables based on this measure were

used by Esbensen and Elliott (1994) and Elliott et al.

(1985). (See Appendix A for a complete description of all

three measures of definitions.)

Attitudes toward delinquent acts are measured on a four-

point Likert scale with 1 being "very wrong" and 4 being "not

wrong at all," while IPV is measured on a five-point Likert

scale with 1 being strong disagreement and 5 being strong

agreement. Attitudes toward deviant neutralizations also is

measured on a five-point Likert scale with 1 being strong

disagreement and 5 being strong agreement.

The ATT index includes ten items: purposely damaging

others' property, using marijuana, stealing something worth

less than $5, hitting or threatening to hit someone without

any reason, using alcohol, breaking into a vehicle or

building to steal something, selling hard drugs, stealing

something worth more than $50, getting drunk, and giving or

selling alcohol to minors (alpha = .89).

The IPV index includes six items: it is all right to

beat up people if they started the fight, it is all right to

beat up people who call you names, television violence is

effective, it is all right to beat up people if they make you

mad, it is all right to hit someone to get them to do what

you want, and physical force prevents others from walking

over you (alpha = .80).

Items measuring attitudes toward delinquent acts ask

respondents whether particular delinquent acts are right or

wrong. Items measuring attitudes toward interpersonal

violence likewise ask respondents whether they agree with

statements that are favorable to violent behavior. Both of

these items serve as measures of definitions in that they

measure attitudes attached by respondents to particular

behavior. Respondents who hold attitudes positive or

favorable to delinquency will be more likely to commit

delinquent acts while those who hold attitudes negative or

unfavorable to delinquency will be less likely to commit

delinquent acts. Attitudes toward delinquency focuses on

definitions about specific acts, while attitudes toward

interpersonal violence focuses on general definitions about

violence and deviance.

The EDN index includes seven items: lying to teachers

is sometimes necessary to avoid trouble, to win at school it

is sometimes necessary to play dirty, lying is okay if it

keeps friends out of trouble, gaining the respect of friends

sometimes means beating up other kids, a willingness to break

rules is necessary to be popular with friends, lying to

parents is sometimes necessary to keep their trust, and it

may be necessary to break some of your parents' rules in

order to keep friends (alpha = .82).

Endorsement of deviant neutralizations is measured by

asking respondents about their agreement with attitudes

justifying deviant behavior. Respondents who are in greater

agreement with justified deviance or delinquency will be more

likely to engage in delinquency themselves. Attitudes toward

deviant neutralizations focuses on general definitions about

violence and deviance.

Differential association

Recall from the last chapter that differential

association refers to interaction with others in primary and

secondary groups as well as in broad reference groups via the

mass media. Initial, enduring, frequent, and close

associations have greater influence on one's behavior than

those which lack these characteristics. The peer group is an

example of a primary group in which youths typically form

associations characterized to some extent by these traits.

Those who associate with others who steal or behave

violently, for example, will receive normative definitions

favorable to delinquent behavior and be more likely

themselves to engage in this type of behavior. Associations

also provide the opportunity for other social learning

mechanisms, such as reinforcement, to have an impact.

Thus, a variable of the respondent's association with

delinquent peers will be used to measure differential

association. Research literature consistently shows that

this variable is one of the strongest predictors of juvenile

delinquency. Other studies using a similar variable based on

the same measure from the National Youth Survey include

Heimer (1997), Heimer and Matsueda (1994), Warr (1993),

Matsueda and Heimer (1987), and Elliott et al. (1985).

A five-point Likert scale is used to measure delinquent

peer association (DPA) with 1 being "none of them" engaging

in delinquent acts and 5 being "all of them." The DPA index

includes ten items: purposely damaging others' property,

using marijuana, stealing something worth less than $5,

hitting or threatening to hit someone without any reason,

using alcohol, breaking into a building or vehicle to steal

something, selling hard drugs, stealing something worth more

than $50, getting drunk, and giving or selling alcohol to

minors (alpha = .88). (See Appendix A for a complete

description of the variable.)

Sociodemographic variables

Six additional variables are considered, including age,

sex, race, class (as measured by income and education), and

family size. Any examination of the relationship between

family structure and delinquency without consideration of

these variables might result in the oversight of significant

subgroup differences. The common sociodemographic variables

of age, sex, race, and class were selected for their widely

known impact on delinquency. Number of siblings is a less

common variable but some studies have suggested that it has

an impact on delinquency (Hirschi, 1969). Correlations

indicating the strength and significance of the relationship

between self-reported delinquency and each of the

sociodemographic variables may be found below in Table 1, on

pp. 93-4. Each sociodemographic variable is discussed in

greater detail below. (See Appendix A for a description of

the original items employed in this section.)


The relationship between age and delinquency is well

known in criminology and can be seen across various types of

data collection. Generally, delinquent behavior increases

near the start of the teen years, peaks at around age 17, and

declines through the 20s as offenders age-out. Both official

statistics and self-report data show that serious criminal

behavior peaks around ages 16 and 17 (Siegel and Senna, 1991;

Elliott, 1994).

The results of a cross-sectional analysis of NYS data at

wave three were consistent with previous research, showing

ages 16-18 to be significantly more delinquent than ages 13-

15. The relationship was weaker in a longitudinal analysis

but there remained significant differences in delinquency by

age cohort. When coded at year one as ages 13-15 (1) and

ages 16-17 (2), age was significantly correlated with

delinquency in years two through three (r=.06, p=.049). An

interval-level coding of age yielded a weaker correlation

with delinquency. Therefore, age is coded dichotomously as

indicated and entered into the equations.


A variety of data indicate that males are more

delinquent than females. Official statistics typically show

that the ratio for serious violent offending by males to that

of females is approximately eight to one, and for property

crime approximately four to one in favor of males (Siegel and

Senna, 1991). Sex differences in self-report data typically

have been smaller than those seen in official statistics,

while remaining significant (Elliott and Ageton, 1980). The

current research confirms this literature. These data show

that males accounted for 76 percent of all delinquents while

comprising 52 percent of the sample. Self-reported

delinquency, in years two through three, and sex were found

not to be independent of each other (r=-.18, p<.01).

Therefore sex is included as a control variable, coded males

(1) and females (2).


While official statistics indicate that there are

significant differences by race, some self-report studies

have shown race differences to be virtually nonexistent,

suggesting the presence of bias in the justice system (Siegel

and Senna, 1991). However, using wave one of the National

Youth Survey (NYS), Elliott and Ageton (1980) found

significant race differences for self-reported general

delinquency and for crimes against property, due to blacks

reporting higher frequencies than whites. Later, Elliott

(1994) reported that serious, self-reported violence differed

very little by race. In the present research, blacks

accounted for 16 percent of the sample. Self-reported

delinquency, in years two through three, and race were found

to be significantly correlated (r=.09, p<.01). Race is

retained as a control variable, coded white (1) and black



Class differences also tend to be more common in

official statistics while self-report studies often report

smaller class differences or none at all, again suggesting

the presence of bias in the justice system (Siegel and Senna,

1991). As class may be measured in a variety of ways,

conclusions about its effects on delinquency may be harder to

draw, compared to conclusions about race differences.

Nevertheless, as they found with race, Elliott and Ageton

(1980) reported that class differences may be more

substantial than has been suggested by many self-report

studies, due to lower-class youths reporting higher

frequencies than middle-class youths. Using NYS waves one

through five (1976-1980), Elliott and Huizinga (1983)

likewise found that middle class youth of both sexes are less

likely to be involved in serious offenses, and they commit

fewer offenses when they are involved, compared to lower and

working classes. Both of these studies using NYS data employ

the Hollingshead (1958) index of social class.

The present study employs both family income level and

parents' educational attainment as measures of class. Both

of these measures were obtained from the initial NYS wave in

1976, which included a survey of parents in addition to the

youth survey that would be repeated for subsequent waves.

Thus, these measures were obtained from a time two years

earlier than the other sociodemographic variables, which were

measured at wave three. It is expected that this earlier

measurement will not be problematic because family income and

parental education level are variables that are not likely to

change significantly in that time span. Income was coded as

follows: low ($10,000 and less) (1); medium ($10,001-30,000)

(2); and high (more than $30,000) (3). Twenty-four percent

of the sample reported low family income, 61 percent reported

medium income, and 15 percent reported high income. Income

was found to be significantly correlated with delinquency in

years two through three (r=-.10, p<.01), indicating that the

two variables are not independent. Therefore family income

is retained as a control variable.

Parents' educational attainment was coded as follows:

high (approximating college graduate) (1); medium

(approximating high school graduate) (2); and low

(approximating less than high school graduate) (3). The

scale combines measures of both mother's and father's

schooling. Sixteen percent of the respondents' parents

scored high on education, 44 percent scored medium on

education, and 40 percent had low levels of education.

Similar to family income, education measured in 1976 was

found to be significantly related to respondents' delinquency

in years two (1978) through three (1979) (r=.09, p<.01) and

is retained as a control variable.

Number of Siblings

The influence of siblings on delinquent outcomes has

received relatively little attention although the number of

siblings may be an important variable for a variety of

reasons, including decreased parent-child interaction. Where

there are a greater number of children in a household,

parent-child interaction might be expected to decrease as it

does where there are fewer parents. Farnworth (1984)

reported no significant effects for family size and family

density on a wide range of delinquent behavior among black

youths. But in a review of the literature, Loeber and

Stouthamer-Loeber (1986) reported significant effects for

even small differences in family size. They suggest,

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