Key factors in childhood which may lead to adult criminality

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Husemann, Eron and Dubow (2002) stated that aggressive behaviour in the childhood years is a good indicator of aggressive, anti-social and criminal adult behaviour. In this essay I will examine various theoretical perspectives which highlight factors that are held to contribute to childhood delinquency and may give rise to careers in crime as adults. Secondly, I will identify those factors that are amenable to change at the macro level through policy decisions through state sponsored programmes and training for parents and significant others who may have influence at the micro level of families in the most vulnerable communities. Thirdly, I will list and discuss those factors identified as protective in nature that if implemented, could mitigate the transition from delinquency to crime offending.

Key Factors in Childhood Which May Lead to Adult Criminality

Stages of Parenting

David Smith (2004) in the article entitles "Parenting and Delinquency at ages 12-15 highlighted the critical role that effective parenting can play in the inculcation of respect for society's norms and values such that children would not engage in crime of anti-social behaviour. He identified some distinct dimensions of parenting and family functions and their relations to varying levels of delinquency (1-7). These are; tracking and monitoring, the child's willingness to disclose information, parental consistency, avoiding parent parental consistency, avoiding conflict and exercising punishment. Each of these levels shows the need for direct involvement between parent and child and underscores the notion of the positive or negative influence, parents can have a patterns of behaviour the child presents with. This supports Albert Bandura's Social Learning Theory and emphasizing the need for parents to reward only those behaviours that are acceptable and positive (Isom, 1998).

Influence of Neighbourhoods

Susan Mcvie and Paul Norris (2004) highlighted in their article "Neighbourhood Effects on Genetics, Delinquency and Drug Use" that the communities where children are socialized can exert positive or negative influences. Under ideal circumstances such communities should support those positive values and norms inculcated by parents in families or conversely, should act as the barometer against which the effectiveness of the family unit is measured, supported or corrected. The dilemma is that their (Mcvie and Norris 2004) that their research revealed that delinquency and hard drug use are partially explained by negative characteristics such as deprivation and high crime rates on the one hand and affluence and upper socio-economic structure on the other. Shaw and McKay (1942 cited by McVie and Norris 2004) observed that delinquency is caused by the disruption of social networks and this within communities due to migration. This movement of residents was seen to erode the development of common values that underpin the social order. Conversely, Sampson, Raudenbush and Earls (1997 cited by McVie and Norris 2004) did not agree to the idea that the systems of societal control were about community however it was more about efficiency and usefulness which brings together and share expectations.

Biological Factors

There are several factors that have been identified as contributing factors and lead from childhood behaviour problems to adult criminality. Many of these can be categorized into two main groups of risk factors namely: i.) individual or genetic (nature) characteristics and ii) family or environmental (nurture) characteristics (Farrington 1989, 1991; Hawkings et al 1991, 1998; Lipsey and Derzon 1998; Reiss and Roth 1993; McCoord 1994; Tremblay and Carig 1995; Rotter et al 1998; Tremblay 2000 cited in Hee-Soon 2006). Children who learn violence in their homes, where a parent is abused or is abusive towards the child or in their social environment, poor neighbourhoods where gangs are a reality and where survival of the fittest is a daily routine, carry that cycle of violence with them through their lives and it is usually manifested as aggression, similar violent or anti-social behaviour or possibly internalized hate or anger. Both males and females who experience childhood risk factors have the potential to become adult criminals; however the percentage of females who actually become adult criminals from these predisposing childhood factors is much lower than their male counterparts (Panko 2005; Hee-Soon, Doherty and Ensminger 2006), because females have the ability to channel some of these factors into other psychological issues which are dealt with in a different manner and which express themselves in less criminal manner (Panko 2005). In the following paragraphs some of these factors will be examined to show how they can be the causal agents of adult criminal behaviour.

Literature has no record of any particular gene, like the genes which determines height or hair colour, that determine if the individual will be a criminal or not and that like any other gene can be manipulated (turned off or on) once it is isolated. Therefore it can be safely said that there is no actual gene which make an individual a criminal, however genes do play a very important role. Joseph (2001 p.182 cited in Jones 2005) stated that in the late nineteenth to early twentieth century genetics was held accountable for crimes which were committed and there was even a sterilization effort to ensure the disappearance of "criminals, idiots, imbeciles and rapists" from society. Genes are responsible for human behaviour and also for most psychological illnesses, such as, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Conduct Disorder (CD) and Oppositional Defiance Disorder (ODD) in which the characteristics which manifest themselves in the childhood years have carried through to the adult years (Holmes, Slaughter and Kashani, 2001cited in Jones 2005). While these are not the only genetic based personality disorders which may predispose a child to adult criminality the encompass many of the lesser personality disorders which are also observed as being reasons for this problem.

ODD involve behaviors, such as non-compliance and opposition (Emond 2007, Holmes, Slaughter and Kashani 2001 cited in Jones 2005), which is predominantly directed against authority figures (Emond et al. 2007), while ADHD children are hyper-active both physically and mentally and are unable to keep their concentration trained on one thought, job or activity for any prolonged period. Children with CD behave in a similar manner to those with ODD, where they are seen to be acting against rules, regulations and societal guidelines/norms. These personality disorders are formed as a result of a change in the serotonin levels in the blood (Caron 1999) and are the primary link in the instability of the children confronted with these issues. Most children tend to have all three behavioural problems which is then classified under the heading of Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD), this continues to worsen as the child moves into adult years and manifest itself in criminal actions. ASPD decreases the child's ability to react in a disciplined and regulated or "normal" manner when faced with taxing situations, they become impulsive and move to a high energy state where all actions and meanings are intensified and they are not fully in control of the actions they are taking, in situations such as these anything can and will happen, which may not be the total responsibility of the child. According to Holmes, Slaughter and Kashani (2001 cited in Jones 2005) as the child with a social disease becomes an adult the behaviour more often than not intensifies and other more deviant characteristics such as stealing, vandalism and substance abuse are added to an already unstable and unbalanced personality. To this end therefore no one childhood factor or illness is responsible for adult criminality (English, Widom and Brandford 2002).

Other studies such as adoption and twin studies were carried out to determine the role of genetics in the adult criminality (Simonoff et al. 2004, Jones 2005). These studies show that genetics is important in adult criminality, the paternal twin tests showed some distinct differences which could have been attributed to environmental pressures or associations. Adoption studies show that genetics play an important role as children whose parents were seasoned hardened criminals had a higher rate of deviant and criminal behaviour. Studies among African-Americans, Caucasians and Native American have also shown that abused and neglected African-American males were five times more likely to be arrested as a juvenile (32% versus 6%), and were almost two times more likely to be arrested as an adult (59.5% versus 31.6%), respectively (English, Widom and Stanford 2002).

In most of these cases the study established a correlation between factors responsible for adult criminality. These were environmental factors, such as victimization, parental structure, parental control, poverty and society. Children, unlike adults, were seen as unable to make certain decisions because they were under the legal age to speak for themselves and were seen to survive in neighbourhoods or to which they were assigned by parents or guardians. In such cases, children learn violence from the social groups around their homes and by having to defend themselves from their peers. Studies have also shown that anti-social children who reached adulthood are further complicated with problems such as divorce, low numbers of friends, poor housing and unstable jobs (Bor, McGee, Hayatbakhsh and Najman 2004). In most cases, children (0 years - 12 years) looked to adults for guidance and advice, if the adult in the situation is not giving structured guidance and timely legal advice, then the children were seen to do what was instructed of them.

Environmental Factors

The Social Learning Theory by Albert Bandura, who developed upon work begun by Miller and Dollard (Isom 1998) revealed that children develop attitudes and customs (mannerisms) by watching and then replicating the actions of their parents, siblings and peers. Continuous exposure to such behaviours were seen to lead to reinforcement where the child's reaction to certain circumstances becomes natural through being a learnt response. This is one of the most common methods of learning as children learn almost everything they say, do and manner in which they think by keen observation of persons and consideration of experiences in their environment (Jones 2005). It is then highly probable that children who live in high crime environments or whose parents abuse each other or other persons known to the may exhibit these same violent traits. If the child is living in a violent, gang infested area but they have a structured home with parents who do not exhibit violent tendencies and are not criminals themselves, the child most likely, may not show signs of criminal or violent tendency, as they have a positive role model/ reinforcement at home, that is continuous and unyielding (Bartollas, 1990 pp.145 cited in Isom 1998). This is especially so with boys who look to their father's as their role model and imitate their ways but unfortunately, if the father is a criminal, there is an increased probability that the son will become a criminal as well (Panko 2005).

Albert Bandura (Isom 1998) also identified the media as a prowerful influence on children. Television shows and movies have become even more violent in order to keep them "interesting and action packed". There are simulated reality games which can be played that are based solely on violence. These factors, coupled with the high availability of television, computers and now smart phones means that children are always bombarded with various types of violence. In some cases the lines between reality and fiction become blurred especially where there is no guidance for children, from socially matured persons. Children who are deemed anti-social or "social misfits" because they are predisposed to certain diseases are more likely to internalize and assume the roles of violent characters in such games and movies.

Are These Key Factors Amenable To Change?

Most of the environmental and social risk factors identified and discussed above are amenable to change, as these are the factors which persons have the greatest control over. I believe that most of the social characteristics are amenable to change, as these are the ones we have greatest control over. The factors identified were: poor parental discipline and supervision, inadequate social environment at school and home, peer pressure, underachievement, low wages and bad job retention. Most of these risk factors are amenable to change through the use of correct intervention and preventative methods. It must be remembered that in order to carry out and effect any change through intervention or prevention, there must be guidance or guardianship that closely monitor and evaluate children in their care for any occurrences of the risk factors. In children who also exhibit predisposing genetic factors, they must be nurtured constantly in a social environment which precludes as much of the listed environmental and social risk factors as possible. Once those environmental and social risk factors are eliminated or controlled, then there is only a need to be concerned with the genetic or mental instabilities.

In most cases the change can only come about when all parties involved buy into the need for change. In the case of a child they are most often too young to understand the full ramifications of the need for change and may see it as an attempt to make them unhappy or take them from a comfort zone, however with good communication and strong leadership and guidance abilities the adult/parent/guardian can effect changes such as: relocation to a new neighbourhood or school, changes in socialization patterns, changes in discipline and supervision and introduction of age appropriate materials, speech and actions around the child's environment. The characteristics which must be possessed by any guardian/parent/adult who is trying to effect change in a situation for the betterment of a child is one of perseverance, patience and willpower.

Protective factors

Whereas a risk factor disposes an individual to criminality through genetics, psychological and social issues a protective factor safeguards the individual from criminality through biological, psychological, developmental or family history traits (Psychology Campus n.d). Preventative methods for children with predisposed factors include such things as: positive reinforcement, low tolerance for violence and other aggressive behaviours and supportive guardians/parents/adults. In a study published by the Human Resources and Skills Development Canada (2000) it was identified that where there is a positive attachment to school, there was a significant decrease in property crime and aggressiveness. Therefore the school acts as a protective factor, even though under other circumstances, if there is a negative attachment, it will be a risk factor.

The influence of cognitive thinking, perception, problem-solving, attribution and reasoning are increasingly identified by psychologist as critical to explaining delinquency and crime offending behaviour. The development of treatment programmes for offenders is now seen as the way forward. This strategy has significant potential for providing crime offenders with problem-solving and critical reasoning skills necessary to facilitate their rehabilitation and ultimate reintegration as useful citizens in the wider society.

Families identified as being in need of support in dealing with children that present with various acts of delinquency and crime offending should be provided with training in parental education particularly where children of tender age are involved, preschool education combined with parent development has been identified as beneficial to the long term development of both parent and child (Smith 2004).


I have examined various theoretical perspectives that collectively explored factors that contribute to childhood delinquency and may rise to adult criminality. I have shown that this type of behaviour may be as a consequence of biological, psychological, social or environmental factors. I have established that some of the deficiencies identified either in children or their parents can be addressed through training, counseling and, in some cases, through a clinical chemical regimen. Where the above strategies have been shown to be effective significant potential has been identified for widespread use in order to combat and stem the development of delinquency and crime offending and in some instances to control or reduce the susceptibility of at risk children.