DIRECT PARENTAL CONTROLS
L. EDWARD WELLS
Illinois State University
JOSEPH H. RANKIN
Eastern Michigan University
Until recently, “direct controls” by parents have been summarily dismissed by delinquency researchers as theoretically and empirically unimf
portant. Although prior research indicates that various measures o direct
parental controIs (e.g.. the amount o time spent interacting with parents)
are related to delinquency, the correlations are uniformly weak and often
not signijicant. However, when the term “direct control” is reconceptualized to include specific components-normative regulation, monitoring,
and punishment-the results indicate that direct controls by parents have
as great an impact on delinquency as that o %direct controls” orparenf
tal “attachments.” Further, the results suggest that the form o the relation between direct controls and delinquency is not simple, direct, and
linear. Depending on which specijic component o direct control is
examined, its relationship to delinquency may be either linear or nonlinear, positive or inverse.
Despite a sizable body of empirical research extending across various academic disciplines, the causal connection between the family and delinquency
remains ambiguous and equivocal (Wells and Rankin, 1985, 1986). This
ambiguity may reflect a number of considerations. One problem is the common difficulty in delinquency research of trying to compare the empirical
results of studies that use diverse measures of delinquency (e.g., a single
global index versus multiple specific indices), since family variables may
relate to some particular kinds of delinquency but not to all (Rankin, 1983).
Comparing data collected from different sources (i.e., self-report surveys versus official records) is also uncertain, given the restrictive and selective sampling involved in both official records of delinquency (i.e., the
underestimation of relatively minor and infrequent offenders) and selfreported delinquency (i.e., the underestimation of the very serious and
chronic offenders) that can bias the research results (see Cernkovich et al.,
Another difficulty in attempting to make conceptual and empirical sense of
* An earlier version of this paper was presented at the 38th annual meeting of the
American Society of Criminology in Atlanta, Georgia, 1986.
1. No methodology is without biases. For the purpose of studying family variables,
CRIMINOLOGY VOLUME26 NUMBER
WELLS AND RANKIN
the existing literature is the plethora of family variables empirically related to
delinquency. These include (a) structural variables, such as broken homes,
family size, and birth order (e.g., Gove and Crutchfield, 1982; Rahav, 1981;
Wilkinson et al., 1982); (b) psychological or attitudinal measures of parental
identification and attachment (e.g., Hirschi, 1969; McCord, 1979; Nye, 1958);
and (c) measures of controls and restrictions over children’s behaviors,
including car ownership, freedom to date, amount of time spent with peers,
and type of punishmentheward used to enforce these restrictions (e.g., Bahr,
1979; Gold and Reimer, 1975; Nye, 1958; Welsh, 1976).
Not only is the list of possible family variables long, but their causal connections to delinquency may be explained by a variety of competing conceptual models, including social control and containment theories, strain
theories, social learning theory, and various syntheses of strain and control
theories (e.g., Bahr, 1979; Conger, 1980; Elliott et al., 1985; Johnson, 1979;
Geismar and Wood, 1986; Weis and Hawkins, 1981). Probably the most
widely cited and tested of these theories is Hirschi’s (1969) “social bond”
version of control theory, which depicts the family as the major source of
attachment to the conventional social order. The emphasis on testing Hirschi’s control model (because it is relatively explicit, well developed, and amenable to empirical test) has turned attention away from earlier and more
inclusive conceptualizations of the family in social control terms, such as Nye
(1958). Recent considerations of control theory (e.g., Hirschi, 1983; Patterson, 1980; Wilson and Herrnstein, 1985) indicate that a more complete view
of social control is necessary. The aim in this paper is to test empirically the
relation between delinquency and a somewhat forgotten concept in control
theory-what Nye (1958) calls “direct controls.”
SOCIAL CONTROL THEORIES
A number of control perspectives explain delinquency (or more accurately,
they explain conformity) by variations in juveniles’ “ties” to the conventional
social order (e.g., Briar and Piliavin, 1965; Hirschi, 1969; Nye, 1958; Reckless, 1967; Reiss, 1951). According to Hirschi’s (1969) model, these ties (or
however, it is advantageous to examine self-reports rather than officially recorded delinquency, for at least two reasons. First, a correlation between certain family variables and
officially recorded delinquency may be a statistical artifact-a consequence of differential
law enforcement or reactions to children from “problem” as opposed to “normal” home
settings (see Rankin, 1983; Wells and Rankin, 1985). Second, given the infrequency of the
very serious and chronic offender (estimated to be less than 2%-3% of the population by
Hindelang et al. ), it would be difficult to test social control (or any other) theory by
examining only chronic offenders. Either exceptionally large samples or samples that are
heavily stratified on the basis of known correlates of serious delinquency would be required
for such tests (Hagan et al., 1985). Thus, for our purposes, self-reports offer the less offensive biases.
PARENTAL CONTROLS AND DELINQUENCY
“bonds”) have four components: attachment, involvement, belief, and commitment. These components are positively related to conformity (and to each
other) and are thought to have independent effects on delinquency. The two
components most closely related conceptually to parental controls are attachment and involvement.
“Attachment” refers to the strength of one’s ties to parents, peers, and
school. The premise is that individuals who are not strongly attached to
others are also insensitive to their opinions. Thus, they are not bound by
others’ norms and are free to deviate. On the other hand, those juveniles who
closely identify with (are close to or have positive affect for) their parents are
more likely to take their feelings and opinions into account when and if a
delinquent act is contemplated. As such, attachment is essentially a socialpsychological concept, involving the motivational value of social approval
A juvenile may also be so “involved” in conventional activities that he or
she could not even find the time for delinquent activities. The idea here is
that if juveniles can be kept busy and “off the streets,” then they will not have
time to get into trouble. Almost by definition, a juvenile who is studying,
playing baseball, or spending time with family in other conventional activities
(e.g., picnics, vacations, watching television) is not violating the law.
Nye’s (1958) depiction of control theory is more inclusive, identifying four
types of social control: (1) direct control, based on the application (or threat)
of punishments and rewards to gain compliance with conventional norms;
(2) indirect control, primarily based on affectional attachment to or identification with conventional persons (especially parents); (3) internalized control,
based on the development of autonomous patterns of conformity located in
the individual personality, self-concept, or conscience; and (4) control over
opportunities for conventional and deviant activities whereby compliance
results from restricted choices or alternatives. Although direct restraints can
take many forms (e.g., formal laws or informal customs) and can be imposed
or enforced by a variety of individuals in different social roles (e.g., police,
teachers, peers), Nye viewed the family as the closest and most important
agency of direct control.
Hirschi’s (1969) concepts of attachment and belief correspond conceptually
to Nye’s concepts of indirect and internalized controls, except that Hirschi
locates the conscience in the bond to others rather than making it part of the
individual personality. Hirschi’s concept of involvement and Nye’s concept
of direct control have some conceptual overlap, but they clearly are not identical. Although the premise behind involvement is “time” (“idle hands are
the devil’s workshop”), direct controls are more concerned with the physical
restriction and surveillance of behaviors. Increased involvement in conventional activities does tend to increase the accessibility of youthful behavior to
WELLS AND RANKIN
monitoring and supervision by parents, but it includes other elements of control as well. The notion of involvement is conceptually more ambiguous and
Both Nye and Hirschi argued that for adolescent children, the utility of
direct monitoring and supervision by parents is probably limited, because
youths in this age period are relatively autonomous from their parents and
more involved in peer networks. Although Nye did find an inverse relation
between self-reported delinquency and a number of measures of parental
monitoring, he suggested that its potential for control was limited (Nye, 1958:
it is effective only when the child can expect to be detected in the delinquent act, is actually within the physical limits of the house, or is otherwise under the surveillance of adults. Since there are many times when
the child is outside the sphere of direct control, it cannot be effective by
The implication is that the major impact of the family will be through other
forms of control-principally, indirect ones.
Similarly, Hirschi (1969: 88) argued that direct parental controls offer little effect in controlling delinquent behaviors beyond that already offered
through attachments or indirect controls:
Since most delinquent acts require little time, and since most adolescents
are frequently exposed to situations potentially definable as opportunities
for delinquency, the amount of time spent with parents would probably
be only a minor factor in delinquency prevention. So-called “direct control” is not, except as a limiting case, of much substantive or theoretical
importance. The important consideration is whether the parent is psychologically present when temptation to commit a crime occurs.
RESEARCH ON DIRECT CONTROLS
Earlier research supports the view that adolescent behaviors are generally
not affected by direct parental controls. Items measuring the amount of time
talking with parents, engaging in various activities with parents, and working
around the house indicate the degree to which juveniles will be within the
sphere of direct parental control. Such variables are inversely related to
delinquency but uniformly weak and not statistically significant (e.g., Hirschi,
1969: 88, note 17). Similarly, the correlations between various indicators of
involvement (e.g., after-school jobs, sports activities, club memberships, hobbies, extracurricular school activities) and delinquent behavior reveal few statistically reliable relations (e.g., Hirschi, 1969; Rankin, 1977). Measures of
adolescent freedom and autonomy (e.g., frequency of dating, number of evenings “out” per week, availability of a car, freedom to dress as desired) show
similar patterns of association with delinquency. Statistically significant
PARENTAL CONTROLS AND DELINQUENCY
bivariate correlations are generally but not always in the predicted direction
(e.g., Nye, 1958).
Other empirical evidence on direct control by parents is more indirect and
inferential, relying on proxy variables, such as broken homes, mother’s
employment, and family size, as substitute indicators of (the loss of) direct
control. For instance, the recent literature on broken homes and delinquency
is generally consistent with the views of Nye and Hirschi, based on the
assumption that loss of one (or more) parents results in less direct control
over adolescent behaviors. Recent reviews (e.g., Rankin, 1983; Rosen and
Neilson, 1982; Wells and Rankin, 1985) suggest that, except for relatively
trivial offenses (e.g., running away and truancy), the relation between broken
homes and delinquency is negligible.
Despite the purportedly harmful consequences of mother’s employment on
delinquency, there is little evidence of such effects. Most studies have found
little or no association (e.g., Riege, 1972; Roy, 1963), particularly when other
family variables confounded with employment are controlled. The Gluecks
(Glueck and Glueck, 1957), for example, found that mother’s employment
had no effect on delinquency when the mother was able to arrange for the
supervision and care of her children. When Nye (1958) controlled for background factors, such as socioeconomic status, mother’s education, family size,
and broken homes, the relation between mother’s employment and delinquency was statistically unreliable. Hirschi (1969: 237) found a difference in
delinquency (defined as two or more self-reported acts) of only 4% when
comparing boys from homes in which the mother was employed full time to
homes in which the mother was a housewife (20% and 16%, respectively).
In part, these negligible effects may be explained by recent studies in the marriage and family literature, which indicate that differences in the time spent
on child care between working and nonworking mothers are small (e.g.,
Coser, 1982; Lotz et al., 1985).
One consistent research finding is the positive association between family
size and delinquency (see Hirschi, 1985). A variety of theoretical processes
can be hypothesized to explain this relationship (see Loeber and StouthamerLoeber, 1986): (a) parents with larger families have more difficulty in disciplining and supervising their children (i.e., less “direct” control); (b) a greater
economic strain is placed on parents with larger families, leading to a greater
risk of poverty and overcrowding; (c) parents with larger families are more
likely to delegate child rearing to older siblings, who may not have the requisite skills for such a task; and (d) larger families may increase the risk of
exposure to a delinquent sibling. As with the “broken home” and “working
mother” variables, however, the association between family size and delinquency is exceedingly small (Rosen, 1985).
WELLS AND RANKIN
In sum, although broken homes, working mothers, and large families have
provided convenient ideological targets, their actual empirical impacts on
delinquency appear negligible. The difficulty in generalizing from these findings, however, is that such variables involve structural conditions that are
only inferentially and indeterminately tied to direct control. At best, they
provide very crude indicators of the loss of direct parental control.
More recently, however, a few delinquency researchers appear to have
“rediscovered” direct parental controls. In a study that assessed the relative
explanatory power of key elements of four theories of delinquency, Smith and
Paternoster (1987) included two measures of parental supervision (“How
often do your parents know ‘where you are’lwhom you are with’ when you
are away from home?”) as reflective of social control theory’s bond of family
attachment. Cernkovich and Giordano (1987) used a similar measure to
assess the relative impact of various family elements on delinquency, and
Hagan et al. (1985) examined comparable parental measures to test a “powercontrol” theory of delinquency.
These three studies all found statistically significant relations between
direct parental controls and delinquency. In fact, based upon the size of the
correlations, the effect of direct controls on delinquency was just as great (if
not greater) as that of indirect controls or attachments (see Cernkovich and
Giordano, 1987). This finding is somewhat unexpected given (a) the conceptual and theoretical statements by Nye (1958) and Hirschi (1969) dismissing
the importance of direct controls, (b) the earlier empirical research that found
only small or statistically unreliable relationships between various measures
of direct parental controls and delinquency, and (c) these more recent empirical studies examined only one aspect of direct parental controls (i.e., supervision). As we now suggest, there are at least three conceptually distinct
aspects of direct parental controls.
What conceptual significance do these results have for understanding the
utility of direct parental control over juvenile misbehaviors? Are direct controls theoretically and empirically irrelevant, as suggested by Nye and Hirschi? Or, are the effects of direct controls still relevant but not in the simple,
linear, and bivariate form assumed in earlier studies?
Attempts to answer such questions must address both conceptual and
empirical issues. Conceptually, a fuller explication of the notion of direct
control is required-what it includes and what its conceptual structure might
be. Indeed, the conceptual and empirical distinction between direct and indirect parental controls is often confused and blurred (e.g., see Rosen, 1985;
PARENTAL CONTROLS AND DELINQUENCY
Wilson and Herrnstein, 1985). Drawing upon research and theory in developmental psychology (e.g., Patterson, 1980, 1982), we suggest that what is
generally termed “direct parental control” actually has three basic components: normative regulation, monitoring, and punishment.2
First, normative regulation refers to the process by which parents specify
the rules, constraints, and criteria for their children’s behavior. Parents may
determine, for example, what activities children can engage in, who their
friends are, how they dress, and so on. This part of “laying down the law” is
an explicit specification of parental expectations and restrictions.
A second component of direct control is monitoring children’s behaviors
for compliance or noncompliance. This involves parents’ surveillance or
supervision of children’s activities, such as checking to see if family rules are
followed. Some parents simply do not make their children accountable for
their behaviors. For example, parents may not supervise their children’s recreational activities, inquire about their homework, enforce a regular bedtime
hour, or care about their choice of friends (Nye, 1958). In short, parents may
spend insufficient time interacting with and monitoring their children’s
behaviors, thereby making it easier for them to engage in delinquent behaviors. In a major review and reanalysis of research that examined family correlates of juvenile misconduct, Loeber and Stouthamer-Loeber ( 1986) found
nine studies in which lack of parental supervision was significantly (but
weakly) related to delinquency. A more recent study by Cernkovich and
Giordano (1987), however, suggests that the effect of parental supervision (as
measured by the size of the correlation coefficients)is at least as strong as that
for family attachments or indirect controls.
The third component of direct parental control is discipline or punishment-applying negative (unwanted) sanctions to misbehavior and deviation.
This involves the consequences administered by parents for rule violations.
The last part of “laying down the law” seems to involve “picking up the rod.”
One complication is that punishment is not a single, unitary variable, but
rather reflects multiple component issues, such as severity, contingency, frequency, consistency, perceived fairness, and so on. Also, the term “punishment” has been used to denote a variety of disciplinary practices, including
paddling and hitting, yelling and scolding, and the withdrawal of affection
and privileges. As Walters and Grusec’s (1977) review indicates, punishment
2. What we call “direct parental control” basically involves the insfrumenful control
of children’s behaviors through the use of rewards and punishments. It is “coercive” and
mostly negative, aimed at inhibiting undesired responses. Although it seems equivalent
with what frequently is termed “parental discipline,” we prefer the term “direct control” as
more neutrally descriptive. In common usage, the term “discipline” has a more ambiguous
reference, including a variety of meanings and connotations. In this analysis, we use the
term “discipline” to refer more specifically to the administration of punishment.
WELLS AND RANKIN
as a social scientific concept is a much more complex idea than ordinary
usage of this term suggests.
Although the traditional child development literature consistently reports a
positive relation between punishment and children’s antisocial behaviors (see
Patterson, 1980), the association is not strong. Loeber and StouthamerLoeber’s (1986) review, for example, found only a very weak and often nonsignificant relation between physical punishment and children’s aggression.
Moreover, none of these studies analyzed “normal” (e.g., random) samples of
The relation (or lack of it) between punishment and delinquency also
presents a problem in causal interpretation. Given that delinquent children
commit punishable behavior more often than nondelinquents, the same rate
of punishment would produce a higher absolute frequency of punishment for
delinquents than for nondelinquents. In fact, the more frequent punishment
of delinquents may actually reduce their rate of misconduct. Because their
rate of misconduct is already high, however, it may appear that more frequent punishment actually causes more frequent delinquency. “Thus, measuring the amount of one reinforcer (e.g., physical punishment) without
taking into account the other reinforcers at work (the context of reinforcement) can easily lead to erroneous conclusions” (Wilson and Herrnstein,
Which aspects of punishment are causally important? Patterson (1980,
1982) argues that it is not the frequency or the severity of punishment, but
rather its consistency and contingency that affects the content of children’s
behaviors. Parents of misbehaving children lack the requisite skills to know
how to punish effectively. Thus, punishment may occur (even frequently and
vigorously), but it results in little control over misbehavior. Undoubtedly,
there are additional conceptual distinctions that can be made. At present,
there are few clear predictions regarding which distinct elements of “punishment” are likely to involve important differences in effect.
In empirical terms, this review indicates that there is actually little “hard”
data regarding the impact of direct parental control over delinquency.
Existing research is sketchy and based on a loose assortment of presumed
measures of direct control. To some degree, this lack of systematic data is
due to a deficiency in conceptual explication. Without a clear specification of
the essential ideas, it is difficult to know what is a good measure; without
good measures, it is difficult to collect informative data. Our aims in this
analysis are expository and exploratory: to indicate conceptually what the
relevant content of direct parental control variables might be and to examine
empirically what relationships they have with delinquency.
PARENTAL CONTROLS AND DELINQUENCY
This study analyzes the Youth in Transition panel data originally collected
by Bachman (Bachman, 1970; Bachman et al., 1978). The data set includes
four waves of surveys administered to a nationwide sample of boys who were
in the 10th grade in 1966. The first survey was given to respondents at the
beginning of their sophomore year in high school, and the remaining surveys
were administered during the spring of the following years in school and 1
year after high school. A 1.5-year interval separates the first and second
waves, in the panel and a 1-year interval separates the remaining waves. The
sample employs a multistage sampling procedure: weighted cluster sampling
in the first stage, with high schools as sampling units; simple random sampling of boys within each school in the second stage. A total of 2,277 boys
were selected into the sample list, 2,213 of whom (over 97%) agreed to participate in the initial survey. With each wave in the panel, the number of
respondents was reduced; however, 85.2% of the first wave were present in
the second wave, and 73.2% were still in the sample at the fourth wave.
Surveys in the initial wave were administered to groups of respondents in
school settings; subsequent surveys were administered individually in neutral
sites (away from school and home).
This analysis uses only the first and second waves in the panel, i.e., the
surveys during the sophomore and junior years in high school. This corresponds to the point in adolescence (15 to 17 years old) at which delinquent
activities are most frequent and problematic. These data include 1,886
respondents (82.8% of the original sample list), although the number used in
specific analyses may be less due to missing information on some variables.
For a fuller description of procedures on sampling and data collection, see
Bachman (1970) or Bachman et al. (1978).
MEASUREMENT OF VARIABLES
Four variables were used to measure the multidimensional content of direct
parental control. These variables were selected to correspond closely to the
dimensions of direct control of children by parents described earlier-regulation, monitoring, and punishment. The specific variables include: (1) regulation/restriction (a summary index of five items indicating the degree to which
parents decided their sons’ friends and activities); (2) strictness (a two-item
index of how strict respondents rated their parents to be); (3) punishment
contingency (a one-item measure of how frequently parents ignored rather
than punished wrongdoing); and (4) punitiveness (a summary index of four
WELLS AND RANKIN
items rating how vigorously and frequently parents punished their sons, ranging from yelling to hitting). All of these measures are based on sons’ (respondents’) ratings of parental behavior during the first panel survey, when the
respondents were high school sophomores.
Although nominally based on face validity, these measures of parental control correspond closely to measurements used in other studies of family discipline (see Cernkovich and Giordano, 1987; Johnson, 1979; Miller et al., 1986;
Norland et al., 1979; Smith and Paternoster, 1987). Reliability estimates
(alpha coefficients of internal consistency) for the family control variables are
.55 for regulation/restriction, .55 for strictness, and .73 for punitiveness.
Six variables are used to measure involvement in juvenile delinquency.
Each of the indices is an average score, constructed by adding the scores from
each individual delinquency item and dividing that sum by the total number
of items answered by the respondent.3 Four of these variables index specific
types of delinquent activity: (1) school delinquency (a seven-item scale reflecting serious misconduct at school and truancy); (2) theft-vandalism (a nineitem scale reflecting property offenses, such as theft, trespassing, damaging
property, setting fires); (3) assault-threat (an eight-item scale reflecting
offenses against persons, such as hitting, fighting, or strong-arming, as well as
carrying weapons); and (4) trouble with parents (a three-item index reflecting
“family delinquency,” such as running away from home and physically fighting with parents). A fifth variable, trouble with police, involves a single item
asking whether the youth had gotten into trouble with the police or authorities (self-reported). This latter measure corresponds to the type of events
included in officially recorded data on delinquency. The sixth variable measures total delinquency and involves a summary (average) score of 26 assorted
delinquency items. All the delinquency items were measured during the second panel survey (at the end of the 1lth grade) and cover self-reported incidents during the 1.5-year interval between the first and second surveys. Thus,
the measurement of delinquent behaviors is temporally subsequent to the
measurement of direct parental control variables.
The content of the separate delinquency scales is based on earlier research
by Gold (1966) and corresponds closely to the categories of delinquency suggested in other studies (e.g., Elliott and Huizinga, 1983; Hindelang et al.,
1981; Snyder and Patterson, 1987). Although information on the internal
3. The use of an averaged index score is statistically equivalent to a summed total
score, being simply a linear transformation of the total sum, i.e., multiplied by the constant
(l/N). However, use of an average score allows for easier and more direct comparisons
between indices based on different numbers of component items. Also, an average score
allows computation of an index when information may be missing on one of the component
items, since the summary value of the index does not depend strictly on the number of
items used to compute it.
PARENTAL CONTROLS AND DELINQUENCY
consistency of these scales is not available, test-retest reliabilities (using correlations between first and second surveys) are: .82 for school delinquency, .54
for thefthandalism, .49 for assaulthhreat, and .69 for total delinquency.4
First, we examined the form of the association between direct control and
delinquency to determine whether the relationship is linear or nonlinear. All
direct control measures were coded as three-category variables, and mean
levels of delinquency were compared across categories using ANOVA procedures. This provided both an estimate of the strength of association between
parental control and delinquency variables as well as a test of the linearity of
For one measure of direct control (perceived strictness of parents), the
association with delinquent behaviors is clearly nonlinear (see Figure 1).
That is, medium levels of perceived parental strictness show the lowest levels
of self-reported delinquency, but low and high strictness result in higher
delinquency. The relationship with delinquency is generally linear for the
three other types of direct parental controls, although the differences for regulation/restriction are rather weak for most forms of delinquency and inconsistent in direction (see Figure 2). The two other control variables,
representing components of punishment (contingency and punitiveness), both
show appreciable and consistent associations with all forms of delinquent
behavior (see Figures 3 and 4).
The patterns shown in Figures 1 through 4 hold rather consistently across
different indicators of delinquent activity. The one exception to this trend
occurs for regulation/restriction, where the sign of the correlation changes
for two forms of delinquency-trouble with parents (reflecting mainly running away behaviors) and assaulthhreat. These types of delinquency may
reflect expressive, hostile, rebellious responses to parental attempts at regulation. Indeed, for 15-year olds (such as the respondents in our sample), strong
parental control may be interpreted as an intrusion on their privacy and independence, thus prompting selective “acting out” forms of misbehavior rather
than generalized delinquency. However, because the levels of correlation for
4. Information on individual delinquent acts is not available (in order to maintain
confidentiality of individual answers); only summary index scores are provided for those
items that have clearly illegal content. Thus, we could not compute the inter-item correlations needed for estimating alpha coefficients of reliability. However, using the stability
coefficients reported in Bachman et al. (1978: 292), we estimated reliabilities using the
correlations between delinquency scores in the first and second surveys through the estimation strategy suggested by Heise (1969) for panel data.
5. We used the BREAKDOWN procedure in SPSSX. This computes both r and eta
as correlation coefficients and computes an F-test (for differences between r and eta) to test
statistically for nonlinearity.
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Average Delinquency Scores by Levels o f S t r i c t n e s s
T o t a l Del
T r b l e w/ P o l i c e
Assaul t / T h r e a t
T r b l e w/ Parents
Level o f Parental S t r i c t n e s s
PARENTAL CONTROLS AND DELINQUENCY
Average Delinquency Scores by Levels o f R e g u l a t i o n / R e s t r i c t i o n
As s au 1 t/ Th r e a t
T r b l e w/ Parents
Level o f Parental R e g u l a t i o n / R e s t r i c t i o n
H i ah
WELLS AND RANKIN
regulation/restriction with delinquency are quite low, we must be cautious in
To test for the possibility that the relation between parental controls and
delinquent behaviors may be spurious (reflecting earlier involvement in delinquency), we repeated the analyses separately for groups high and low in prior
delinquency. Although effect sizes were attentuated slightly due to more
restricted variance in the dependent variable, the basic patterns persist and do
not depend on prior delinquent involvement.
Two patterns of special interest should be noted. One is the direction of
the relationship between punitiveness and delinquent behaviors, which is a
positive association (see Figure 4). More vigorous (frequent or severe) punishment is associated with higher levels of delinquency. This pattern persists
even when prior levels of delinquency are controlled (not shown here); thus,
the correlation is not an artifact of confused causal order. The second pattern
of interest is the nonlinear association between perceived parental strictness
and delinquency-medium strictness results in the lowest levels of delinquency (see Figure 1). These patterns indicate that the relation between
direct controls and delinquency is variable (albeit in consistent ways). The
effects of “more control” on curbing delinquency do not follow a simple and
Our initial results suggest that the form of the relationship is dependent on
which aspect of control is being examined. For some dimensions, the relation
is nonlinear and cannot be estimated well by ordinary correlational procedures (e.g., multiple regression, path analysis, LISREL) that assume linear
relations between variables. For those variables that do have linear relationships with delinquency, the direction of the relation varies among different
components of control.
A second question concerns the magnitude of the relationships between
direct parental controls and delinquency. Are they large enough to be statistically reliable? Which variables have the greatest impact on delinquency?
Table 1 displays the coefficients of correlation between the four measures of
direct control and six delinquency items, using Pearson’s r to measure linear
associations and eta to measure nonlinear associations. For three of the four
control variables (i.e., strictness, punishment contingency, and punitiveness),
the coefficients are moderate (mostly between .1 and .2) and statistically significant. For regulation/restriction, the coefficients (eta’s) are not statistically
reliable. Of the four measures of direct parental control, punitiveness is the
most strongly and consistently related to delinquency. One indicator of delinquency (trouble with police) relates less consistently with all the direct control measures. This latter variable (involving only a single-item measure of a
rare occurrence) has more restricted variance than the other delinquency
indicators, which constrains the size of its correlations.
When all the measures of direct control are simultaneously examined in a
PARENTAL CONTROLS AND DELINQUENCY
Average Delinquency Scores by Levels o f Punishment Contingency
T r b i e w/ P o l i c e
Level o f Punishment Contingency
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Average Delinquency Scores by Levels o f Punitiveness
Level o f Parental Punitiveness
H i qh
Direct Control Variables
** p < .001
p < .01
(e) indicated etu coefficients for that column (nonlinear relationships).
(r) indicates Pearson r coefficients for that column (linear relationships).
N s for the coefficients range between 1,561 and 1,830, reflecting pairwise deletion of missing data
Table 1. Correlations Between Direct Parental Controls and Delinquent Behaviors
WELLS AND RANKIN
multiple regression (see column 5 of Table l), the combined (multiple) correlations with delinquent behavior are statistically significant (at the .01 level or
beyond) but not especially large. This pattern is generally consistent with
multiple R’s reported in similar large-scale survey data of self-reported delinquency (e.g., Johnson, 1979; Norland et al., 1979; Wiatrowski et al., 1981).
When all direct control variables are included simultaneously in a multiple
regression, the same patterns of relationship hold as in the bivariate analyses,
except that the (partial) correlation between punishment contingency and
delinquency is reduced appreciably. As an additional comparison, the pattern of relationships between direct control variables and delinquent behaviors remains fairly constant even when four measures of “indirect parental
control” (i.e., attachment to parents, communication with parents, perceptions that parents care, and parental support) are included in the multiple
regression. The magnitudes of the direct control coefficients are reduced only
slightly when indirect control variables are introduced, and the basic patterns
of associations remain unchanged.
Our results indicate that measures of direct parental control do relate in
consistent ways to the occurrence of delinquent behavior. Thus, such variables should not be summarily dismissed as theoretically and empirically
irrelevant, as suggested by earlier research. Indeed, despite Hirschi’s (1985)
apparent change of heart, parental “functioning” or “child-rearing’’ variables
are rarely highlighted in delinquency theory and research. Instead, “indirect
controls” (Nye, 1958) or parental “attachments” (Hirschi, 1969) are viewed
as the more critical variable in controlling delinquent behaviors. Our
research suggests, however, that even when controlling statistically for the
effects of “attachments,” direct parental controls are significantly related to
various measures of delinquency. Direct controls by parents are at least as
effective (based on the magnitude of correlation coefficients) as measures of
indirect controls or attachments (also, see Cernkovich and Giordano, 1987).
Our results also indicate that the form of the relation between direct control and delinquency is not simple, direct, and linear. Conceptually, “direct
control” over delinquent behavior is a complex, multidimensional set of
processes in which distinct component dimensions of control operate in very
different ways. In some cases, parental attempts to control children have a
nonlinear relation to delinquency; either too much or too little control leads
to greater frequency of delinquent behavior. In other cases, the relation is
generally linear. The direction of such relationships is also variable, however.
Some kinds of control increase delinquency, and other kinds inhibit it. Only
one indicator of delinquency (trouble with police) relates less consistently
with all the direct control measures. This variable may be more indicative of
PARENTAL CONTROLS AND DELINQUENCY
social circumstances and police reactions than it is of delinquent behavior. As
a variable indicating an uncommon event, it also has rather restricted variance, which limits the size of its correlations.
Such conclusions are consistent with recent conclusions drawn in other
areas of social and psychological research concerning the issue of social control. For instance, recent work in experimental and developmental psychology (e.g., Walters and Grusec, 1977) has modified earlier ideas about the
supposed ineffectiveness of punishment as a way to shape behavior and learning. According to this research, punishment works, but its effects are not
generally simple and linear; some punishment is often effective but more is
not always better. In similar terms, Miller et al. (1986) found a nonlinear
relation between adolescents’ perceptions of parental strictness/rules and
adolescent sexual experience (intercourse). Sexual permissiveness was highest
among adolescents who perceived their parents as not being strict at all and
having few rules, lowest among those who perceived their parents as moderately strict, and intermediate among those who perceived their parents to be
very strict and to have many rules. Rollins and Thomas (1979) reached a
similar conclusion in their view of over 230 studies of parental control and
support: very low and very high levels of parental control were least effective
in obtaining desired behaviors from children. Loeber and Stouthamer-Loeber
(1986) also concluded that both strict and punitive as well as lax and erratic
disciplinary styles are related to child conduct problems (including delinquency). The conclusion in this literature is that after a generation or more of
neglect (due more i-o ideological than empirical factors), new research is
needed to detail what kinds of punishment work, under what conditions, and
with what effects, as well as to elaborate the dimensional structure of
The situation in the sociology of delinquency is remarkably similar. Earlier
dismissal of direct parental control was not grounded in a clear empirical
demonstration of its disutility, but rather in an ideological preference for
other forms of social control. At this point, researchers cannot say they know
very much about the operation of direct social control; much of what is
“known” is based on indirect evidence or borrowed from other fields of study
(e.g., Hirschi, 1983; Wilson and Herrnstein, 1985). The comparative impact
of direct versus indirect forms of control have yet to be elaborated or tested.
Also unclear are the probable interdependencies between direct and indirect
control that condition their effects. Subsequent research might explore, for
instance, the hypothesized interaction (e.g., Hirschi, 1983) between direct
parental control and attachment, where effective parental discipline is conditional on a strong parent-child bond. Our aim here is to begin an examination in that direction and to suggest its utility to the sociology of delinquency.
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L. Edward Wells. Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice, Illinois State University.
Current research interests include social psychological models of delinquency and crime,
juvenile victimization, and family factors as they relate to delinquency.
Joseph H. Rankin. Ph.D. in 1978 from the University of Arizona. Currently, Associate
Professor of Sociology at Eastern Michigan University. Major research interest includes
the etiological study of delinquency and behavioral problems in children, especially as they
relate to the family.