Families, Delinquency and Crime: A Cycle of Learning, Violence and Change

         Instructions on how to behave publicly, using your indoor voice, proper etiquette, respect for others and doing unto others as they have done unto you are all examples of teaching passed on from generation to generation through verbal communication and examples. We’ve all learned through the gentle, loving scolding of parents, grandparents and adult family members. Many times these adult figures forget that we also learn by observing their actions and behaviors. While we learn the good, too many children are learning the bad: violence and deviance, resulting in antisocial behavior. Violence and antisocial behavior have long been associated with past experiences and the way        reared or their upbringing. This often leads to a “cycle of violence” that is most evident in the way we treat and do others within our own familial structure.

            The sociological term “cycle of violence” is the repititious acts of violence between familial or peer groups, performed in a cyclical pattern, the acts involve extreme emotions and often follows the pattern of vengeance, “doing unto others as they have done unto you,” “an eye for an eye,” “if it was don’t to me it is a must I do it to you.” This sets a very dangerous precedence within families as the children who are reared to think whatever is done to them they must do it to their children. This term is generally associate with abuse, if children were disciplined with corporal punishment they will more than likely discipline their children with corporatl punishment and thus this cycle continues from generation to generation. Many do not see anything wrong with corporal punishment but what happens when it goes beyond simple discipline? Many times parents discipline in anger and use unapproved methods to “discipline.” To often children are hit too hard or with the wrong object and the line is crossed where marks, bruising, lesions and skin breakage occurs during these corporal punishments. This is very much abuse and if it is passed on from generation to generation this continues the cycle, a cycle of abuse. When older siblings are angry or upset, in these settings, they tend to use physical force to get their way or to punish the young siblings or relatives. They are angry and hurt and this is their only method of  lashing out is hitting as they have been hit. These children often times become parents who use the same force and method of discipline and the cycle will continue unless change is made. Women who we often assoicate as the docile, loving parent is often a victim or the victimizer herself. How can she help others if she has only learned to love through violence.

            There is a double jeopardy when women who have been abused or victimized reach out to help others. Is she trained properly on how to cope? Will her helping others open her wounds, surpressed, yet not healed? Will her reliving the horrors of her experience cause her to react negatively and start or return to a cycle of abuse? While having another woman to guide can be very helpful as we can relate more closely to what is familiar, and if a woman was abused by a man she willmore likely not want to open up to a man. When former female victims help other female victims through abuse, a very tough time, one must be very careful that the guide does not become in need of guidance. If the strength, willpower and desire to help others is within, a former victim of abuse can be a great role model and helper to victims to end the cycle of violence and to end their victim status. The mental and emotional state of both the teacher and victim must be taken into consideration and monitored to ensure both are continuing on the proper path to healing so that one is not being coerced into returning unbeknown to the other to a life and cycle of abuse again.

            Gerald R. Patterson, Ph.D. believed that aggressive behavior developed within families when parents or adult members attempted to coerce, pay or bribe the children as the main method for controlling the children’s behaviors and actions.  These methods generally start when children are very young to control the “terrible twos” or to get a child to stop disruptive behavior in public. As the children get older,   coercion and bribes don’t seem to work so parents must move on the bigger items to appease the child. But what happens when a parent feels they should no longer have to coerce, bribe or pay a child in order for them to not misbehave? Their children are adolescents or young adults and they should know how to behave without a parent resorting to coercion. Very often the children respond very negatively and aggressively because they are not happy with the new order. Their expectations have not been met so they respond in a way to get attention and hopefully change the mind of the parent to give them what they expect. Often times they result to hitting parents, siblings and other family members to get what they want or they will take it from them. If they see something they want they very often resort to violence, deviant and criminal behavior to get what it is that they want. At some point it does not matter if what they want belongs to a family member or not, in their mind they want it and they should have it. This often is passed on to their offspring so a cycle of abuse to get what you want is implemented. The coercion model sets a very dangerous precedence in a child’s life because they grow to think that they should be paid to do what they should be doing anyway. When they are not getting what they want at home they often rebel and look to outside forces for guidance. This can lead to their resorting to coercion and bullying of their current peers. Isolation from these peers means loneliness and an opportunity for the dredges of society to move in and further alienate those that are already isolated, angry and vulnerable. When this happens these children will learn additional deviant, criminal and disrespectful behavior. They socialize and learn from those who they feel care the most, those with the same attitude and negative way of thinking.

            In 1966, Ronald Akers and Robert Burgess introduced the Social Learning Theory to explain how the social pressure of peers and intervention or response of parents to control and discourage delinquency in their children, resulted in deviant behavior. Originally the Social Learning Theory was derived from the work of Gabriel Tarde, noted French sociologist and social pyschologist, proposed that social learning occurred through three stages of imitation: A.) intimate contact, B.) mimicking superiors, and C.) insertion. Edwin Sutherland used both intimate contact and mimicking superiors in his Differential Association Theory. His model for learning through socialization was dependent upon cultural conflict and various factors in society, or those who had the power to determine what was deviant and what was not. It was difficult to gather empirical data to prove his model. Burgess, a behavioral sociologist, and Akers reworked  Sutherland’s theory to include various reinforcement methods to change the variables that  vary the level of a behavior. Akers and Burgess also utilized the principles of Operant Psychology, the belief that behavior is a function of consequences. Both studies found factors such as biological, psychological, other factors; and individual differences may affect the interaction between the individual and the social group. Basically it takes many factors to determine behavior but the common thread is learning by watching others. The concept of vicarious learning.

            Vicarious learning is the learning through watching others. This method of   learning is often referred to as observational or social learning. Vicarious learning can be done at any age, it is believed that essentially vital in early childhood when authority is most important.Vicarious learning is mainly associated with the works of noted psychologist Albert Bandura.  Bandura performed several case studies on observational and social learning. In 1963, Bandura performed his infamous Bobo Doll Experiment. Bandura’s study was designed to evaluate social learning or learning through imitation. Children were exposed to adults, male and female in various activities. Some of the Children did not view an adult engaged in any activity.  As a result of his study, Bandura proved that the children exposed to aggressive adults were more likely to act out in more aggressive ways towards others. Children who witnessed nonaggressive adults or who did not observe any adult, rarely, if ever, displayed aggressive behaviors. The gender results supported Bandura’s hypothesis that children are more influenced by adults of the same sex as themselves. Boys exposed to aggressive  male adults acted more aggressive than boys exposed to aggressive females. The same was found in girls who were exposed to aggressive females, however, the results were less dramatic than the boys. It it was proven that males are more aggressive than females in all instances of exposure to aggression. This study is especially important because it shows how a cycle or pattern of violence in children can be initiated from simply watching adults engaging in these activities. Often, through familial adults,  is how children learn certain behaviors. If children observe an adult figure engaged in abusive, deviant or criminal activity, they tend to think they are not doing anything wrong. Children take on these behaviors as being okay, not necessarily right,  but they see nothing wrong with doing them. They have learned ways to not follow the rules of society. Parenting properly is a big factor in rather or not a child will start or stay on a path of deviance and delinquent behavior.

There are several methods of parent but we will address the main two: authoritarian and permissive. Authoritarian parenting is a parent-centered method in which parents have high expectations of adhereance to their rules and directives. There is very little disucssion between the parent and the child; the child is supposed to simply do as the parent dictates, without question. This often leads to a cold affect on the relationship. Permissive parenting is a child-centered method in which parents expectations are few, if any, in the way of behavior of their child or children. This concept is thought to have a have warm affect.  While both methods can be affective for parenting, both can have negative consequences on the future behavior of the child. Authoritarian parenting while it teaches respect for authority it can also teach children to hate authority and rebel against it. They will act out commit crimes and continuously try and fight against that which they feel has oppressed them. Permissive parenting, while warm, can be just as dangerous. These children often thing the world is centered around them. They feel they don’t have to listen to anyone and can do as they please because this has been the way it always has been. They have no respect nor desire for authority because they have not been taught that rules must be followed and that they are not the only one in charge. While they may not act out violently, they still do not understand the concept of authority and until that is taught, often by the criminal justice system, they can engage in criminal acts thinking they can do whatever it is they want to do. I don’t feel either of these methods of parenting are affective because neither has a grey area. While authority must be respected, inorder for a child to grow they must be heard. That does not mean a parent will comply but the child will learn that they do have a voice and that their thoughts, feelings and desires are respected.

A life of crime usually starts at an early age,through social learning, vicarious learning and a cycle of violence. While all of these can contribute to a lifetime of criminal activity, I feel that the most influential are social and vicarious learning. As children, we take on the attitude and actions of those we look up to and who are of authority in our lives: parents, adult relatives and adult figures. If they engage in antisocial, deviant and criminal acts, we learn to do the same. Even after the criminal justice system intervention, often times this behavior continues because many learn from within the walls of a jail or prison, return to society and have not changed their social environment. They continue to learn and do as others around them do. Vicarious and social learning are the stongest influences in any young person’t life. They so often want to mimick and be like what they perceive as a strong authority figure or hero. Rather their behavior is right or wrong, they do as they see them do and unless they see an adult authority figures make a change how can we expect those who are looking up to them to learn any differently. We are quite impressionable when we are young and unless we are taught to think for ourselves, taught to love ourselves, encouraged to analyze the difference between right and wrong and to correct deviant, antisocial, delinquent  and  behavior, a life of adult criminal activities is almost a guarantee. Parents and adult figures must set the tone for children’s behaviors as adults through proper guidance and teaching. Parents and adult figures must and teach children to respect others, the difference between right and wrong as well as to respect authority to set the proper foundation to a life void of adult criminal behavior.


Akers, Ronald L.  Social Learning and Social Structure: A General Theory of Crime and Deviance. Boston: Northeastern University Press 1998

Bandura, Albert. Aggression: A Social Learning Analysis. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall 1973

Reid, John B, Patterson, Gerald R., Snyder, James J. Antisocial Behavior in Children and Adolescents: A Developmental Analysis and Model for Intervention.  Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association 2002

Simons, Ronald L., Simons, Leslie Gordon, Wallace, Lora Ebert. Families, Delinquency, and Crime: Linking Society’s Most Basic Institution to Antisocial Behavior. California: Roxbury 2004