The concept of parental liability laws – in other words, taking a harsher stance toward parents for a juvenile’s crime – has created its share of controversy. On the other hands, advocates claimed that parents did have the proper influence over children, and should be responsible if parents don’t know where their children are, or what they are doing, they are accountable for the children’s illegal acts (Tyler et al, 2000). However, those who point out that child doesn’t learn to be held accountable if they commit crimes and even the strictest parenting don’t prevent a teenager from doing something stupid or reckless. Others point out that by punishing parents for what children do, the root cause of the crime isn’t uncovered (Tyler et al, 2000).These arguments simply don’t hold water. Parental accountability is very important when it comes to raising a child. Certainly teenagers (and adolescents) will get into mischief. But if parents are unwilling to take responsibility for learning what their children are up to (or where their children are), they need to be punished if their children misbehave, or even if they break the law.
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Parental Influence on Children
Though parental liability laws are creating a great deal of controversy, there is little doubt that parents exert a huge influence on children and their behaviour. One research proves that alcoholics were likely to have parents who were alcoholics, while domestic abusers were likely abused themselves as children. Academic and research literature contains a wealth of information tying parental influence to children’s behaviour. In the area of peer influence, for example, Chen et al (2007) note that, in a study among California and Wisconsin high school students, it was found that parental influence on peer affiliation still is significant even as parental involvement in adolescents’ lives diminishes. But it isn’t only growing teens that respond to parental influences. Infants, even very young infants, respond to parental stress and react to it (Molfese et al, 2010). In fact, it has been revealed that parental stress and/or reaction can actually have an impact on vocabulary and cognitive development (Molfese et al, 2010).
On the other side we’ve seen literature extolling the positive benefits of tools such as parental training on the success of children. For example, Sheely-Moore and Bratton (2010) discussed how a family-oriented, strengths-based approach toward working with lower-income African American families helped raise children’s grades while lowering school discipline problems. The authors in this study pointed to the need of positive parental involvement on children’s academic achievement and socio-economic development, though pointed out that parental involvement can be difficult for those who live in poverty (Sheely-Moore and Bratton, 2010).
Furthermore, it has been proven that parental influence also has an influence on driving among their teenage offspring (Crawford-Faucker, 2009). According to the National Young Driver Survey (involving 5,665 students in grades 9 through 11) parenting styles had a definite impact on choices the young drivers made (Crawford-Faucker, 2009). The authoritative parenting style combining emotional support with clear rules and monitoring had a definite (and positive) influence on driving-related behaviours and other attitudes among adolescents (Crawford-Faucker, 2009). These teens had a lower crash risk, experienced fewer crashes as passengers and were twice as likely to wear seat belts as a driver (or passenger) then were teens with uninvolved parents (Crawford-Faucker, 2009). Furthermore, this group reported less alcohol use (Crawford-Faucker, 2009).
But harsh verbal and physical discipline isn’t necessary the way to go, either. McKee et al (2007) studied harsh verbal and physical discipline and child problem behaviours in a sample of 2,582 parents and their fifth and sixth grade children. The findings indicated that the harsh discipline was associated with child behaviour problems, with one dimension of positive parenting – parental warmth – helping to buffer children from the more detrimental influences of the harsher physical discipline (McKee et al, 2007).
In this section that parents have a huge influence on their kids, whether those kids are tiny, helpless infants or defiant teenagers. Children tend to mimic their parents, for better or for worse. Some years ago, the organization Partnership for a Drug-Free America aired a series of advertisements showing a father breaking into his son’s room, drug paraphernalia in his hands. “Where did you get this?” the father thunders. “Where did you get this and how do you know about it?””I know about it by watching you!” the son cries out. “I watched you do it!”
The point of the commercial, of course, is that children will take their cues from their parents. If parents act in a responsible manner and own up to a mistake or problem situation, children will take that same cue. If, however, parents are carelessness and put the blame on other people for their own mistakes, children will do the same things.
The issue we need to address here, however, is that this is not necessarily a black or white scenario. Tyler et al (2000) point out that the parental liability laws, in which parents are charged with the crime committed by their offspring, could end up penalizing the poor. In a poor family, both parents might be working leaving their children to their own devices, simply because they can’t afford child care. Furthermore, if a child is delinquent, poor people (at least, in theory) may not be able to afford counselling to find out the problem.
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Few people want their children to be delinquent (especially lower-income people). But then again, even among poor families, we find out that not all children are delinquent. What is the difference between the well-behaved children of poorer families and those who act out? One word: Parenting. Even if there isn’t a male role model in the house, many times, the matriarch of the family takes a strict stance among her offspring, raising Cain if the offspring get into trouble.
Furthermore, there are resources for parents of lower income families to find help for their children if there are issues. Though going through governmental red tape can be a hassle to find a counsellor, a community agency or even religious organization official can be of great help in an area such as this. The point here is that there is really no excuse for the parent not to get help if the child acts out.What about if the child’s mother is little more than a child herself? If this is a situation of a teenage mother who doesn’t know how to parent, the situation changes a little, but not a whole lot. The teen mother still needs to be penalized, and then needs to be mandated to attend parenting classes. Failure to do so is the teen mom’s choice and if the teen mom doesn’t attend classes, this tells the law enforcement officials that her defiance could be passed on to her children.
Poverty isn’t a good thing and it makes things very difficult, especially as it pertains to the parent-child relationship. But to use that excuse not to charge parents for a child’s conduct is passing on responsibility. Such a situation may serve as a wake-up call for not only the child, but the parent who is involved with the child’s upbringing.
Parenting is not an easy job and there is nothing more frustrating than hearing from the school – or from the police – that one’s child is in trouble. Furthermore, there are those who point to the fact that trying to manage an unruly team is tough, and it’s not the parents’ responsibility if the teen gets into trouble.But this isn’t true. We’ve shown, through the literature, that parents have influence on their teenagers, even if their teenagers don’t seem to be listening to them. Parents who keep lecturing to their kids about the evils of drugs and alcohol abuse are likely to have kids who grow up disdaining both of those substances. However, if kids see their parents freely addicted in alcohol (or drugs), the kids will ask themselves “why not?” and go ahead do the same thing.
Parental liability laws aren’t meant to be malicious, nor are they meant to beat up on parents. What they are trying to do is to help parents teach their kids some responsibility. Even parents in poverty stricken families have a choice as to how they raise their kids. If they make the wrong choice, and the kids break laws as a result, the parents need to be held responsible.