Why not blame the parents?
BY EVE M. BRANK, JD, PHD, AND JOSH HABY • UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA–LINCOLN
Philadelphia was in the national spotlight last summer be- cause of juvenile crime and the mayor’s response to it. Spe-
cifically, groups of teens were participating in “flash mobs” or-
ganized through social media and text messages.
These mobs of teenagers, sometimes meeting without a goal
in mind, ended up being involved in various illegal activities,
such as assaulting people at random or stealing from stores in
Philadelphia’s tourist and shopping districts. The mayor, Michael A. Nutter, spoke out sharply against these youth and their
behaviors. He also took aim at the teenagers’ parents, saying that
being a “human ATM” or “sperm donor” will not suffice for being a parent, and that parents “need to get a hold of [their] kids
before we have to” (Simon, Philadelphia Inquirer, Aug. 7). Nutter emphasized that he believes that problems like these flash
mobs are stemming from the homes and parents need to take
more responsibility for their children ( CNN.com, Aug. 9).
Nutter certainly has the law on his side. Philadelphia, like
many other cities, can impose penalties on the parents when
their children are out past the city curfew. In Philadelphia,
the parents receive a warning for the first violation, up to a
$150 fine for a second violation, and $300 to $500 fines for
subsequent violations. After two or more violations, each repeat
offense can result in up to a $300 fine and/or up to 90 days in
jail for the parents.
A number of other cities have similar laws that penalize
parents for their children’s actions. A few of these municipal
ordinances similar to Philadelphia’s curfew ordinance have been
challenged in state courts, but for the most part the laws are
upheld or only portions of the laws are struck down. One court
even noted that it was unable to determine if the laws were truly
an effective use of the state’s police power because the court had
no information about the laws’ effectiveness. In other words,
there was no research to demonstrate the law’s effect.
This political outcry against parents, the municipal
ordinances reflecting that disdain and the courts’ need for
empirical research raise important questions that psychologists
can help answer. In particular, will punishing (or threatening
to punish) parents make parents more involved and therefore
deter juvenile crime? Will these laws have a disproportionate
effect on minorities and single parents, in particular single
mothers? What effect do these laws have on juveniles’ sense of
Psychology research and practice has certainly demonstrated
the importance of the parent-child relationship. We know
that different parenting styles and attachment are related to
various outcomes. But, no matter how much we know about
the role parents play, we know that research cannot perfectly
predict outcomes because of the innumerable other factors that
influence children. And we do not know if punishing the parents
would have the intended effect of reducing juvenile crime.
Without the empirical research,
it is very difficult to know if
punishing the teens’ parents
will result in better decisions.
Our lab and a few other scholars have been examining
issues related to parental responsibility laws. Mostly, we have
focused on the legal analysis of the laws, the public support of
such laws, juveniles’ own reactions to the laws, and the media
attention to parental responsibility. In general, the public does
not enthusiastically support parental responsibility laws and
their underlying concepts. Yet, no one has done a widespread
empirical examination of the effectiveness of these laws. If
city officials were amenable to researchers conducting studies
in their cities and providing access for researchers, such an
examination would provide much-needed information in
determining the wisdom of parental responsibility laws.
Philadelphia’s mayor is correct that teens like those involved
in his city’s flash mobs “need to make better decisions” (CNN.
com, Aug. 9), but without the empirical research, it is very
difficult to know if punishing the teens’ parents will result in
those better decisions. n
“Judicial Notebook” is a project of APA’s Div. 9 (Society for the
Psychological Study of Social Issues).