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Parental Accountability 101

Updated on November 26, 2010

Is it fair to hold parents responsible for the criminal behavior of their children?

Here’s a sticky subject: Is it fair to hold parents responsible for the criminal behavior of their children? Yes and no. While I believe that it is perfectly reasonable for parents to be held accountable for the criminal behavior of their younger children, specifically those who are still as yet under the age of twelve (perhaps puberty itself would be a better bar,) parents in general should not be held accountable for the criminal behaviors of their teenagers (i.e. in the case of things like the Columbine shootings.) The reason that I hold this opinion is simple: a parent’s ideals and ethics hold much more sway in a young child’s life, and young children are usually direct products of their parents’ true views and home-life. Young children pick up everything from their parents, from good habits to bad, the basics of proper language to the basics of obscene language. If a child under the age of say, ten, commits a hate crime, one cannot reasonably expect the child to have become racist (or sexist) to the degree required without having first observed a sufficient degree of hate crime precursor behavior (premeditated, etc.) from at least one parent (or other figure significantly involved in that child’s upbringing, like say, a grandparent.)

Young children aren’t independent thinkers in the same way that adults are– they aren’t consistently rebellious and in search of outside or conflicting information. They want to be like “mommy” or “daddy,” and parents have a considerable amount of sway when it comes to the kind of conditioning that leads to the autonomous reinforcement of good behavior and the “early warning” self-control of bad behavior, but that sway doesn’t last forever. Parental influence on children diminishes significantly as the child reaches puberty and the teenage years. Kids just get naturally rebellious as they get older, and sometimes that rebellious nature manifests in criminal activity. The concept of the rebellious teenager is not only a common archetype in the media we watch, it is also something that we see all the time in public and in our families as well. It’s also not a new problem– the philosophers of ancient Greece complained about the rebelliousness and listlessness of their teenagers as well!

So should parents be held accountable and punished for the criminal actions that their children might arbitrarily decide to take during their rebellious phase? In a word, I would say no, simply because, when it comes to making good decisions in the teenage years, no amount of guidance from parents, the community or even the government is going to keep every teenager out of trouble. We have to draw the line somewhere, and drawing it at eighteen in today’s world of easy access to information of all sorts is just as silly as making parents wholly responsible for their children no matter how old they are. Should we start punishing the still living parents of children who are now in their forties, fifties, sixties or older? Punishing parents for crimes that their adult (or pre-pubescent and rebellious) children have committed (and the parents therefore have no control over) is just plain silly.


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    • Kay Angel profile image

      Kay Angel 5 years ago from Northern Virginia

      I enjoyed your column and agree with most of what you say regarding young children. Then I got to your section on teens. While a parent can do everything right and still have a child grow up to do bad things (especially on the level of the Columbine shootings), it is a LOT more rare than parents who work too much and do not have the time or interest to rear their children to have kids do more than experiment with smaller rebellions (smoking, alcohol, etc.).

      While parents are less of an influence to teens than to tots, if they give their kids a solid enough foundation, and pay attention to their kids' lives, they can catch things BEFORE they go Columbine, or become a crack addict, or run away. Yes, society has a lot of influence, but so CAN parents, if they try hard enough.

      My two cents, anyway.

    • dawnM profile image

      Dawn Michael 7 years ago from THOUSAND OAKS

      Hi Earl, I found this article to be interesting and I understand what you are saying about the influence of parents over young children and I do agree with that! In many ways I also agree with your outlook on teenagers, but my problem is not just on parents but society also, the teenager and this has been proven, does not always think rationally, and this is true and they are prone to doing stupid things, reckless acts and such, that even the best raised teens might do, so in that regard no parents should be held accountable but the teenager should, there needs to be more, stringent rules that don’t entail a criminal record but the teen has to do a mandatory community service such as feeding the homeless, having to do a public service. The crimes that involve murder, rape, hurting another person, I think that is a different kind of crime and needs to be looked at differently from the teenager’s mental state as far as drugs, mental disorder and possible abuse or neglect at home.