Happening Today: Education Week Leadership Symposium. Learn more and register.

Delinquency Research Affirms Benefits of Two Parents

By Ann Bradley — April 25, 1990 2 min read

In the latest stage of a long-running developmental study, researchers have found that delinquent teenagers who grew up to become stable adults were far more likely to have come from two-parent homes than were their counterparts who went on to commit crimes as adults.

“It’s a striking illustration of what we’ve observed in many instances--the difference a stable family can make to a troubled teenager,” said Emmy Werner, a professor of human development at the University of California at Davis who began the study more than 30 years ago.

In her latest research, Ms. Werner traced the passage into adulthood of more than 200 “high risk” children who were part of her original study of 698 children born in 1955 on Kauai, Hawaii. She was assisted by Ruth S. Smith, a clinical psychologist.

The findings are contained in a report submitted to the William T. Grant Foundation, which helped fund the study. They will be included in a forthcoming book, Against the Odds, describing the project.

The high-risk group was made up of children born into poverty who were exposed to at least three risk factors, including health problems at birth, parents who did not advance in school beyond the 8th grade, divorced parents, or parents with histories of alcoholism or mental illness.

About two-thirds of the group developed serious learning or behavioral disorders by age 10, or had delinquency records, mental-health problems, or pregnancies by age 18.

But of the 77 men and 26 women who were delinquent as teenagers, only 18 of the men and 3 of the women had criminal records as adults, the study found. The subjects were interviewed at ages 31 and 32.

‘Self-Righting Tendencies’

Such findings, Ms. Werner noted, “inspire a sense of hope and optiel15lmism about the recoveries such children can make in early adulthood.”

“As a society, we dwell so much on what can go wrong with children that we forget how strong are the self-righting tendencies that move them toward normal adult development under all but the most persistent adverse circumstances,” she said.

Delinquent children who lived with both parents were significantly less likely to become criminals as adults, the study found.

Five out of six of the delinquents who went on to commit crimes as adults came from families in which one parent was absent, while only one in four of the non-offenders grew up in homes where the mother or father was absent for prolonged periods.

In 1982, Ms. Werner published a book about 72 high-risk children from the same study group who had avoided serious trouble altogether. She refers to both that group and the group of reformed delinquents as “resilient youngsters.”

The new study also looked at data for 56 of the 70 youngsters who had mental-health problems as adolescents. By age 30, 44 percent of the men in this group and 66 percent of the women were working full time, were married, and rated themselves as happy or satisfied with their lives.

Those who recovered from mental-health problems were twice as likely to have had two parents at home during their adolescence as those who did not, the study found.

A version of this article appeared in the April 25, 1990 edition of Education Week as Delinquency Research Affirms Benefits of Two Parents