Jennifer Roback Morse’s article, “Parents or Prisons”, is a lucidly written and compelling examination of a disturbing causality issue: youthful delinquency as arising from an increasing number of single-parent homes. To the author’s credit, she cites more than a few studies which support this claim, including statistics revealing that incarcerated juvenile offenders more typically emerge from single-parent households, or those with no parental supervision at all. The entire article makes a concerted and consistent effort to validate what has long been seen as perhaps specious, common thinking: children are more likely to become responsible adults when they are raised in two-parent families.
There are, however, serious issues with the claims made by Morse, and not immediately discernible ones. For one thing, the author clearly segments her section containing the evidence she feels as validating her claim, but she does not consistently provide the statistics. Morse states that one 1993 analysis indicated that the likelihood of a boy turning to criminal activity rises “substantially” if he is raised without a father (Morse, 2003), but no figures are introduced. Given the inherently malleable nature of statistics, this is not an especially potent argument. Then, and crucially, Morse does not differentiate between types of youthful delinquency. She cites, in fact, several cases of the most extremely violent juvenile crimes to support her underlying proposition, referring to teens who both murdered and dismembered parents. It is difficult to accept that crimes of this nature may be linked to generally delinquent behavior produced in adolescents through a lack of parental attention or nurturing; the severity points to serious mental illness, abetted by a dysfunctional or neglectful family life or not. Morse does concede that there may be other, mitigating factors behind such crimes, yet she is comfortable in presenting this moderate disclaimer as ultimately irrelevant to the greater preponderance of evidence linking teen delinquency and single-parent homes. The device of relating the gruesome and sensational crimes is, then, suspect.
Furthermore, Morse asserts, “An attachment-disordered child is the truly dangerous sociopath, the child who doesn’t care what anyone thinks…” (Morse, 2003), and then reinforces her conviction that sociopathy is an inevitable result of such a circumstance. She does not actually account for the fact that true sociopaths may emerge from the most stable, two-parent households. Moreover, Morse’s acknowledgment of the factor of mental illness as contributing to delinquency skips over a very important point, in reference to her prevailing contention that traditional, two-parent homes tend to promote the development of socially conscious children. That is to say, a cyclical pattern has been identified as causal in sociopathic and psychopathic behaviors, when such individuals become parents themselves. These extremes of antisocial personalities are likely to be poor, if not outright dangerous, parents, and consequently render violently antisocial behavior a familial trait (Lykken, 1995, p. 226). Consequently, it is the actual nature of parenting itself, regardless of number, which should be Morse’s focus.
Additionally, Morse fails to address virtually any of the research established which goes to, if not refuting her stance, providing alternate modes of approach and thinking. A comprehensive study in 2000 from the Cornell University Medical College sampled two hundred and twenty-eight sixth-grade students in New York City, and employed independent variables of smoking, drinking, and other forms of delinquent behavior cross-referenced with familial circumstances. The results did indicate that boys and girls from single-parent homes were more prone to delinquent behavior, but the margins were slim across the board. Moreover, and very much a component within Morse’s argument, the research strongly indicated that there were distinct advantages to the single-parent home when problems were already evident within the child; that is, there appeared to be a significant and positive emphasis of parental monitoring by the single parent (Griffin, Botvin, Scheier, Diaz, & Miller, 2000). If common wisdom somewhat correctly has it that the single parent is less effective than the traditional, two-parent model, it may be also proposed that the increased responsibility on the single parent frequently generates a greater commitment to parenting.
Ultimately, Morse succeeds only in partially substantiating a widespread belief, and one suspiciously eager to identify specific causes for juvenile delinquency. It is neither news nor a mystery, that delinquents often are the products of unhappy and/or dysfunctional family environments, whether one or two parents are involved. If, however, the intent is to prove that single parents are an irrefutable source of consistently higher levels of delinquency, Morse is obligated to bring a great deal more to her argument.