Who’s to blame for children’s bad behaviour?

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Poor people are much more likely to blame parents for the bad behaviour of children than wealthy people, according to new research at the University of Portsmouth

And the less well off are also more likely to blame people like themselves, say academics.

The research, by three economists at the University of Portsmouth’s Business School, is published in the Howard Journal of Criminal Justice.

The trio used a survey of 1,000 people from a variety of backgrounds, incomes and ages to examine their attitudes to young people committing anti-social behaviour. The study was conducted in the aftermath of the London riots of 2011 which had produced a rash of newspaper headlines blaming parents for much of the devastation caused.

Lead author Alan Leonard said: “We were somewhat surprised by the results. We set out to learn what people think about parental responsibility and anti-social behaviour. We found it isn’t the well off, or elderly people, or people with no children who strongly criticise parents of badly behaved children, it’s those living on the lowest incomes and other parents.”

He said that people’s attitudes towards lower income parents might be due to increasing acceptance in society that a so-called ‘underclass’exists.

“It seems to have become widely accepted by law-makers and society that some parents are simply not up to the job of teaching self-control to their children. They are seen as less than able to pass on basic norms of acceptable civil behaviour.

“This may have helped foster our blame culture where society turns its back on the so-called underclass and laws are made which put the blame for one child’s deeds on to the shoulders of their parent.

“The tendency to blame the parents is strongly linked to a perception that people in the area do not treat each other with respect.”

Mr Leonard said that the findings have policy implications because the empirical evidence strongly suggests measures to tackle so-called ‘broken Britain’ and the previous coalition government’s ‘troubled families’ initiatives are much more likely to work if they concentrate on successfully teaching the young to treat others with respect and understanding, than if they point the finger of blame at the parents of trouble-making children and teenagers.

The researchers considered individuals whose incomes ranged from less than £50 a week to more than £600 a week. They found that for every step increase in income band, concern about parents not taking responsibility fell by more than ten per cent.

“People on high incomes are the least likely to blame the parents for bad behaviour of children and youths.”

Those most likely to blame the parents were much more likely to be on a low income, live outside the city centre, have been exposed to crime or to have children living at home.

Previous research has found that a lack of self-control is a key factor underlying criminal behaviour, but self-control can best be taught to children by parents, the authors argue.