A century ago, most behaviorists theorized that the environment greatly influences criminality. This theory ignores a person’s genetic predispositions, and for the most part, blames social influences for the molding of a criminal or at least a delinquent. From this theory, an opposing theory, called the self-control theory, came to be. In contrast, this theory states that a person is a selfish being who will continuously seek instant gratification of his selfish desires. Thus, in pursuit of instant gratification, a person will commit a crime, oftentimes running over other people’s rights without any regard to the consequences of his actions. To prevent such criminal behavior arising from instant gratification, society must impart the knowledge of self-control, that is, the ability to restraint criminal tendencies so that the supposed criminal will want to achieve long-term rewards instead of instant gratification. This theory postulates also that the parents are the ones who should teach their children self-control and deny or delay gratification. This means that when a child has behavioral problems at a very young age, the likelihood that he will become a liability to society and turn up as a criminal when he grows up is very high. A child’s criminal tendencies are developed in the early years of his life. His self-control is directly proportional to the quality of parenting that he received as a child. Poor parenting will produce delinquent children, incapable of self-control, and wanting only instant gratification. In this particular theory, parents play a vital role in the development of self-control in their children. An abused child, they believe, will become the abuser when he grows up, as he is merely emulating the skills that he learned as a child. To avoid bringing up criminals, parents must be able to balance between positive and negative reinforcements, punishment and reward, and to carefully supervise their children during their growing-up years. Done properly, they will raise children who will have well-developed self-control who can resist the power of instant gratification that a life of criminality will offer. The inability of the community to police its residents coupled with poor parenting will eventually seal the fate of a child and push him to become a delinquent. An effective method of deterrence or reduction of crime is to strengthen the family and to instill skills in parents that will help them in developing their children’s self-control. This theory supports a complete and whole family, with both parents in the picture, with the father being very much involved, and a limited number of children, no more than three, to succeed. The theorists believe that the state should create laws and policies to ensure that the family is strong and that the parents have the right skills to nurture their children. Parents should be taught how to teach their children self-control. It was suggested by the theorists that dads who are less than what they are expected to be should be taxed. Gottfredson and Hirschi, the two theorists who put advanced this theory, postulated that a child who does not get the care that they needed, will likely develop characteristics that will start them on the path of criminality. Their early childhood experience will be an indication of their future. If self-control is not taught early in life, then they are doomed to fail.
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To the mind of this writer, the theory reeks of pessimism. What the theorists are saying is that criminality could never be outgrown. Once a criminal fails to learn the trait of self-control early in life, his adulthood will most certainly be a life of crime. He will be beyond salvation and his fate is predetermined by his childhood. It also means that society is helpless in correcting criminality, and it can only watch in helpless anticipation of the criminal’s activities. It can only anticipate criminals but will have no recourse to rehabilitate them. This, therefore, puts into question the value of imprisonment or punishment as a tool of rehabilitation. If a child does not show any degree of self-control, and by this theory would surely mean that he will turn out to be a criminal, then it goes without saying that the fire should be stamped out even before it is started. A child that will grow up as a criminal should not be allowed to grow up to be one. He must be stopped before he even starts to prevent him from becoming a criminal. This of course does not make sense in a society where a deed is only punished after it has been done, and a person is presumed innocent until proven otherwise. Every person has a right to grow into the person that he wants to be.
Furthermore, although it is conceded that family has a strong influence on the development of the child, to confine ourselves to this particular factor would be too limiting. This would ignore other factors or stressors in a child’s life that will eventually be the foundation of his decision to take the high road or the road to perdition. A child is not one-dimensional, incapable of processing new experiences. A combination of factors and or experience will not produce the same result in every child. Everyone reacts differently to different situations, thus, to condemn a child to a future of delinquency because of his childhood is premature.
Most critics feel that this theory is too simplistic. Those with low self-control will necessarily have little regard for long-term consequences. Thus, this theory ignores the degrees of seriousness of a crime. This theory lumps together serious and non-serious crimes in terms of motivation, that is, instant gratification. Thus, a person who commits homicide will have the same motivation as the one who litters. This theory takes therefore evens out crimes regardless of seriousness. Common sense dictates that this is not so. Killing a person will have deeper motivation than merely littering.
It has also been proven that other factors will help an adult cope with low self-control. The theory that childhood determines adulthood is debunked because studies have shown that there are adult social bonds, such as marriage and stable employment, which contribute to a person’s desire to conform to the norms set out by society. Those who are married become very conscious of their acts, especially since they know that this will have an impact on their family. Thus, the criminal tendencies that were a direct result of poor parenting skills can still be shed off, if proper guidance is made during adulthood.
The underlying argument in self-control theory is tautological. The argument is based on the assumption that when a child does not have self-control, he becomes a delinquent. However, the opposite is also arguable, that is, the delinquent has low self-control. It is a chicken and egg dilemma.
This theory does not adequately explain also, the phenomenon of white-collar crimes. By definition, white-collar crimes are committed by white-collar individuals, that is, individuals who are educated. This carries with it the assumption that since they have higher education, then they are capable of denying themselves instant gratification. They also have an understanding of long-term consequences. Therefore, white-collar crimes are just antithetical to the self-control theory.
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There is plenty of blame to go around. The idea that the parents should carry the burden of educating their children on self-control sets aside the function of education. Why send children to school for most of their waking hours when it is ultimately the parents who must teach them the value of self-control? Furthermore, it lets off the state from its responsibility of parens patriae. Society, as a whole, plays a role in the development of a child. Furthermore, there are families, such as divorce, unwed or single parents, who need the assistance of the community. The theory does not take these special circumstances into account. It should be noted that there is a growing number of these special needs groups. Statistics will show that an intact family is slowly becoming a rare occurrence. To unduly burden, these parents with the responsibility of teaching their children self-control are simply unjust. Chances of success will be low, even by the standards of the theory. The theory marks these children as children who will most likely become delinquents.
The role of the community is very important. It is for this reason that people gather together and live as a community so that they may reap the rewards of cooperation. The idea that the community has no participation or impact in the development of self-control is not supported by everyday experience. Thus, although this theory is capable of explaining many things, it needs more refinement.
- Pratt, Travis C.; Cullen, Francis T. (2006). The Empirical Status of Gottfredson and Hirschi’s General Theory of Crime: A Meta-Analysis. Criminology, vol. 38.
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- Sellers, Christine S. (2006) Self-Control and Intimate Violence: An Examination of the Scope and Specification of the General Theory of Crime. Criminology, vol. 37. DOI: 10.1111/j.1745-9125.1999.tb00490.x
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