Term Paper: Birth Order and Juvenile Delinquency

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[. . .] After all, according to the prevailing theory, laterborns are more likely to flout authority while firstborn children are more likely to obey authority figures and to uphold the status quo.

Studies regarding birth order and crime, however, are conflicting at best. While some researchers have found links between criminal behavior and birth order, other studies are unable to replicate these results.

In an early study of delinquency among young women, for example, Jill Leslie Rosenbaum examined family background characteristics of 159 female juvenile delinquents who were committed to the California Youth Authority in the early 1960s. Rosenbaum found that 32% of those female delinquents were oldest children (1989: 36-37). While not a majority, this figure represents a substantial portion of the juvenile offenders and belies the hypothesis that laterborns are more likely to commit delinquent acts.

Other studies further challenge the conclusion regarding laterborn status and a propensity for delinquent behavior. A study alcohol and drug substance abuse among teens and college students, for example, reveals that having an older brother makes a student far less likely to abuse alcohol or to use illegal drugs (Tibbetts and Whittimore 2002: 324-325).

In both studies, however, birth order was only one of the factors used to study delinquent behavior. In the Rosenbaum study, the lack of a stable family and a stable mother figure emerged as the most important determinant of female juvenile delinquency, as only seven percent of the young women in the study came from intact families (Rosenbaum 1989: 32).

Likewise, the substance abuse study shows that in addition to having an older brother, being employed for at least 30 hours a week, having a high grade point average and being religious were all contributory factors for students who did not engage in substance abuse (Tibbetts and Whittimore 2002: 325).

In the book Roots of Delinquency, Michael Wadsworth culled data relations from the National Survey of Health and Development, a longitudinal analysis of data regarding children born during a week in March 1946. Like the Rosenbaum and Tibbetts and Whittimore studies, Wadsworth's findings contradict the expected relationship between birth order and delinquent behavior.

Wadsworth found that children who were often rated as poor or lazy by their teachers were also more likely to become delinquent. Of these likely delinquents, Wadworth recognized that many children were more likely to come from a lower social class and a large family, with parents who themselves only had a minimum education. These delinquents were also more likely to be firstborns or from a higher birth order (Wadsworth 1979: 102-105).

Again, this finding contradicts the hypothesis that laterborn children will be more likely to engage in delinquent behavior while older born children will be more respectful of authority.

In their survey of the literature regarding criminal and juvenile recidivism, researchers Elizabeth Oddone Paolucci, Claudio Violato and Mary Ann Schofield found conflicting studies and conclusions regarding the relationship between birth order and recidivist delinquent behavior.

Some studies, note Paolucci et al., find a strong predictive relationship between birth order and criminal recidivism. In a study conducted in 1941, for example, researchers conclude that there is not relationship between the number of siblings and recidivism. However, a later study conducted in 1989 found that researchers found that delinquents were more likely to be younger children from larger families, rather than first born or older children (cited in Paolucci et al. 1998).

Paolucci et al. also found that some evidence indicates that there is a strong relationship between extreme ordinal positions - being firstborn or lastborn - and the likelihood of criminal behavior. This study, however, was conducted in 1944 and has yet to be replicated in more recent times (Paolucci et al. 1998).

Several factors could account for the differences in results over the decades. Among of the key factors are the increasing number of two-parent homes and broken families. In the 1940s, for example, mothers generally stayed home and were thus able to keep a closer watch on their children, especially those who were prone to delinquent behavior.

By the late 1980s, however, economic need and the growing number of single mothers mean that more children are left to their own devices as more mothers join the workforce. This makes children more susceptible to the influence of peer groups. It is in line with Wallace's and Adler's findings that making peer socialization a greater influence on the development of laterborn children, rather than familial ties.

Many other studies point to conflicting results regarding the relationship between laterborn children and delinquent behavior. For example, Julye Myner et al. reviewed the profiles and probation files of 138 male juveniles. They found that the best predictors of recidivism were conviction, alcohol abuse, length of the first incarceration, group home placement and finally, birth order (Myner et al. 1998).

However, the Myner study contradicts the expected hypothesis that laterborn children are the rebels while firstborn children respect authority. Instead, Myner et al. found that firstborn male delinquents were more likely to commit crimes again than later born juvenile delinquents (Myner et al. 1998).

Despite these contradicting studies, Sulloway still finds support for his thesis. For example, Richard L. Zweigenhaft and Jessica von Ammon studied a group of college students who had been jailed for participating in civil disobedience action related to a labor dispute at a local KMart.

Though not delinquency per se, these actions resulted in jail time for more than 150 students who participated in rallies. Zweigenhalt and von Ammon found that the majority of the students who were arrested during the protests were indeed later-borns. This study was more significant because the researchers controled for possible intervening variables such as education and socio-economic status (Zweigenhaft and von Ammon).

One of the most comprehensive studies regarding the relationship between youthful criminal behavior and birth order was conducted by Alan Kazdin in his book Conduct Disorders in Childhood and Adolescence. For Kazdin, birth order significantly affects a host of "conduct disorders," including criminal behavior. Specifically, Kazdin finds that juveniles with older siblings are more susceptible to delinquent behavior (Kazdin 1995: 50-74).

In summary, the research seeking correlations between juvenile delinquency and birth order show conflicting results. Some studies, such as the early 1941 study, found no relationship between birth order on one hand and delinquency and recidivism on the other.

Others present opposite results. In line with the Sulloway thesis, for example, the studies done by Kazdin and Zweigenhaft and von Ammon show that laterborns tend to challenge authority more, either through criminal behavior or through civil disobedience and protest activities. On the surface, this seems to prove that birth order does have effects on social behavior, that firstborns behave more conservatively while laterborns are born to rebel.

However, other studies challenge these results. For example, while the Myner study did find a strong correlation between birth order and criminal behavior, this study found the opposite results. Firstborn children were more likely to commit juvenile crimes. Similarly, Wadsworth observed that delinquents were also more likely to be firstborns or to at least come from a higher birth status.

At the very least, these conflicting results highlight the need for more research on the social and behavioral effects of birth order. There is also a need for a more interrelated approach, one that locates birth order in the larger context of familial relations. After all, birth order by itself does not give rise to different behavior. Rather, it is the different roles and responsibilities assigned to birth order that results in various socialized behavior relating to criminality.

Critique of Birth Order theory

Much of the attention that has been focused on the effects of birth order on a host of social behaviors - including criminality - stems from the popularity of Sulloway's book Born to Rebel.

It is thus necessary to examine the quantitative methods Sulloway used to arrive at these conclusions.

Sulloway draws heavily on historical research, using biographies and ratings from 94 historical experts on thousands of figures in history. It is through data such as this that Sulloway teases out data on whether, for example, eminent figures in history converted to Protestantism or remained Catholic during the Reformation.

He further posits that firstborns tend to be more punitive. As proof, Sulloway notes that during the French Revolution, more deputies of the National Convention who were firstborn voted to have Louis XVI executed, while many laterborns voted to spare the King's life.

As such, Sulloway provides interesting quantitative evidence that birth order is a crucial, but overlooked, source of social division. He also shows that historically, birth order has played an important role in shaping the ideological ideas of people who participated in some of history's milestones.

However, problems arise when Sulloway contends that based on his data, birth order alone is enough to challenge sociological analyses of revolutions and social movements, such… [END OF PREVIEW]

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