The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

What Young People Need

Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson

Since the Clinton presidency, the social-services industry has heralded “positive youth development” as the key to helping at-risk youth. Yet a study by a sociologist at Ball State University, which measures the impact of family and religious characteristics on patterns of delinquency, suggests that what youth really need in making the transition to adulthood are married parents and a church.

Drawing upon data from the Child and Young Adult Sample of the 1979 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, Richard J. Petts focused on 2,472 respondents, each of which had been interviewed three times between 1984 and 2004: once in early adolescence (ages 10 to14); a second time in middle-late adolescence (ages 15 to 19); and finally in young adulthood (ages 20 to 25). Based upon the respondents’ reported behaviors of hurting someone badly enough to need bandages or a doctor, of shoplifting, and of damaging school property on purpose, the researcher estimated delinquency trajectories over time based on a three-group model that diagnosis tests confirmed as a good fit for the data.

The first group represented the majority of his sample (60 percent). Petts termed this group, most of which did not commit a delinquency, as “low-level” delinquents, as their reported behaviors peaked at age 10. A second group (33 percent of the sample) were “early adolescent-limited” delinquents whose behavior peaked at age 13. The third group (7 percent of the sample) were “late adolescent-limited” delinquents, whose behavior peaked at age 17. Not only did the second and third groups’ delinquent behaviors peak in later years but their levels of reported behaviors were also dramatically higher than the first group.

Multivariate regressions found that youths residing with stepparents, relative to their peers living with their biological parents, were twice as likely to fall into the third group than the first group (p<.01). Youths living with single parents, relative to their peers living with their biological parents, were 34 percent more likely to fall in the middle group (p<.01), and 46 percent more likely to fall in the third group, than fall into the first group (p<.10).

A second set of regressions found that youths in the first group were less likely to cohabit with someone of the opposite sex and more likely to attend church. A third set of tests found that a parental divorce or remarriage was positively related to higher levels of delinquency among youths in the second group (p<.001). In contrast, lower levels of delinquency were associated with youth from the second and third groups that married (p<.01 for each group) and with youth from the third group that attended church throughout adolescence and young adulthood (p<.01).

These robust findings challenge those who think delinquency trajectories are immutable. Not only do the family and church backgrounds of youth, according to Betts, “have long-term consequences for their participation in delinquent activity” but also “family and religious changes can alter pathways of delinquency over time.”

(Richard J. Petts, “Family and Religious Characteristics’ Influence on Delinquency Trajectories from Adolescence to Young Adulthood,” American Sociological Review 74 [June 2009]: 465–83.)