Expert Pins Delinquency on Parents

Arnold Binder got a great deal of attention from some unexpected quarters recently when he published a college textbook entitled "Juvenile Delinquency: Historical, Cultural, Legal Perspectives" (written in collaboration with associates Gilbert Geis and Dickson Bruce).

An enterprising UC Irvine publicist, exploring the book for newsworthy angles, discovered that the three academicians cited "the way the family carries out its business" as a prime factor in juvenile delinquency. In a press release on the book, Binder amplified this point by saying that "many parents today are so busy making money and spending it that they neglect their children even if they don't intend to. These children are in as much danger of becoming delinquent as children from poor, single-parent families who are left alone at home while the parent works."

Sitting in his tiny office at UCI a few weeks after distribution of the press release, Binder is still astonished at the impact. "I've had about 30 calls for interviews from radio and TV stations, and several news services picked up the story. I was even quoted in the National Enquirer. And all because I argued that the greed and neglect that go along with the yuppie families have a high probability of producing juvenile delinquency."

Binder is not new to controversy. As a UCI psychology professor in 1970, Binder expressed a powerful urge to "bring the talent of the university to bear on social problems." The instrument he designed for that purpose was the social ecology department, which has grown and flourished over the past two decades, much of that time under Binder's direction. Its Youth Service Program (now called Community Service) provided counseling for thousands of Orange County juveniles in trouble with the law, and was so effective, studies of two control groups showed, that the recidivism rate was 25% lower for young people who received counseling.

Other creations of Binder's social ecologists have included a restitution program allowing young offenders to pay back their victims, a victim-witness program offering support to victims or witnesses of a crime, and drug/alchohol awareness groups in which young people can discuss with counselors the risks of substance abuse. More controversial have been Binder's studies on police violence and police training films, but his even-handed approach has prompted cooperation from police departments across the country.

Binder says he didn't have to look very far, however, to find the prototypical Yuppie Community. "It's right here in Irvine," he says, "a microcosm of yuppie priorities: financial gain, immediate gratification and getting ahead both socially and economically."

He relates these characteristics directly to juvenile delinquency. "Selfishness," he says, "comes naturally to all human beings. And antidotes like religion and the extended family have become much less important to yuppie parents, who are usually not home and when they are home tend to be busy planning their next trip. Kids need close interaction with their parents, and that doesn't come naturally. We have to work at it."

Binder feels there is a decided trend away from interaction between today's young people and their parents, but--at least in suburbia--he blames it more on greed than the economic demands that require both parents to work.

"We're not the same people we used to be," he says. "We need constant pressure from other directions--from church, state, family--to put down selfishness. We need strong social forces to counter this normal human characteristic, and they are missing today. In other generations, parents felt guilt if their kids were being shortchanged but that is much less true today. Now the question is more likely to be: How is this affecting me ?"

Binder's credits for making these statements are impressive. He is a slight, animated, native Californian in his mid-50s with a 10-page dossier of awards and publications. He has a Ph.D. in psychology from Stanford, where he made Phi Beta Kappa, and taught at the University of Indiana, UCLA, New York University and the University of Colorado before joining the UCI faculty in 1966. He has been a Fulbright Scholar and has written and published a number of books and articles in professional journals.

In spite of these academic credits, he is highly pragmatic in conversation and is quite willing to examine his charges against Yuppies in the specifics of his own family. He has three children: a 30-year-old married daughter, Andrea, by his first marriage; and a son, Jeffrey, 15, and daughter, Jennifer, 11, by his second wife, Virginia, who is a psychology professor at Cal State Long Beach.

"When we make family decisions," he says, "we include our children in the discussions. We work very hard at interacting with them constantly. We're important to our children and that's a critical feature. Before my son does something, for example, I think he asks himself, 'what effect will this have on my father and my relationship with him?' But you have to have a strong relationship with a child in order to achieve this."

He worries about official overreaction to juvenile delinquency--particularly in the area of drug experimentation, where police tend to make no distinctions among substances. This often results in incarceration for minor offenses, which Binder calls "by far the worst method of treating a delinquent youth. When a child is locked up with other juvenile offenders or, in some cases, adult criminals, he or she is exposed to perfect role models for future delinquent acts."

He feels that these two basic elements of delinquency--parental neglect and drugs--affect young people quite differently in the inner city than they do in the suburbs. "There's a lot of delinquency in Irvine, but no gang murders," he says. He points to a recent study in Chicago in which concentric rings were drawn from the central city outward, and the number of gangs diminished as the circles approached the suburbs.

He has no solutions to offer, but when pressed, he said: "I know it's going to take a lot of social resources to begin to deal with this problem. Right now, social conditions make it impossible to exercise control in inner cities. If I could dream a little, I guess I would suggest two things that might help. The most important is very good day care for inner city kids. A single mother is petrified when she leaves her child and goes to work; she needs some child-care options. The other would be to introduce tougher discipline in the schools that would require kids to abide by the rules."

Although he sees a different set of problems for the suburban yuppie culture, he says the prevention of juvenile delinquency--wherever it appears--"has to start in the home. The key seems to be the entire family unit, not just the offending child." He suggests three consistent relationships between later difficulty with the law and the way a child is raised: Parents of delinquents are less warm and affectionate, inconsistent in child-raising practices and often overly aggressive.

He brushes off the influence of a strong religious background as sufficient to deter delinquency. "Religion," he says, "used to be a source of compassion for other human beings; now it's often just another example of greed. Without a warm, caring family environment that reinforces the beliefs and values it teaches, religion may have little or no impact on a child's behavior."

Bindner pointed to four areas of importance in creating a "warm family environment":

The after-school period between 3 and 5. Although the importance of proper day care is finally being recognized, Binder stressed the special importance of these hours. "Kids," he says, "need some kind of supervision during that period until they're 18."

Family meals, which should be regular and frequent.

Including children in all major family decisions.

Allowing children growing independence of decision, but only within broad, clearly defined parental controls.

The widespread reaction to his textbook in lay quarters has persuaded him to address that audience directly. So he's in the process of writing a new book on delinquency aimed at parents. "That's where delinquency starts," he says, "and where it can best be prevented."

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