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Abstract

Background

Early aggressive behaviour is one of the best predictors of adult criminality.

Aim

To assess the degree to which family background variables, parental beliefs and behaviour and child intelligence predict child aggression and adult criminality.

Method

Data were used from the Colombia County Longitudinal Study, a longitudinal study of 856 children in third grade in New York, in 1959–60. Adult measures of criminal behaviour, child measures taken at age eight, child peer-nominated aggression, child's peer-nominated popularity, child's IQ and parental measures at eight years were used.

Results

Aggressive children were less intelligent, less popular, rejected more by their parents, had parents who believed in punishment, were less identified with their parents' self-image and were less likely to express guilt. As adults, more aggressive children with parents who were less well educated, experienced more marital disharmony and who seldom attended church were most at risk for arrest. However, after the effect of early aggression was controlled, most effects disappeared and only parents having a strong belief in punishment added significantly to risk of arrest by age 30; the only fact that then reduced the risk of arrest was having parents who attended church often. Both parental authoritarianism and child IQ reduced the risk of conviction for arrested children.

Discussion

Level of aggression at age eight is the best predictor of criminal events over the next 22 years. A clear implication is that the risk for criminality is affected by much that happens to a boy before he is eight years old. Preventive interventions need to target risk factors that appear to influence the development of early aggression. Copyright © 2002 Whurr Publishers Ltd.