3. Delinquency

Bruce A. Chadwick, Brent L. Top, and Richard J. McClendon, “Delinquency,” in Shield of Faith: The Power of Religion in the Lives of LDS Youth and Young Adults (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2010), 65–119.


One of the initial objectives of our research was to explore the relationship between religiosity and delinquency in the hope of demonstrating the influence of religion on the lives of members of the Church. We wanted to know if higher levels of religiosity resulted in lower levels of delinquency among LDS high school students. We selected delinquency as a test of religion’s influence because adolescence is a stressful time when youth, who are establishing their own identities and gaining independence from their parents, commonly participate in delinquent behaviors.

Acceptance among peers becomes paramount during this time, and teens will do almost anything to fit in. Adolescence can thus be a dangerous time when young people may engage in risky behavior, lose their faith, and drift away from the Church. The presence (or absence) of such behaviors provides an excellent test of the influence of religion on everyday life. We examined the effects of religion on delinquency within the context of peer influences, family characteristics, school experiences, and personality by testing the multivariate model shown in Figure 1. This kind of testing assessed the statistical significance of religiosity on delinquency while competing with peer, family, school, and personality factors in real-life situations.   

The relationship between religiosity and delinquency, sometimes called the “hell-fire and damnation hypothesis,” was formulated by Hirschi and Stark in the early 1960s. They argued that religiosity fosters conformity to moral and legal standards that prohibit delinquent behavior. The hypothesis was frequently tested following Hirschi and Stark’s early work (see Cochran & Akers, 1989). However, support for a link between religion and delinquency has been limited (Albrecht, Chadwick, & Alcorn, 1977; Brownfield & Sorenson, 1991; Chadwick & Top, 1993; Free, 1994). Given the lack of research support, the hell-fire hypothesis has been largely discarded.

Chadwick and Top (1993) argued that using church membership and attendance as measures of religiosity contributed to the lack of support. They assert that these measures alone fail to tap the essence of personal religiosity and feelings of spirituality that are related to level of delinquency. Using additional measures of religiosity, they found among a sample of 1,700 LDS adolescents living along the East Coast that private religious behavior, including personal prayer and scripture reading, demonstrated a significant inverse relationship to delinquency, while public religious behavior (attendance) did not. Litchfield et al. (1997), studying a sample of LDS youth, similarly found that various dimensions of religiosity affect delinquency differently.

Some researchers argue that the link between religiosity and decreased delinquency disappears when other factors such as peer influences, personality traits, school experiences, and family characteristics are included in the model (Cochran, Wood, & Arneklev, 1994; Benda & Corwyn, 1997). Benda and Corwyn (1997) studied 724 high school students living in the Midwest. Neither church attendance, time in prayer, Bible study, nor financial contributions were related to delinquency in the presence of these other factors. However, they did find that talking about religion and trying to convert others was negatively related to adolescent crime even after controlling for the other factors. Thus we included in our model seven dimensions of religiosity: public behavior, beliefs, private behavior, importance of religion, spiritual experiences, family religious behavior, and feelings of social acceptance into their congregations. This allowed the various dimensions of religiosity to compete with peer, family, school, and personal traits to explain delinquency.

Peer Influences and Delinquency

Many studies of delinquency have clearly demonstrated that peers are the single most powerful predictor of delinquency (Agnew, 1991; Warr & Stafford, 1991; Thornberry et al., 1994). For example, Agnew (1991) tested the influence of attachment to peers, time spent with peers, and the extent of friends’ delinquency on delinquent behavior. He analyzed interview data collected in 1979 (Elliot, Huizinga, & Ageton, 1985) and found that all three peer factors strongly predicted delinquency.

McBride, Joe, and Simpson (1991) tested a model predicting drug and alcohol use among a sample of 175 Hispanic youth who participated in a drug abuse prevention program. Peer pressure was a significant contributor to alcohol use among young men, but not among young women. Male teens who had a strong need to be liked by their friends more often joined them in drinking than those with a lower need for acceptance. In addition, McBride and his associates found that peer example was a significant contributor to delinquency. Other research has confirmed that watching friends participate in delinquent activities, even in the absence of overt pressure, significantly predicts youths’ delinquent behavior (Thornberry et al., 1994; Dishion, Andrews, & Crosby, 1995). Akers (1998) reviewed the major studies of delinquency and concluded that “the best single predictor of the onset, continuance, or desistance of delinquency is differential association with law-­violating or norm-violating peers” (p. 164).

In order to clearly demonstrate the influence of religion on delinquency in the real world, we included both peer pressure and peer example in the model. Thus, religion has to compete with peer influences to predict delinquency.

Family Characteristics and Delinquency

Family structure, maternal employment, family conflict, and parenting practices have all been identified as being related to delinquency. Teens raised in single-parent families have higher rates of delinquency because they are generally more weakly connected to their fathers, and this weak attachment fails to inhibit delinquency. Wells and Rankin (1991) performed an analysis of 50 studies investigating the impact of single-parent family structure on delinquency and concluded that such youth are significantly more delinquent than those living in two-parent families. The strongest relationship was found between family structure and status offenses—mainly truancy and running away.

Because divorce is usually a consequence of family conflict to which adolescents are witnesses, if not participants, several researchers have sought to determine whether divorce or conflict has the strongest relationship to delinquency. Findings indicate that family conflict, especially parent-child conflict, is more important than divorce in predicting delinquency (LeFlore, 1988; Wells & Rankin, 1991; Brody & Forehand, 1993).

Although the effects of maternal employment on younger children have been widely studied, its effects on adolescents have been largely ignored. Orthner (1990) reviewed previous research and found little support linking working mothers to delinquent teenagers. He cautioned, however, that existing research is somewhat inadequate and that care should be exercised in rejecting a relationship between maternal employment and delinquency.

A study by Hillman, Sawilowsky, and Becker (1993) supports the tentative conclusion that working mothers are not associated with delinquency among children. They studied the drinking and drug use of 389 high school students in three midwestern metropolitan areas. For teens who used alcohol and drugs, there were no significant differences between those whose mothers did not work and those whose mothers worked full-time or part-time.

Parenting practices, such as support and control, have been found in a large body of research related to delinquency (Rollins & Thomas, 1979; Steinberg, 1987; Baumrind, 1991; Lamborn, Mounts, Steinberg, & Dornbusch, 1991; Kurdek & Fine, 1994).

Family connection is the interpersonal relationship and emotional ties between parents and children. Teens’ attachment to parents enhances parental control over their teens, and thus reduces delinquency. Barber (1997) theorized that connection with parents and siblings also provides adolescents with essential social skills and a sense of security, both of which facilitate positive peer relationships and, in turn, contribute to limited involvement in delinquent activities. Studies have found that youth who were raised in warm and supportive family environments report lower incidence of deviance, alcohol and drug use, and school misconduct (Johnson & Pandina, 1991; Barnes & Farrell, 1992; Kurdek & Fine, 1994). For example, Kurdek and Fine (1994) surveyed over 1,100 fifth- through seventh-grade students attending two schools in a midwestern city. Family acceptance was negatively related to failing grades, drug use, threats against others, fighting, and arguments with teachers.

Parental regulation involves parents setting rules for their children, monitoring their activities, and administering appropriate discipline. Youth who experience limited parental regulation do not develop internal conventional commitments and are more likely to participate in delinquent activities because of unchecked hedonistic impulses. Barber (1996) argues that inadequate regulation leads to a lack of self-discipline, which leaves youth susceptible to delinquency and negative social influences.

Several studies have confirmed the significance of parental regulation in deterring delinquency (McCord, 1979; Patterson & Stouthamer-Loeber, 1984; Barber & Shagle, 1992). Patterson and Stouthamer-Loeber (1984) concluded from their study:

Initially it [parental regulation] may determine which youths become engaged in the delinquency process. Second, it may determine which youths become recidivists. Youths characterized as recidivists were from families in which the monitoring process was even more disrupted than for those only peripherally engaged. The fact that the findings held for both the official records and for self-reported delinquency scores leads one to emphasize the potential importance of this variable. (1305)

Psychological autonomy is defined as parents encouraging, rather than intruding upon, their adolescent children’s development of an individual identity, sense of efficacy, and feelings of self-worth. Parents who refuse to listen to, or quickly dismiss, their teenagers’ ideas, opinions, and feelings limit their children’s sense of self and the inner control necessary to resist delinquent impulses. Importantly, the use of psychological control techniques, such as guilt induction or love withdrawal, have been found to be associated with low psychological autonomy. Recent research has shown that a lack of psychological autonomy predicted delinquency (Barber, 1996; Barber, Thomas, & Proskauer, 1997).

In order to more fully understand the relationship between religion and delinquency, we added several family characteristics and processes to the model. The family traits included are family structure, maternal employment, family conflict, family connectedness, parental regulation, and the granting of psychological autonomy.

The Family’s Indirect Effects on Delinquency

In 1998, Judith Rich Harris summarized the large body of research linking family characteristics to adolescent behaviors, including delinquency, and concluded that parents are largely irrelevant. She came to the conclusion that parents have little influence on the kind of young adults into which their teenage children evolve, because most of the research connecting family factors to teenagers’ behavior has found few direct associations. What Harris failed to recognize is that family characteristics often have an indirect effect on their teenage children’s behavior. In the case of delinquency, parents influence the choice of friends, the ability to withstand peer pressures, and religiosity—all of which reduce delinquency.

Bahr, Marcos, and Maughn (1995) assessed the association between connection to parents, grades, time spent on homework, educational expectations, and drinking alcohol with a very large sample of 27,000 high school students living in Utah. They found a strong relationship between family connectedness and educational commitment, which in turn was related to lower rates of alcohol use. Connection was also moderately associated with a reduced number of drug-using friends, which was also linked to less drinking. These findings indicate that while family connectedness only weakly affected alcohol use directly, it had a strong indirect effect through educational commitment and peers.

Bahr, Marcos, Maughn, and Li (1998) tested a similar model predicting drug use among 13,250 high school students also living in Utah. They found that maternal and paternal connectedness with teenagers, parental regulation, and family conflict had weak direct relationships with drug use. On the other hand, maternal connectedness had a strong indirect effect on drug participation through a lower association with friends who used drugs. These findings suggest that since parents are not in the high school or at teen parties, their influence is not as direct as peers who are active participants at the parties. But parents do influence the selection of friends, ability to resist peer pressure, religiosity, moral values, school achievement, and other factors, which in turn reduce delinquency.

Based on these findings, we placed family characteristics in the model so that we could assess the direct effects as well as the indirect effects of the family on delinquency through peers, religiosity, personality traits, and school experiences (see Figure 1).

Personality Traits and Delinquency

Personality traits are conceptualized as an indication of a youth’s commitment to conformity (Hirschi, 1969). Limited research has identified two clusters of personality traits, namely self-esteem and rebelliousness, which appear to be related to delinquency. Low self-esteem has frequently been associated with higher levels of delinquency (Rosenberg & Rosenberg, 1978; Rosenberg, Schooler, & Schoenback, 1989; Evans, Levy, Sullenberger, & Yvas, 1991). Rosenberg, Schooler, and Schoenback (1989) investigated whether the relationship between self-esteem and delinquency was reciprocal. They concluded that self-esteem has a stronger causal relationship to delinquency than delinquency has to lower self-esteem.

A related concept, locus of control, is the feelings one has about what causes the events in one’s life. A high internal locus of control—that is, the perception that one has personal control over the events in one’s life—has been linked to lower delinquency (Ollendick, Elliot, & Matson, 1980). On the other hand, Gerstein and Briggs (1993) found that violent delinquents had higher internal locus of control, that is, they were more willing to admit their faults and weaknesses than were nonviolent youth, who more often believed they had experienced some bad luck. This study suggests that the relationship between locus of control and delinquency may differ by the type of offense committed.

Finally, research has shown rebelliousness and other closely related personality traits such as impulsiveness and risk taking to be positively correlated with delinquency (Smith & Fogg, 1979; Krueger et al., 1994; Rowe & Flannery, 1994; Wood, Cochran, Pfefferbaum, & Arneklev, 1995). Wood et al. ­studied questionnaires from 1,179 ninth- through twelfth-grade ­students in Oklahoma to ascertain the relationship between sensation seeking and impulsiveness and substance use. They found that youth with sensation-seeking and impulsiveness traits had higher rates of drug use.

Although the contribution of various personality traits to predicting delinquency is limited, we included self-esteem, locus of control, rebelliousness, impulsiveness, and risk taking in the model in order to better understand religiosity’s strength in predicting delinquency.

School Involvement and Delinquency

Attachments to teachers, positive school experiences, involvement in school and extracurricular activities, and future educational aspirations decrease the likelihood of delinquency (Johnson, 1979). However, tests of the relationship between school experiences and delinquency have produced mixed results. For example, Finn, Stott, and Zarichny (1988) discovered in their sample of delinquents processed by the juvenile courts that substantial proportions of delinquents were two or more years behind in reading, received barely passing or failing grades, had been held back a grade, and had been formally suspended at least once. On the other hand, Tygart (1992) failed to find a significant correlation between grades and self-reported delinquency. Furthermore, some researchers have proposed that any relationship between dropping out of high school and delinquency may be caused by other factors, such as socioeconomic status and academic interest (Tygart, 1992; Jarjoura, 1993).

School involvement and educational aspirations are theoretically important factors that may predict delinquent activity. We added grades, the importance of school, participation in extracurricular activities, and educational aspirations as significant school experiences to make the test of religiosity’s impact even more rigorous.

Measurement of Variables

Delinquency. In limited research, LDS youth have been found to exhibit relatively low levels of delinquency, especially status offenses, compared to adolescents across the nation. For example, only 23% of LDS young men and 20% of LDS young women in a national sample reported having ever imbibed alcoholic beverages, compared to 81% and 80% respectively in a national sample (Johnston, Bachman, & O’Malley, 1993).

Another study (Chadwick & Top, 1993) reported that only 12% of young men and 17% of the young women among the LDS youth were sexually experienced, compared to 55% of similar-age young men and 50% of young women respectively in a national sample (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1995). Thus, asking the youth in our study how often they had committed each offense during the past year or two years would have produced little reported delinquency.

Consequently, we measured delinquency using forty items that asked if the youth had ever engaged in specific delinquent activities, and if so, how often they had ever done each offense. The questions used to measure all of the variables in this analysis are presented in Appendix B. We assessed three dimensions of delinquency in the questionnaire.

  • Offenses against others were determined by twelve items involving verbal and physical attacks on peers, school officials, and parents.
  • Property offenses were assessed by eleven items focusing on activities such as shoplifting, theft, and vandalism.
  • Status offenses were measured by fifteen items that focused on alcohol and drug use and truancy, as well as premarital sexual behavior. These are mainly activities that are legal for adults but are illegal for youth because of their minor status.

We also included activities that are not only legal, but are widely accepted in general society. For example, premarital sex was included as a status offense because it violates the spiritually important principle of chastity. We summed the number of different delinquent activities a young person had participated in as the measure of delinquency.

Religiosity. Religious beliefs were measured by ten questions examining traditional Christian beliefs such as “Jesus Christ is the divine Son of God,” as well as unique LDS doctrine such as “The Book of Mormon is the word of God.” Four questions about frequency of attendance at sacrament, Sunday School, and priesthood/young women meetings, and participation in Church-sponsored socials gauged public religious behavior.

Private religious behavior was assessed by four questions asking the frequency of personal prayer, scripture reading, fasting, and paying tithing. Five response categories for the frequency of public and private religious behavior ranged from “never” to “very often.” Three items probed the youths’ history of spiritual experiences. One example is, “I have been guided by the Spirit with some of my problems or decisions.”

Eight items assessed youths’ feelings about the importance of religion in their lives. Examples are, “My relationship with God is an important part of my life,” and “During the past year, I have really tried to live the standards of the Church.”

Family religiosity combined the frequency with which the student’s family held family prayer, read the scriptures together, and engaged in family home evening.

Three items measured perceptions of social acceptance, which involved adolescents’ feelings of fitting in with fellow Church members and leaders. Response categories for the belief and attitudinal items ranged on a five-point scale from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree.”

Peer influences. We measured two dimensions of peer influences. Peer pressure was determined by asking the LDS youth if their friends had ever tried to get them to do 27 of the 40 deviant activities on the survey. The number of items was reduced, since peer pressure did not seem relevant for some activities, such as being arrested. The response categories were “yes” or “no.” The number of “yes” replies was summed to provide a measure of peer pressure.

Peer example was measured by asking how many of the respondents’ friends had ever engaged in the 40 delinquent activities. The response categories were “none,” “some,” “most,” or “all.” The proportion of friends who had engaged in the activities was summed to provide a measure of peer example.

In addition, the youth were asked how many of their friends were LDS. Response categories included “none,” “a few,” “about half,” “most,” and “all.” We anticipated that youth with a higher proportion of LDS peers would experience less negative peer pressure, especially for activities against unique LDS standards, such as using tobacco, drinking alcohol, or having premarital sex.

Family influences. Family structure was measured by a single item that asked with whom the youth lived. Six response categories included “mother and father,” “mother and stepfather,” “father and stepmother,” “mother alone,” “father alone,” and “other.” Responses were grouped into single- and two-parent families.

Perceived family conflict was assessed by three questions concerning whether the adolescents’ parents nagged and complained about each other, often argued, and yelled and screamed at each other when the youth were around. Possible responses included “not true,” “somewhat true,” and “true.”

Maternal employment was measured by asking the youth if their mothers were employed. Response categories included “no,” “yes, part-time,” and “yes, full-time.”

The teenagers’ feelings of family connection were assessed using ten items originally developed by Schaefer (1965) and later tested by Barber, Olsen, and Shagle (1994). The items asked separately whether a specific activity described the respondent’s mother and father. A sample item is: “My mother (father) is a person who makes me feel better after talking over my worries with her (him).” The response categories were “not like her (him),” “somewhat like her (him),” and “a lot like her (him).”

Parental regulation was determined using five items which assessed the degree to which parents monitor their adolescents’ activities (Dornbusch, Ritler, Liederman, Roberts, & Fraleigh, 1987; Steinberg, Fletcher, & Darling, 1994). The five monitoring questions asked separately if their mother and father really know who the teens’ friends are, where they go at night, how they spend their money, what they do with their free time, and where they are most afternoons after school. The response categories included “doesn’t know,” “knows a little,” and “knows a lot.”

Psychological autonomy was also measured by ten questions developed by Schaefer (1965) and recently used by Barber, Olsen, and Shagle (1994). A sample item is: “My mother (father) will avoid looking at me when I have disappointed her (him).” The response categories were the same three used for family connection.

Self-esteem and personality traits were measured using two standard scales. First, 10 items from the Rosenberg (1965) self-esteem scale were included in addition to eight items from the Norwicki and Strickland (1973) locus of control scale. The five response categories ranged from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree.” Eight items, five of which were adapted from Smith and Fogg (1979), gauged rebellious tendencies in the youth. A sample item is, “I like to shock or ‘freak out’ my parents or other adults just for the fun of it.” We also asked about three risk-taking items, two of which were taken from Bachman, Johnston, and O’Malley (1993). An example is, “I get a real kick out of doing things that are a little dangerous.” Impulsiveness was measured by three items adapted from the California Psychological Inventory (Gough, 1965). A sample item is, “I often act on the spur of the moment without stopping to think.”

School involvement. Four dimensions of school experiences were included in the model. The youth were asked what grades they received in school. Eight response categories ranged from “mostly As” to “Ds and Fs.” The importance of school was assessed by a single item which asked how important the student felt it was to receive good grades in school. Four response categories ranged from “not important” to “extremely important.”

The youth were asked which extracurricular activities, including sports, music, student government, student newspaper/yearbook, and various academic and vocational clubs, they were involved in. They checked as many activities as applied. These were summed to provide a cumulative measure of participation in extracurricular activities.

Educational aspirations were also measured by a single question which asked the youth’s educational expectations. Six possible responses ranged from, “I don’t expect to finish high school,” to “I expect to get an advanced degree after graduation from college.”

Delinquency Results

The percentages of LDS young men and young women who have ever committed any of the 12 offenses against others are presented in Table 1 (males) and Table 2 (females). It is informative to examine how many LDS youth have participated in activities ranging from making telephone threats to defying school teachers. Three major trends concerning LDS teens injuring others emerge from the two tables.

The first trend is that LDS youth behave pretty much the same, regardless of where they live. There are a couple of exceptions, but overall the similarity is amazing. The young men living in Great Britain reported somewhat less fighting than did their American and Mexican peers. They were significantly less likely to have made threatening telephone calls or to have picked on other kids. Church leaders in Great Britain advised us to delete the question about participation in gang fights because they were convinced British youth were not involved in gangs. Given the level of gang fighting among the other groups, we wish we had asked this question of youth in Great Britain anyway, to verify the absence of a gang scene. Although the British youth were a little less frequently involved in picking on other kids, the overall similarity among the LDS young people in the six different regions of the world is remarkable.

The second general trend is that the young women are nearly as involved in attacking others as are the young men. They reported less real physical abuse, such as beating someone up, using a weapon, or inflicting serious wounds that require a doctor. On the other hand, as many young women as young men made telephone threats, cursed or swore at their parents, defied a teacher at church, or defied a teacher at school. Recently, school officials have noted that young women are becoming more violent, as evidenced by vicious fighting between girls. This trend is not unique to LDS youth but seems to be a national phenomenon that may be fueled in part by women’s liberation and movement into the workforce. Both of these social movements have resulted in women becoming more like men and emulating men’s assertive or aggressive behavior. Movies, television, and video games probably also have an influence on female aggression.

The third trend to emerge from the data is the confrontational culture that has emerged in high schools. It is obvious why bullying has become such a crisis in the public schools around the world. About half of the young men and about one-third of the young women acknowledged that they have “picked on the other kids, or made fun of them.” It seems that one way high school students seek acceptance in the school community, or perhaps in a specific clique, is to demonstrate their superiority by belittling and putting down others. The putting down of others involves harassment in the halls and classrooms and ridicule of looks, dress, or academic performance.

The devastating consequences of being victimized by high school bullying have been well documented in the highly publicized cases where frustrated and angry students have responded with violent outbursts. The widely discussed assault on students and faculty at Columbine High School was mounted by two outcast students seeking revenge for the harassment they had suffered. All too frequently we read in the paper or see on television examples of students who have become so angry at the daily ridicule they suffered that they sought violent retaliation against their fellow students.

Unfortunately, the abuse does not always stop with harassment and ridicule, but occasionally escalates into picking fights and beating up other kids. It is disturbing that 10% of the LDS young men and 7% of the young women admit, or perhaps brag, that they have physically hurt someone so seriously that they required medical attention from a doctor. It is disturbing that over 5% of the boys and about 2% of the girls claim they have used a weapon like a gun, knife, or club in their attacks on other students.

Finally, LDS youth are not immune to the allure of gang membership. Over 5% of the boys have actually been in a gang fight, as have 2% or 3% of the girls. The youth in Mexico are significantly more immersed in gangs, where 18% of the boys and 10% of the girls have participated in a gang fight.

It is equally disturbing to note that over 20% of both young men and young women have cursed or sworn at their parents, and that about 10% have hit, shoved, or pushed their moms or dads. The defiance of authority figures is also evident in the number of youth who have confronted a teacher or advisor at church. Nearly a third have had serious conflict with a teacher, principal, or other school official. Although society accepts some rebellion from adolescents, this level of conflict with authority figures bodes problems for some of these youth in the future. Such behaviors are likely to continue with spouses, employers, coworkers, neighbors, and eventually the police and courts.

The data in these two tables suggest there is considerable need for LDS youth to resist the temptation to enhance their own standing in the high school scene at the expense of others. The cutting comments, the refusals to associate with, the snide remarks, and the petty harassment have devastating consequences for both the perpetrator and the victim. The more serious violence is an even greater cause for concern.

In addition, the frequency of conflict with parents, Church leaders, and teachers is worrisome. Parents, Church leaders, school officials, police and courts, and the community in general need to combat this “macho,” “me first,” or “I am number one” mentality among high school students. It is hoped that LDS students can rise to the challenge and become more kind and caring in their association with other students.

Tables 3 and 4 report the percentages of youth who have participated in offenses against property. These include shoplifting, stealing, and trespassing on or vandalizing others’ property. As with offenses against other people, LDS youth living in the different geographical and cultural areas had very similar rates of stealing or damaging the property of others. The youth in Great Britain and in Mexico reported less involvement in these types of activities. LDS young women are somewhat less involved in property offenses than are young men. The differences are not large but not surprising. Fewer young women reported stealing and damaging property than did young men.

Shoplifting is a serious problem among teenagers. About a third of the LDS boys and a fourth of the girls have shoplifted at least once. Stealing from someone’s locker, purse, or desk has occurred much less frequently. About 10% of the boys have taken a car without permission. It is suspected that most “borrowed” the car of a relative to take on a joy ride rather than stealing a car to destroy or sell. A sizable number of young men, and quite a few young women, have vandalized others’ property. Given their heavy immersion in high school culture, it is not surprising that a substantial number of youth have vandalized school property.

The results for status offenses are presented in Tables 5 and 6. As mentioned earlier, status offenses are activities that are illegal because of the youthful age of the offender. Such offenses include activities that are often not against the law for adults, such as drinking and smoking. In addition, we included actions that are legal even for youth, but which are considered by many in American society to be deviant. Viewing pornography, petting, and sexual intercourse under most circumstances are not illegal and are actually acceptable to many in society, but because these behaviors violate important gospel principles, we included them as status offenses.

Cheating on high school tests or exams is one inappropriate behavior for which LDS students match their nonmember peers. National studies have reported that 70 to 75% of students admit they cheat on tests and the completion of homework. LDS youth justify this dishonest behavior with justifications like “Everyone is doing it,” and “I will be disadvantaged in grades and admittance to college if I don’t cheat.” It is interesting to note that the LDS students living in Great Britain have significantly lower rates of cheating—17% for the young men and 25% for the young women. It is suspected that a different student culture, as well as stricter school monitoring of examinations, is responsible for this difference. Cheating is a national problem in the United States, and parents, Church leaders, and school officials should increase their efforts to teach youth that such behavior is dishonest.

The frequency of committing the various status offenses is similar between the young people living in the six geographical areas. There are some minor variations, but in general, LDS teenagers appear to behave the same, regardless of where they live. Although the differences are small, the Utah County young women generally had the lowest frequency of committing the 15 status offenses.

Contrary to expectations, young women report almost as much involvement in status offenses as do young men. One surprising finding was that a greater percentage of LDS young women revealed they were sexually active than did LDS young men. This is contrary to the national trend of young men initiating sexual activity at a younger age and being more active than young women. We explore the reasons for this difference in Chapter 6.

Although the level of status offense delinquency is much lower among LDS high school students than among their national peers, too many of the youth in the Church are experimenting with risky behaviors like drinking, using drugs, and having premarital sex; these behaviors can have long-term consequences as teens become addicted to alcohol, drugs, or sex.

The measure of delinquency we have examined so far in this chapter is the number of different delinquent activities in which a youth has engaged. In order to ascertain whether LDS youth have only experimented with an inappropriate act or whether they are frequent offenders, we calculated how often those who had participated had committed the specific act. For example, we separated out those youth who had smoked marijuana and then calculated the average of how many times they reported they had done so. In other words, we ascertained whether LDS youth who reported they had smoked marijuana had only tried it once or twice, or whether they regularly used it.

The results for offenses against others are presented in Tables 7 and 8. It should be pointed out that so few LDS teens had committed some of the acts that the averages are meaningless. For example, only one British young man had taken money by force, and only five young men in Castle Dale, Utah, had used a weapon against other youth. In such cases, the averages should be disregarded.

Fighting, including picking on other kids, picking fights, and beating up other kids, was engaged in by substantial numbers of both young men and women. The frequency of doing so was fairly high for LDS youth in most of the six geographical regions. The young people in Great Britain exhibited a tendency to defy both Church and school authorities. The answer to the question of whether or not LDS youth only experiment with delinquency or are regularly involved in it seems to be a little of both. For some offenses against others, the involvement is rather low, indicating experimentation. But some of the behaviors, such as fighting, reveal that LDS youth are regular participants.

The average number of times property offenses occurred is shown in Tables 9 and 10. Overall, there is more experimentation with property offenses and less regular involvement as compared to offenses against other people. Both the young men and young women reported repeating shoplifting, petty theft, trespassing, and school vandalism most often. The general trend is that LDS youth who have been involved in property offenses have done so rather infrequently.

Some status offenses, such as smoking, drinking, and using drugs, can be addictive, and thus we would expect to see more frequent use among those who have started participating in these activities. Such is the case (see Tables 11 and 12). Those young people who have sampled alcohol and drugs have engaged in such behavior fairly frequently. This pattern appeared among both the young men and young women. Also, the British young men and the young women in the Pacific Northwest who initiated sexual behavior became fairly promiscuous. The sexually active young women in the Pacific Northwest had engaged in sexual intercourse an average of nearly 18 times.

These six tables contain good news and bad news. The good news is that for many of the delinquent activities, the LDS high school students in our studies had tried them, but few had continued them. This was especially true for property offenses. The not-so-good news is that LDS teens who become embroiled in fighting at school tend to persist in their aggressive activities. The bad news is that those LDS teens who try drinking, drugs, and sex keep returning to participate in them. This is not surprising given the addictive nature of these substances and behaviors.

Previous research has suggested that LDS youth tend to have lower rates of delinquency than their non-LDS peers. We tested this assertion, which is based on rather limited research, by comparing the delinquency of the high school seniors in our sample to a large national sample of high school seniors (Johnston, Bachman, and O’Malley, 1995). Each year nearly 20,000 high school seniors across the nation are surveyed about their intentions for their future following high school. The survey also asks detailed questions about alcohol and drug use and a few questions about other delinquent behaviors.

In order to make our data comparable to that of the national survey, we first selected out only the seniors among the LDS students. Unfortunately, this greatly reduced our sample size in some of the geographic locations. Second, we located questions from the national sample that asked if the youth had ever committed the activity. There was a limited number of such questions, and thus we had to include questions that asked whether or not the act had been committed during the previous twelve months. These latter questions underreport the extent of delinquency among the national sample as compared to the LDS samples. Finally, many of the questions were not worded exactly the same, so the responses may not be exactly comparable. Although these differences suggest that some caution should be exercised in interpreting the comparisons, the overall trends should be apparent.

Comparisons between the national sample and LDS seniors on five offenses against others are shown in Tables 13 and 14. It is a little surprising that just as many male LDS seniors have engaged in fighting behavior as young men in the national sample. Slightly fewer LDS young women have been this involved in violent acts against fellow students. A significantly lower proportion of LDS young men and young women reported having been in a gang fight. The only LDS group to come close to the national norm of gang fighting was the Mexican LDS young men, and they probably should not be compared to a U.S. national average.

A major difference between LDS and non-LDS youth is that LDS seniors report only a fraction of the conflict with parents that their peers in the national sample did. Even in verbal conflict, the LDS youth reported arguing only a fourth as often as youth in the national sample. This indicates that LDS youth are similar to their national peers in their behavior towards their peers in school, but that they have much more peaceful and supportive relationships with their parents.

The comparisons for six property offenses are presented in Tables 15 and 16. As can be seen, LDS seniors, both men and women, have been as active in shoplifting and stealing as the national sample. The only differences are that the national sample of high school seniors engaged in more breaking into buildings, while more LDS seniors reported vandalizing school property. We cannot think of any reasons explaining these two differences and suspect they are just random fluctuations. So our belief that fewer LDS youth engage in property offenses turned out to be entirely incorrect. Again, we should point out the difference between ever having committed the offense and having committed it during the past twelve months.

Not surprisingly, large differences appear in the comparisons for status offenses (see Tables 17 and 18). Society at large, and most churches, encourage youth to avoid drugs and to be careful with the use of alcohol. On the other hand, LDS youth are schooled in the Word of Wisdom, and for most youth it becomes a behavioral guide that keeps them away from drinking and drug use. Previous research relating religion to delinquency has discovered that church affiliation and attendance are more strongly related to status offenses than to other types of delinquency. The differences between the national sample of seniors and the LDS youth for smoking, drinking, using marijuana, and trying cocaine are rather impressive. Also, we noted earlier the substantially lower rate of premarital sex among LDS youth as compared to their peers.

We had anticipated that fewer LDS youth had been involved in delinquent activities than their peers. Such was certainly the case for status offenses like smoking and drinking. Also, LDS young people indicated they had much less conflict with their parents. But we discovered that LDS youth are just as frequently involved as their peers in fighting at school and in almost all types of property offenses such as shoplifting and petty theft. In hindsight, we wish we had used questions that ask about the frequency of delinquent activities during the last twelve months. This analysis suggests an interesting question: If parents and Church leaders increase their focus on refraining from fighting, shoplifting, and stealing, will fewer LDS youth become involved in these delinquent activities?

Religion and Delinquency

Tables 19 and 20 contain the bivariate (involving two variables) correlations between the six dimensions of religiosity and delinquency for LDS young men and young women. These correlations do not describe a social reality where many forces influence whether a teen engages in a delinquent action. Rather, they identify the relationship of each of the dimensions of religiosity to delinquency if all other things were equal.

It is impressive that every dimension of religiosity except one is significantly related to delinquency for both men and women in all six geographic regions. It is obvious that the most influential aspect of religion in the lives of young people is their commitment to it. Private religious behavior, especially personal prayer, strongly contributes to reducing delinquency. Having spiritual experiences, such as feeling the Holy Ghost guide a decision, give assurance of a path followed, or confirm a truth accepted are also important.

Public religious behaviors, which are defined in this study as attendance at various church meetings, also make a contribution to a testimony and to lower delinquency. Family religious behaviors were also significant predictors of delinquency. The one nonsignificant relationship between a dimension of religion and delinquency was the association between family religious behavior and delinquency among young men in Utah County. Even though the relationship is not significant for this one set of teens, overall the results suggest that parents can reduce their teens’ likelihood of delinquency by holding regular family prayer, scripture reading, and family home evening. Finally, feelings of being accepted by peers in the Church as well as by Church leaders and ward members in general, are also associated with lower rates of delinquency.

Testing the Delinquency Model

Testing the multivariate model illustrated in Figure 1 allows the various peer, religious, family, personality, and school factors to shed light on a student’s delinquency. The model will identify the relative strengths of each of the factors and show how much of the delinquency is explained by the combination of factors. [1]

Table 21 presents the observed variables included in the Utah County boys and girls models. We present the Utah County results as an example of a measurement model. [2]

Figure 2 shows the model fit indices for delinquency among Utah County boys in the lower right-hand corner. A good fit was found between the observed data and the hypothesized model. [3]

Because of space constraints, we have summarized all of the model fit indices for each model tested for boys and girls in each of the geographical regions (see Table 22). As can be seen, the model fit indices tested show a good fit of the data to the model.

The structural equation model also estimates a structural model that identifies the factors associated with delinquency and their relative strength. Figure 2 presents the structural model for young men in Utah County as an example. As expected, the strongest predictor of delinquency was peer pressure, with a beta of .45. Religiosity was second, with a beta of –.21, followed by peer example (.19).

Interestingly, parental connection has a significant direct effect on delinquency, with a beta of –.13. The betas for religiosity and parental connection are negative, which means the stronger the ties between parent and youth and the stronger the religiosity, the lower the delinquency. In addition, parental connection, parental regulation, and parental psychological autonomy have strong indirect effects on delinquency. Parental regulation especially has a strong indirect impact on delinquency. It is no surprise that families who set rules, monitor compliance, and discipline where appropriate have teens with lower rates of delinquency. Finally, these six factors account for 66% of the delinquency reported by young men living in Utah County (R2 = .66).

The beta weights from the structural models and the explained variance (R2) are presented in Table 22 for each to the populations of LDS students. Consistent with past research, the strongest predictor of delinquency in every region for both young men and young women was peer pressure. Because the error terms for peer pressure and delinquency are so highly correlated from asking about the same activities, this strong relationship may be at least partially a result of the questions asked. Regardless, these results tell us that the more peer pressure and association with delinquent friends, the greater the youth’s delinquency. In contrast, adolescents who were less delinquent had peers who rarely put pressure on them to participate in delinquent acts.

Although not as strong, peer example also significantly predicted delinquency in about half of the models. Having friends who commit delinquent acts influenced delinquency independent of whether or not these friends pressured the youth to do so.

As we confidently predicted to our doubting friends, religiosity also had a strong direct effect on delinquency, even after controlling for peer and family influences. Beta weights for this relationship ranged from –.21 to –.47, indicating that as religiosity increases, involvement in delinquency decreases. Youth who held strong religious beliefs, participated in public and private religious behavior, had spiritual experiences, placed high importance on religion in their lives, and felt accepted in their Church congregations reported less participation in delinquency (except for the Castle Dale boys).

Other factors that were significant in some models are the personality trait of rebellion and the family characteristics of parental connection, parental regulation, and the mother’s employment. A rebellious personality tendency was a significant predictor for both boys and girls living along the East Coast and in Mexico. The family factors emerged as significant only in a few isolated cases. Because some of these factors were strongly correlated to the other significant measures in the model, their influence on delinquency may be limited by or mediated through peer influences, religiosity, and parenting practices. For example, the importance of maternal employment in predicting delinquency may be insignificant as long as parenting practices, such as family connection, parental regulation, and psychological autonomy, are found in the home.

The explained variance (R2) in delinquency for each of the models is also shown in Table 22. These are very impressive with the lowest variance at .39 (Mexico boys) and the highest at .87 (Castle Dale girls). Among the Castle Dale young women, the model accounts for an amazing 87% of the delinquency.

It was anticipated that the parental practices would have both direct and indirect effects on delinquency. In two of the models (Utah boys and Great Britain boys) parental connection was found to have a significant direct effect. Strangely, one is positive and the other negative.

The negative beta weight found among the Great Britain boys may represent a statistical anomaly because of its high correlation with other variables in the model. In structural equation analysis, this type of outcome happens once in a while and is attributed to a phenomenon known as suppression (Collins & Schmidt, 1997). Parental connection had a negative relationship to delinquency and a positive one in the structural model. This is a good indication of suppression effect. Finally, we found a direct relationship between parental regulation and delinquency among the Castle Dale girls (.30).

More importantly are the strong indirect effects that parents have on delinquency through peer pressure and religiosity (see Table 23). The data for the young men and young women living along the East Coast is missing because this study was the first conducted in our research program, and we used measures of family support and control rather than parental connection, regulation, and autonomy. The splitting of control into regulation and psychological autonomy was discovered by researchers later. Regulation and psychological control are more sophisticated measures of family processes, so we substituted them for the measure of control we had earlier used with East Coast youth.

Family connection, or youth’s feelings of closeness with their parents, had a strong positive relationship with religiosity, which in turn was negatively related to delinquency. This outcome was found in every group except Castle Dale youth. Surprisingly, family connection was significantly related to peer pressure among only the Mexican boys and to peer example only among the British girls. Connection was also related to rebellion in several regions.

Parental regulation produced the strongest indirect effects on delinquency through religiosity, peer influences, and rebellion. Compared to the other parenting variables, it is clear that parental regulation has the strongest influence in deterring delinquency through its positive influence on religion and its impact on helping youth resist peer pressure and select less-delinquent friends. The importance of parents setting rules, monitoring compliance, and disciplining when appropriate is fairly obvious (see Table 23). Another interesting finding is that based on the high correlation found between family connection and parental regulation, it seems that families who are highly connected are also more likely to have parents who regulate their children’s activities. This relationship may account for the lack of an effect of parental connection on peer influences.

Likewise, parental psychological autonomy had strong indirect effects on delinquency, mainly among youth in Utah County and girls in the Pacific Northwest. For these groups, parental psychological autonomy, like parental regulation, had a strong positive influence on religiosity and a strong negative influence on peer pressure, peer example, and rebellion—all of which predicted delinquency. In other words, parents who allowed their children freedom of thought and expression raised youth who were more religious and less influenced by negative peer influences and rebellious attitudes.


The analysis presented in this lengthy chapter provides rather convincing evidence that religion plays a major role in the lives of LDS teenagers, especially in the teens’ involvement in delinquency and other antisocial behavior. LDS teens who have stronger religiosity, as indicated by accepting Christian and LDS beliefs, by attending Church meetings, by engaging in personal prayer and scripture reading, and by sincerely trying to live their religion engage in significantly less delinquency than do non-LDS teens. Those LDS high school students with the strongest involvement in the Church have the lowest rate of delinquent and immoral behavior.

We found that religion has this powerful influence on LDS youth even within the context of peer pressures and friends setting inappropriate examples. Through the gospel and through Church programs, parents have the means to combat the destructive influence of less-religious, sinful, or immoral friends or associates. The data leaves little doubt that the gospel is a shield against the negative pressures of friends and associates that LDS youth experience in the high school environment.

We were not surprised by the strong support between family and religion in preventing delinquency. The Church’s emphasis on family life and parents’ responsibility to teach and nurture children in the gospel weave family and religion together. Those social scientists who argue that parents have little impact on how their teenage children behave away from their parents have missed the direct effects and the powerful indirect impacts of family processes on religiosity and on the ability of teens to withstand negative influence of peers—and ultimately on delinquency. Those families in which parents and teenagers share a loving relationship have the foundation for the family to exercise appropriate regulation of the teens’ behavior. Within a warm, supportive relationship, parents and youth can work together to establish family rules and the appropriate discipline for disregarding them. When discipline occurs within a loving relationship, the youth are not alienated from their parents but accept the discipline as a learning experience which was motivated by the parents’ love and concern.

The importance of parents encouraging their teenage children to develop their own set of guiding principles (psychological autonomy) is clearly evident in the results. Parents need to foster in their teenage children the internalization of beliefs, opinions, principles, values, and attitudes that are consistent with gospel and societal values. Youth who internalize their own guiding principles become independent young adults.

Finally, we were gratified to discover that the gospel’s influence operates within the lives of LDS high school students residing in a variety of religious climates and in different cultures. The same general results emerged across the United States, in Great Britain, and in Mexico. LDS teenagers and LDS families are the same regardless of where they reside. Gospel principles are timeless and apply among all cultures.

All things said, the gospel and a gospel-centered home nurture youth who emerge as competent young adults in whom parents take joy. Religion is clearly a powerful deterrent to delinquency among LDS high school students. In subsequent chapters we will ascertain the gospel’s impact on a variety of other behaviors, such as academic achievement and feelings of self-worth.


This chapter was coauthored by Janice Garrett Esplin, who at the time of this research was a graduate student in sociology at BYU. After obtaining a master’s degree, Garrett worked for the Research and Evaluation Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of ­Latter-day Saints.

[1]. Structural equation modeling first computes a measurement model to identify measurement error. The measurement model tests the relationship between the specific questions asked of the students and “latent” variables such as religious beliefs or self-esteem, which are based on several questions. The measurement model used confirmatory factor analysis based on twelve questions to test the appropriateness of the observed variables as indicators for the latent variables like offenses against others.

[2]. An acceptable factor weight is .35, while an acceptable R2 is .30. The results for Utah County show that according to the factor weights and the R2s, the observed variables are all strong indicators of the latent variables. This outcome is the case for the boys and girls models in every geographical region. As a side note, because delinquency, peer pressure, and peer example each refer to the same activities (if the teens had performed the activity, if their friends had pressured them, or if their friends engaged in the activity), correlations between the corresponding items’ error terms (theta epsilons) were freed in the measurement model to separate item-specific relationships from underlying construct relationships. In spite of the similarity in the questions, three independent scales emerged from the factor analysis.

[3]. The delinquency model produced a χ2 of 428 with 200 degrees of freedom mainly due to the large sample size. This high χ2 raises some concern about the fit of the data to the model. However, when considering the degrees of freedom, the Comparative Fit Index (CFI) of .957 also indicates an acceptable match between observations and latent variables. Moreover, the model’s Tucker-Lewis model fit index (TFI) of .941 indicates a relatively good fit between the data and the model. The root mean square residual (RMSR) of .017 further suggests that the revised model is well designed. All of the different measures of fit taken together indicated a good correspondence between the hypothesized model and the observed data.


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