Mothers overwhelmingly want what is best for their children. But what happens to a mother’s hopes and dreams for her son when he is charged as a juvenile offender?

A new study finds that, overall, a mother’s aspirations for her son remain the same after his offense. But if he continues to stay in trouble with the law, her expectations that those aspirations will become a reality tend to decrease. This was particularly true for mothers of younger offenders.

“Mothers who were a part of this study had uniformly high aspirations for their sons — as in, what they hope and dream that their sons will achieve,” said Dr. Caitlin Cavanagh, assistant professor of criminal justice at Michigan State University (MSU). “What changed, however, were their expectations of the feasibility of those achievements.”

The study findings are published in the Journal of Research on Adolescence.

Many studies have focused on how parents influence their children in an academic setting by sharing aspirations and expectations, Cavanagh explained, but little has been studied as it relates to juvenile justice.

For the study, Cavanagh interviewed more than 300 first-time juvenile offenders and their mothers over a course of 36 months. The mother-son pairs were mostly non-white and living in the metropolitan areas of Philadelphia, New Orleans and Orange County, Calif. The sons’ offenses were low- to moderate-level crimes, such as theft, assault and vandalism.

To identify the mothers’ aspiration levels for their sons, or what they wished for their sons’ futures, Cavanagh asked the mothers several questions, including how important it was for them to see their sons graduate from high school, get married, find a good job, etc.

When talking to mothers about expectations, or what they thought was likely for their sons to achieve later in life, Cavanagh also asked how likely the moms believed that these goals would be met.

The mothers were interviewed right after their sons’ arrests and again a few years later to see whether their expectations had changed if their sons continued to break the law.

“What was especially interesting was that of the 317 mothers we interviewed, zero said ‘unimportant’ when it came to their aspirations for sons. In spite of their run-ins with the law, it was still very important to mothers to see their sons thrive,” Cavanagh said.

“Although their aspirations stayed the same, their expectations that those aspirations would become reality decreased in response to continued delinquency.”

The findings were more distinct for moms of younger offenders. For example, a mother of a 13-year-old offender has lower expectations for her son than a mom with an older teenage boy.

“For younger offenders, mothers’ expectations decreased more rapidly in response to continued delinquency than for older offenders. This could be because mothers worry that the doors will close on opportunities for their sons when they are breaking the law so young,” Cavanagh said. “If you have the ‘bad kid’ reputation early on, it’s hard to erase.”

Among the moms surveyed, those who came from lower socioeconomic backgrounds had greater aspirations for their sons than the better-off mothers.

“Goals related to upward mobility may be more salient for lower-income mothers, who may want their sons to ‘get ahead’ and change the circumstances in which they were raised,” Cavanagh said.

Source: Michigan State University