Psychology, Department of


Date of this Version



Psychology, Public Policy, and Law 17:4 (2011), pp. 507–529.

doi: 10.1037/a0024566


Copyright © 2011 American Psychological Association. Used by permission.


Parental responsibility laws hold parents accountable for the delinquent behaviors of their children even when parents’ actions are not the direct cause of an offense. Despite the prevalence of these laws, we know little about their perceived fairness. Is it reasonable to make parents vicariously responsible for outcomes they could not have foreseen and, if so, under what circumstances? Our series of three studies addressed those questions by systematically examining the impact of various situational and dispositional factors on public opinions regarding parental responsibility. Respondents attributed most of the responsibility for a crime to the child, and attributions of responsibility to the parents varied as a function of the child’s age. Case characteristics including the type of crime committed and the described parents’ actions versus inactions did not consistently influence responsibility attributions. We conclude that people feel rather lukewarm about the notion of vicarious parental responsibility and this indifference may be related to issues surrounding the laws’ enforcement.