It would be entirely unfair and inaccurate to say that parents bear the sole responsibility for who their children become, but it would be equally unfair and inaccurate to say that parents don’t play a major role in the outcome. In the nature vs. nurture debate I put stock in both, not as a fence sitter, but as a student of life. Nature influences how nurture will be perceived; nurture influences how nature will be expressed. The two forces work together in complement and in opposition. The result, in some ways, can be funneled into the term socialization.
Family is the first agent of socialization, responsible for teaching a child how to interact appropriately with society; first within the home and then out in the community. Other agents such as church and school supplement what is learned at home and builds upon the foundation established. Parents are not solely responsible for who their children become, but no one is more responsible than the parents, save the child himself (but I could argue that as well).
One person is an individual, two or more is a group. The basic, fundamental group in society is the family. A family may start at marriage when two individuals become a united group, husband and wife (personally I think it is best when a family starts this way), but a family definitely starts with the conception of new life: mother, father, child. This is the natural genesis of a family. Marriage has taken on labels of being a religious institution or a legal right, but I believe it is divinely appointed and naturally significant. Marriage should be an expression of love, unity, and committment; an environment into which children can be born and raised safely. Sadly, this ideal isn’t always met, often at the expense of one of the marriage partners, and always at the expense of children when children are involved. Often, if not always, it is selfish pride that destroys the family.
If the family begins by default at conception, and I suggest it does (though preferably the family began even earlier with marriage) the actions of the parents from that moment shape the child’s environment. If one is no longer involved by the time of birth, they are not free of the responsibility their actions have already taken on the child and will continue to take for most of, if not all of, the child’s life. Parents, present or not, heavily influence the development of their children. Research has been done and the results are available to see just how that influence shapes up. I won’t get into that. I simply want to address the point that the home, early on, establishes the path a child will follow in life.
At home a child learns to interact with people, primarily with adults (the parents), but also with peers (the siblings). Appropriate social etiquette, communication, and empathy are taught at home. Parents can provide an example of what a loving relationship looks like. A safe environment allows a child to explore and learn through trial and error, failing and making mistakes at time, but under the guidance of caring parents. All of this is taught explicitly and implicitly. If the parents don’t teach these things explicitly, they teach the opposite implicitly. Parenting is a great responsibility.
I would not advocate arresting a parent for a crime perpetrated by the child, but in some cases it might seem appropriate, at least as an accessory. Parents are responsible for teaching the norms and values of society to the child. Parents are also responsible for teaching the child how to make decisions, that is, to use their free will, or moral agency. The choice to act still belongs to the individual child. The question we need to consider as a society is how culpable the perpetrator is, and whether we value mercy and justice one above the other. I side with Beccaria: let the punishment fit the crime. I would add to that: make the punishment constructive rather than reactively destructive.
Delinquent behavior is not reserved for youth who experience less than ideal home circumstances while growing up, there are way too many factors to pigeon-hole it like that. Many who experience horrific circumstances as children break cycles of addiction and abuse to become healthy and successful people. Others who experience the most preferable conditions might lead a life of delinquency and social deviance. Individual will and agency will play out beyond parental influence, thankfully in some cases, but parental influence is still the first and most powerful influence for socialization.