Gangbusters: Parents Still Play Key Role In Saving Kids From the StreetsStudy examines ethnic differences in the effect of parenting on gang involvement, delinquencyThere’s a strong message to be taken from Dr. Chanequa Walker-Barnes’ research, and it’s simply this: Parents are not powerless, particularly when it comes to saving their kids from street gangs.
Indeed, the conclusions Walker-Barnes draws in her recent research project — examining ethnic differences in the effect of parenting on gang involvement and delinquency — fly in the face of long-accepted standards in her field. In 1993, for example, the National Research Council stated that the impact of deviant peers is overwhelming during adolescence for African American youth — so much so that there may be nothing parents can do to offset it.
That just didn’t sit well with Walker-Barnes, who is an assistant professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. That was part of what got her into this area, she explains, while working on her dissertation at the University of Miami.
A sudden explosion of gang membership at her high school in Decatur, Ga. — a place that formerly had only seen “two fights a year,” as Walker-Barnes describes it — piqued her curiosity about adolescent gang involvement. But it was the NRC’s dismal pronouncement — combined with the urgings of her adviser, the University of Miami’s Dr. Craig Mason — that sparked her interest in the interaction between parenting and peer relationships. “I began to ask myself what parents could do to offset the influence of negative peers,” Walker-Barnes says.
Participants in Walker-Barnes’ study were recruited from 13 ninth-grade English classes at a Miami high school. The initial sample included 300 students ranging in age from 13 to 18. Fifty-four percent of the students were Latino, mostly Cuban, but the sample also included kids from Central and South America. Another 25 percent were Black — African American, Jamaican and Haitian. And the rest of the students were White or “other.”
The majority of the students — almost 60 percent — lived in intact families, while nearly 32 percent lived with their mothers. In a small number of cases, the students lived with their fathers (3.7 percent) — or with a grandparent or aunt (2.7 percent).
With stringent anonymity protocols in place, the students completed a series of questionnaires — a long baseline questionnaire with follow-ups every three weeks for the remainder of the school year. Some of the questions measured gang involvement — defined as hanging out with gang members, wearing gang colors on purpose, and flashing gang signs — as well as gang delinquency — spray painting gang symbols, taking part in a gang fight, and selling drugs for a gang. Still others measured the levels of parental involvement — or “behavioral control.”
“Behavioral control, as I defined it, consisted in measuring the parent’s involvement in decision making,” says Walker–Barnes. “I asked a series of questions and the answers were based on a five-point scale, where the low end was, ‘I decide on my own,’ the middle was ‘my parents and I discuss it and we make the decision together,’ and high end was ‘my parents tell me what to do and don’t discuss it with me.’ “
Generally, Walker-Barnes says, “high” behavioral control has been associated with what’s known in the psychological literature as “authoritarian parenting”— high strictness combined with a lack of warmth, which is generally considered highly undesirable parenting behavior.
“What I found was that higher levels of that kind of parenting in African American kids resulted in better behavior over time,” Walker-Barnes says.
Walker-Barnes says the finding was gratifying. “In doing the initial analyses, looking at parenting for the group overall, parenting seemed to have no effect. And that was really disappointing to me because I had hoped to be able to show that it had a positive effect even in the context of having of negative peers,” Walker -Barnes says.
“Basically what was happening was that the differences between the ethnic groups were ‘washing each other out’ in the overall analysis, making it look as if peers” had the overwhelming impact cited in the NRC’s and other previous studies.
“It was breaking the data up by ethnic group that gave me the really strong, clear results,” Walker-Barnes adds.
In general, Walker-Barnes says, her study showed the level of gang involvement decreasing over the course of the first year of high school, perhaps indicating that participation in gang activities is a temporary phenomenon for many students, providing a sense of security during the difficult transition from middle to high school.
It was among Black youth, however, that parenting behavior showed the strongest, most clearly measurable impact. Higher levels of “behavioral control” resulted in lower levels of gang involvement and delinquency in that population. Meanwhile, “lax” parenting and the use of “psychological control”— in laymen’s terms, “guilt-tripping”— resulted in higher levels of gang involvement.
By contrast, higher levels of behavioral control were related to increases in delinquency and gang involvement among White/other youth, while lax parenting and psychological control appeared to have no impact on this population.
Among the largest population, Latino youth, the most effective parental strategy appeared to be the psychological control strategy. Higher levels of psychological control were associated with lower levels of gang involvement. Again, as with White/other youth, lax parenting failed to have the negative impact that it had on Black youth.
Interestingly, the level of gang delinquency remained relatively constant for the overall population, indicating that youth involved in more serious forms of gang behavior may require more serious forms of intervention in order to be saved.
Walker-Barnes’ research was published, along with Mason as her coauthor, in a recent issue of the prestigious psychology journal Child Development. Her research proves “that parenting is not one size fits all.”
“The important variable could be ethnicity or cultural background, it could be neighborhood or environment. But, depending on the context the family is in, what parents need to do in order to raise healthy children could be quite different,” she says.
The focus on families will continue with Walker-Barnes’ next research project. She will soon be starting a longitudinal study of African American families that will include both parents and children, in contrast to the school-based study that launched her into this area.
“It’ll be very intensive — we’ll be interviewing four times over the course of one year. And we’re going to target a wide range — not just low-income families, but we’ll be recruiting through churches and graduate chapters of sororities and fraternities so that we can get a truly representative sample,” she says.
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