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Keeping Kids Out of Gangs

Parents have more influence than they might think

WEDNESDAY, Jan. 2, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- Most teens usually choose to spend time with friends instead of family. But that doesn't mean parents still can't influence their kids' behavior, particularly when it comes to involvement with gangs.

According to a recent study from the University of North Carolina, certain parental behaviors reduced the likelihood that teens would get involved in gangs. But, the most effective way for parents to help their teen steer clear of gangs varied, depending on the race of the family.

"The biggest predictor of kids' gang involvement was whether they had friends in a gang," says study author Chanequa Walker-Barnes, an assistant professor of psychology. "But parents were still able to have an effect."

Walker-Barnes studied 300 Miami ninth-graders, 55 percent of whom were male and all of whom were between 13 and 18 years old. Fifty-four percent were Hispanic, 25 percent were African-American and 21 percent, white.

She interviewed each teen extensively at the beginning of the study and then followed up every three weeks for the next seven months. The teens were asked about their parents' behavior, their friends' gang activity and their own gang involvement. Gang involvement included such habits as spending time with gang members, wearing gang colors, or flashing hand signs.

Over the course of the study, Walker-Barnes found that about one-third of the teens had significant involvement with gangs, though many of them did not identify themselves as gang members.

Children in African-American or Hispanic families whose parents exerted a lot of control over their behavior tended to be less involved with gangs. But, that same type of strict control made white teens more likely to get involved with gangs, she found.

To measure parental control, Walker-Barnes had the teens answer questions about how much freedom they had in 29 behavioral areas, which ranged from the kind of clothes they wore, to curfew times, to deciding whether they would go to college.

Walker-Barnes says teens from Latino and African-American families tended to view strict, controlling behavior as evidence of a parent's love. But white teens felt it meant their parents didn't trust them. This suggests that parental guidance efforts must take cultural differences into account if they are to be successful, she says.

The study, published in a recent issue of the journal Child Development, also found that boys were slightly more likely to be influenced by peer pressure than girls, according to Walker-Barnes.

Therapist Kenneth Shore, author of the book, "Keeping Kids Safe," says, "What makes a lot of sense in this study is that parents are not as powerless as they think in helping kids ward off gang activity."

Previous studies have suggested that peers exert more influence on teens than their parents do, he adds. But parents need to know that they can have plenty of influence as well, Shore says.

What To Do

"Parents need to monitor their kids' peer relationship," says Walker-Barnes. "Friends have a really strong impact on behavior, so parents need to know who their kids' friends are and where they are all the time."

Shore suggests providing a supportive family life and activities that give children an alternative to gangs. He acknowledges this may be more challenging for families with two working parents. But, it's imperative that working parents find positive activities to engage their children in. Unsupervised kids are more likely to get into trouble, he says.

Also, parents should not be afraid to set limits, like curfew times, Shore says.

To learn more about gangs and how to keep your children out of them, visit the Gang Crime Prevention Center Web site.

San Diego's SDInsider.com offers this list of warning signs that could signal gang involvement.

SOURCES: Interviews with Chanequa Walker-Barnes, assistant professor of psychology, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; Kenneth Shore, Psy.D., author, "Keeping Kids Safe," Hamilton Township, N.J.; November/December 2001 Child Development
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