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What Friendship Means to Kids in Chicago’s Violent Neighborhoods

Many students say they choose friends for protection or safety—they’re forced to think strategically in order to get by, a recent study shows.

Safe Passage workers hold hands during a back-to-school event.   Photo: Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune

Two excellent pieces about violence in Chicago, by some of the city’s best reporters, popped up in two different outlets in recent days: “Benny and Jorge and the quest for peace in Little Village,” by Peter Nickeas, E. Jason Wambsgans, and Mary Schmich from the Tribune, and “There’s a story behind why we shoot” by WBEZ’s Patrick Smith. A couple things jumped out at me in both.

From the former, about two former gang members who now try to keep kids out of that lifestyle:

But his hardworking father was also violent and alcoholic, and, though his mother tried to keep him away from gangs, Jorge yearned for a sense of acceptance and connection he didn’t find at home.

In the summer after eighth grade, he endured the gang’s initiation ritual — a beating by a couple of friends — and turned Two-Six.

Looking back, he has a name for the gang’s most powerful seduction.

“False love,” he says. “Because that’s what it is. The gang gives you false love.”

And the latter, about two young men who became gang members in middle school:

Both Alex and Jaime said they joined gangs because they became friends with older gang members who offered a sense of community and acceptance.

[snip]

One of the gang members eventually suggested Alex and his friends join for money and protection, Alex said.

It jumped out to me because of a sociological study I read recently, covered in The Science of Us, by University of Chicago graduate student Anajette Chan Tack and Harvard (and former University of Chicago) sociologist Mario Small, whose research on commercial density in Chicago I’ve written about before.

They set out to study how kids make friends in Chicago elementary schools, particularly in the context of the city’s school closures. Of the two schools they studied—both in areas with high levels of violence—one had an in-year mobility rate of 17.4 percent, the other 5.3 percent, giving them a good basis to see how social ties are formed.

What they found was that the potential for violence and the need for defense—among these kids ranging from 11 to 15 years old, with an average age of 13—was the main factor in how they formed friendships: “the most common responses by far centered on the risk of violence and the fear for personal safety.”

And their first response, a tactic really, was to make friends who would fight for or with them:

Many children cultivated friendships that provided physical protection in the event of a fight. The most common narratives about friendship revolved around the idea that friends should “stick up” for or “have [one’s] back.” Jennifer felt safe thanks to her friends. Because of their protection, she never had problems with bullying or fights. Her friends “don’t just hang with you. If somebody bother you, they don’t let nothing happen to you; they always got your back.” Dennis explained why he chose his two best friends. “I know if somebody walked up to me, and they said they was going jump me, they would be right there to help me.” Natasha explained the difference between friends and best friends. “If we’re friends, we hang out, we talk. But, [my best friends], they got my back anytime. If something happens, they be defending me. They used to jumping in.”

This intersects badly with another reality of life in their schools: trying to anticipate violence and sometimes trying to get the drop. One student told the authors that she wanted to “avoid fights,” but had been suspended for nine days over five fights in one year. “My parents told me you will know if a person is about to hit you. All you got to do is look in their eyes,” she said. “If a person approach you and they giving you a face; if they walk back up to you, then you’ve got to punch them out.” It’s a lot of young kids on guard.

Most students don’t end up fighting, making friends with kids who fight, or joining gangs, of course; part of the point of the article is to show how kids mix strategies to get by. The authors found other strategies that the kids used to avoid such situations which, while sensible, aren’t necessarily happy. There was avoidance, simply being “aloof,” and defining friends from an absence of malice: “A friend is a person who won’t try to make me do stuff bad stuff, dumb stuff. Like trying to force me to do stuff.”

Others tested their friends—one used a spy-like tactic of feeding potential friends misinformation to see if it spread or stayed in confidence. The most positive strategy they found were students who made friends with kids with a gift for de-escalation, “skilled at neutralizing insults made about them in their absence,” a great skill in any context but perhaps rare among any group of middle-schoolers, much less people generally.

These coping strategies, as anyone who went through elementary and middle-school will recognize, aren’t isolated to schools in violent neighborhoods. What the authors emphasize is how much more common they are, “forcing children to think strategically first and in light of affective interests [i.e. fun stuff] later.”

In turn, it reminded me of what Carla Shedd told me when I interviewed her about her book Unequal City, also a sociological work about CPS students, in this case high-school kids. She focused on how they navigate heavily patrolled neighborhoods and schools with a police presence, and the subtle cues and strategies they use to avoid the attention of the police. “Think about all the opportunities adolescents have to figure out who they are and try different things. These kids don’t get that same freedom to do that,” she said. “That’s not a mark of their adolescent experience, and it ages them.”

The authors certainly consider the idea that strategic thinking in friendship networks exists among kids this age: “In contexts where there is no violence, children are simply strategic about other things,” they write, concluding that “only comparative work can tell," but some of the strategies will almost inevitably be familiar.

Middle school is famously cruel even when it doesn’t manifest itself as violence. But it’s much different in kind and degree, with basic physical protection being the first priority and more sophisticated forms following. Even for the kids who make it through safely, it’s a lot to think about, a lot of stress, and a lot of fear.

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