Gangbusters: Parents Still Play Key Role in Saving Kids from the Streets; Study Examines Ethnic Differences in the Effect of Parenting on Gang Involvement, Delinquency. (Faculty Club)

By Hamilton, Kendra | Black Issues in Higher Education, July 4, 2002 | Go to article overview

Gangbusters: Parents Still Play Key Role in Saving Kids from the Streets; Study Examines Ethnic Differences in the Effect of Parenting on Gang Involvement, Delinquency. (Faculty Club)


Hamilton, Kendra, Black Issues in Higher Education


There'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 drags 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. …

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