Absence of a
Family and its Unconditional Love,
Positive Role Models, and Proper Discipline
Gang members often
come from homes where they feel alienated or neglected. They may turn to
gangs when their needs for love are not being met at home.
et al, 1994)
[After completing a ten-year
study of gangs in New York, Boston, and Los Angeles, Jankowski wrote] I found
that there were as many gang members from homes where the nuclear family was
intact as there were from families where the father was absent." (Jankowski,
1991, p. 39)
Why Gangs Form
Why Youths Join
form due to the absence
of a family and its unconditional love, positive
adult role models, and proper discipline.
for a family, unconditional love, positive
adult role models, and proper discipline.
Gangs form as a substitute for having
no family or for having a dysfunctional family which failed to
provide unconditional love, positive adult role models, and proper
discipline (not too lenient and not excessive).
The National Science Foundation recently summarized the current state of
affairs regarding families in the United States. Their report portrays the
family as being in the midst of a struggle to survive the impact of social
and economic changes.
There is widespread agreement that the well-being of
American society depends on the health of America's families. Consensus
also exists that the social and economic changes of the last generation or
more have made it increasingly difficult for families to raise the next
The list of changes is familiar - real incomes have
declined since the early 1970s and have become more polarized, public
schools are less able to meet the challenges of preparing a well-educated
citizenry, married women have joined the work force in large numbers,
divorce rates have increased dramatically, and a rising share of American
children are being raised in single-parent households.
These changes have posed challenges particularly for
poor families, and also for racial and ethnic minorities. However, no
segment of our society is immune to the effects of these changes, which
have produced a growing sense of crisis even among the well-to-do.
Science Foundation, 2001)
The Family as Socializing Agent
There are several factors that contribute to the
formation of youth gangs: lack of parental guidance, lack of love and
respect from the family, and deterioration of the family unit. It is these
factors that drive the youth elsewhere to satisfy their needs to be accepted
and to belong. (Campbell,
1992, p. 58)
"The family is the most
important agent of socialization in the United States, especially for
2001, p. 101) The socialization process may be
briefly defined as the way in which a culture's values are transmitted from one
generation to the next. If a culture values human life, that value will be transmitted from
parent to child through the process of socialization. If respect for another
person's property is valued, that value will also be passed along. If adherence
to society's laws are valued, the child will probably become be a law
abiding adult because that value was passed along. A myriad of values are transmitted in this
fashion if there are family members or guardians present early in a child's
life who believe in those values and who are willing to spend the time to
pass them on.
Other individuals, groups, and social institutions participate in the socialization of a culture's
youth such as schools, peer groups, mass media, and faith institutions. But the
family is the first and primary socializing agent. Terence P. Thornberry (1998),
in an excellent summary of family-related risk factors for gang
In general, poor family management strategies
increase the risk for gang membership by adolescents (Le
Blanc and Lanctot, in press; Moore,
1988). More specifically, low family involvement (Friedman,
Mann, and Friedman, 1975; Le
Blanc and Lanctot, in press), inappropriate
parental discipline (Winfree
et al., 1994), low parental control or
and Klein, 1983; Campbell
Blanc and Lanctot, in press, Moore,
1991), poor affective relationships between
parent and child (Campbell,
1991), and parental conflict
Blanc and Lanctot, in press) put
youths at risk for becoming gang members. These family-based risk factors
are quite consistent with those generally observed as increasing risk for
involvement in delinquency (Hawkins,
Catalano, and Miller, 1992; Loeber
and Stouthamer-Loeber, 1986).
Gangs take root in
schools for many reasons, but the primary attraction of gangs is their
ability to respond to student needs that are not otherwise being met; they
often provide youth with a sense of family and acceptance otherwise lacking
in their lives. (Burnett
and Walz, 1994)
If the family is absent, if there is a dysfunctional family, or when
there are competing value systems being presented to a child, the
transmission of mainstream cultural values may be endangered. The values may not be
transmitted or those which are may run contrary to the values of the
such as single-parent families or conflict between parents, does not as such
predict gang membership. A variety of other variables must accompany a weak
family structure to produce a gang problem youth, including [failure to
complete developmental stages] and the availability of a peer group that does
not fully support family and school.
et al., 1994, p. 4)
In their study of juvenile females,
Fejes-Mendoza, et al, found
relationships of juvenile female offenders were characterized by
mother-daughter friction, criminal role modeling of siblings, and multiple
sources of abuse. Although familial abuse and modeling of criminal
activity is typical in the history of most delinquents, what was most
striking in profiling family dynamics of juvenile females studied was the
stormy relationships with adult females, such as mothers and teachers.
et al., 1995, p. 318)
Many gang youths come from dysfunctional families. Among the dysfunctional
traits are child abuse, spouse abuse, substance
abuse and addiction, parental gang membership, the absence of one or both
parents, internal family strife, and poorly blended families (a family made
up of two adults, each with children from relationships other than the
current one). If
a child is raised in a family in which the parents are themselves
gang members, there is little hope the child will escape being socialized
into a gang and adopt the values of its members.
Family problems and parenting difficulties can increase
the risk of kids joining gangs. Many kids who join gangs come from
middle-class families with two biological parents at home. However, many of
these youth come from homes that are deeply troubled. They seek from the
gang what they are not getting (or will not accept) from their
They are looking for acceptance, love, companionship,
leadership, encouragement, recognition, respect, role models, rules,
security, self-esteem, structure and a sense of belonging. When children's
emotional needs are met in families, the results are positive; otherwise
they may look to gangs, and the outcome is usually negative. (Lingren,
Unconditional love is love that endures through hardship, disapproval, and
time. It is not contingent upon some condition or requirement. Those who experience it are fortunate and many of them possess an internal strength
and acceptance of self which prepares them for life as contributing members of society.
Fatherlessness in America is at historically high
levels. Four out of 10 children - an estimated 24 million - do not have
their fathers present in their homes. Research shows that children from
father-absent homes are more likely to do poorly in school or drop out;
suffer from lower levels of self-esteem; get involved with drugs, alcohol
and gangs; become teen parents; get into trouble with the law; or become
Department of Education, 2001)
Those who seldom or never experience unconditional love seem
bound to seek it out or face a life of self-doubt. A visit to the Psychology or Self-Development section of
an American book store should provide sufficient evidence of the seemingly overwhelming desire
of people to be loved unconditionally, accepted, and to feel as though they are wanted.
I observed a court case in which a sixteen-year-old male was taken
to juvenile court on a complaint from his mother. He had no prior
record. She was angry with him for persistently refusing to clean up
after himself in the house. The last time he discarded an empty container
of soda in the wrong place was the straw that broke the camel's
She filed a complaint with
juvenile court that he
was "incorrigible," an offense which may be committed only
by juveniles and which asserts the alleged culprit was incapable of
being corrected or reformed.
The judge asked the mother
"What do you want us to do?" to which she yelled "I
don't give a shit! Do what ever you want. He doesn't listen to me
anymore!" The judge found the
boy to be delinquent and sent him to hard labor at the state boy's
facility until he reached the age of majority. In his case, that was
a one year sentence.
My own experience with gang members suggests few came from a loving
environment - certainly not one which offered unconditional love. Even gangs may be dysfunctional in this regard.
Their abuse of some of their own members and continual tests of loyalty do
not resemble unconditional love.
According to Dr. Mary Appenzeller, a counselor at the Child and
Adolescent Psychotherapy and Diagnostic Evaluation Center in Bethesda,
When a girl joins a gang, "her role models are other gang
members, and not responsible adults," and although these girls may have poor
adult role models at home, the gang members they may idolize are equally
poor role models. Often they are led down a path of violence, drug abuse,
and casual sex, ending up pregnant or in court before they have graduated
from high school. (Winder,
Positive Adult Role Models
Most youths who become gangsters have had
no positive adult role models in their lives. In too many cases, their
adult role models are frequently in and out of prison. (Yablonsky,
1997, p. 7)
Field Note: A
federal prison official who has worked for nearly 15 years in some
of America's largest federal prisons told me "There are
problems in African-American culture that need to be addressed, and
men not wanting to be fathers is one of them. What do you think the
impact of that is on their children? And on the women who bear
their children? They're not around to offer financial support, let
alone the other kinds of support a man should provide his wife and
"The use of birth control is either unknown
or they're simply not willing to use it and there doesn't seem to be
much family planning. The women ...
mothers ... have to work because their husbands aren't around.
So they have latchkey kids. Who's going to take care of them - their
"The grandmothers are
getting stretched to the limit and, today, the grandmothers were
teen moms themselves and don't know what to do and they're sick of
doing what they don't know how to do. Gangs end up being the parents
or family for these kids."
From 50 to 85 percent
of gang members come either from a single-parent home, or one in which no
parent resides. If the parent is not available to provide structure,
supervision, support, and caring during this crucial time of adolescent
development, teens may turn to gang participation to fulfill their needs. (Lingren,
As has been noted in much of the literature on gangs, many of their
members come from single parent homes in which the mother is the only
parent present. As we have learned, in families where the father is absent
there may be no positive adult male role model for a young male child to
'The gang is a product of the broken home' was a popular
saying among those who worked with gangs in the 1950's. Research during
and after this period appeared to grant considerable support to this
belief, although the language was altered somewhat to fit the terminology
of the times. The research suggested a causal link between youth gangs and
males reared in fatherless households.
The argument, in brief, was that the absence of a stable male role
model in many low-income households created identity problems for males
and that the gangs, with their emphasis on tough masculinity, male
bonding, and macho values, in essence took the place of fathers in
providing a model of male identity for boys raised primarily by women.
Gang membership played a vital role in learning and practicing the
characteristics and attitudes of male adulthood.
Insofar as the proposed link between gangs and fatherless families is
valid, one would expect that communities with gangs would have more
female-headed households than other communities and that an increase in
the number of female-headed households would lead to an increase in the
number of gangs. Available data support
Between 1970 and 1995, the population of gang cities in the United
States increased from 21 percent to 50 percent of the city population.
Statistics for the periods from 1970 through 1993 and 1970 through 1990
show that the number of households with children under 18 living with
'mother only' increased from 11 percent to 23 percent for the general
population and from 30 percent to 54 percent for African
A substantial majority of the African American households were located
in the inner-city areas where gangs traditionally have been found. While the increase in the number of children raised in female-headed
households is smaller than the increase in gang-city populations, both the
direction and general magnitude of the changes are similar. The increase
in female-headed households would thus appear to be related to the
increase in gangs. (Miller,
2001, p. 45 or page,
italics added for empahsis)
|Field Note: A
British intelligence specialist
told me "The United Kingdom doesn't have a gang problem like the problem in the
United States." I asked him to describe for me his perception of the gang situation in the
"I see the gang members coming from dysfunctional homes,"
he said, "with only one parent who is
poor and probably on welfare. The area in which this family lives is in a
culture of street violence. I think youths in the USA join gangs as a
substitute for the lack of a family in their own life. At least that's the way I think it is with the core gang members."
Surprisingly, the next thing he
said was "In 20 years time
we'll have exactly what you have."
A gang can be a functional alternative to having a family. It may provide
its members with a sense of belonging, affection, mutual support, and
association. Among the differences between a family and gang, however, are the gang's possible initiation
requirements, the expectation that its members will violate the law and conceal the
criminality of fellow members, conditional love/caring, and the need
to present a certain bravado which precludes being vulnerable and opening
one self up for examination and guidance. Being threatened with
punishment or murder for leaving the gang also differentiates gangs from a
Youths often feel that
gangs can protect them and keep them safe within the neighborhood, even
when lacking parental support for the decision. When children are not
monitored or supported by their parents (especially in single-parent households),
gang membership becomes more attractive to youth. Joining a gang,
therefore, seems to be one mechanism for an adolescent to find both family
fulfillment and protection. (Reiboldt,
"Gangsters often claim that the gang is organized for protection and
a feeling of having a family. This is often a hope and a myth rather
than a reality." (Yablonsky,
1997, p. 20) That some youths who join gangs hope to find a
surrogate family is understandable but, depending upon their level of
desperation, this need may blind them to what the gang is actually about
and the consequences of joining which may follow.
some cases the gang is merely looking for additional members in order to boost its
reputation as the biggest and most powerful in the neighborhood. They
sometimes have little
regard for the welfare of their members. Some gangs seek new members with
the expectation that the new members will carry out the least desirable or most dangerous chores of the gang
transporting illegal drugs, killing people, conducting drive-by-shootings, holding the weapons).
I asked a long-time West Coast gang unit member why he thought some
kids join gangs. He replied "Effectively, none of them have parents and, if
they do, the parents have poor parenting skills.
Their kids don't take responsibility for their actions. And their parents and the criminal
justice system don't hold them responsible for their behavior."
Youths with low
self-control levels reported that they were more deeply involved in gangs
than youths with high self-control, as were youth who did not receive close
parental monitoring. (Lynskey,
et al, 2000)
Field Note: The juvenile officer told me "Gangs are the result of poor parental
supervision and a lack of discipline."
appropriately, discipline reinforces compliance with family expectations.
When not used, or used inappropriately, it results in neglect or abuse of a
child. Excessive discipline (to the point of abuse),
inconsistent discipline (sometimes the result of the discipliner's substance
abuse, incompetence, or absence from the home), or lack of discipline (possibly neglect,
the most common form of child abuse) encourage the onset of misbehaving and
set into motion a cycle of abuse that may drive a child from the
family home. It drives some children to form gangs and others to join them.
Note: I was wondering
why the probation/parole officer was interested in working with gang
members. I asked her about this and she said "I love kids
and I saw what was happening to them [in the gangs]. I read
their files and about the terrible things they have done.
come into my office and I realize they are just people, just kids. They're usually beaten at home, so they act out in
school. Then they're thrown out of school and get involved in
bad things. These kids need structure in their life -
discipline. They seek it out and, all too often, find it in a
What does it drive a child to? Will this child gravitate to other
children experiencing the same thing in their homes? Will the
misbehavior, played out at school, result in a stigmatizing of the child as
a trouble maker and cause him or her to be placed with other such children? Will
they form a group, act out, and become a gang? All of these
things can and do happen, many of them as a result of an unhealthy family
Field Note: As to why youths may join a
gang, a senior
patrol officer said "Its for the money because
many of these kids have no family or its a dysfunctional family." He
told me some of the parents he is dealing with are "in their twenties - children having children.
I don't think some of these families love their children, so the children
might join a gang where they think they'll get the attention and affection they need
- that we all need. Some of the parents are crack heads themselves."
By way of summarizing, I want to share with you what
researchers found regarding the relationship between family influences and
delinquency in New South Wales, Australia. Their findings may not predict
gang formation and gang joining, but they do establish several reasons for
such behavior. Their findings also suggest we are not alone in our concerns
in the United States.
The parenting factors known to be related
to delinquency can be usefully grouped into four categories.
In the first category are factors
associated with parental neglect (e.g.
large family size, poor parental supervision, inadequate
In the second category are factors
associated with parental conflict and
discipline (e.g. abuse or nagging, harsh, erratic or
In the third are factors
associated with deviant (parental) behaviours
and attitudes (e.g. parental criminality, parental violence
or tolerance of violence).
In the fourth are those associated
with family disruption (e.g. chronic
spousal conflict or marriage break-up). (Loeber
and Stouthamer-Loeber, 1986)
A Note about Change
The structure of the American family has undergone
significant change over the past several decades. Where once most children
were raised in a family with a mother and father who maintained their
marriage throughout the child's life up to at least young adulthood, today
fewer children are experiencing such stability.
Almost 50 percent of all children are
expected to experience the divorce of their parents and to spend about
five years in a single-parent household.
Of young adolescents in stepfamilies, 28
percent will experience the end of that family within five years due to
While studies indicate that adolescents
experiencing parental divorce have lower well-being than those not
experiencing the divorce of their parents, the well-being of adolescents
who experience multiple parental divorces is most compromised (Lingren,
This Topic opened with a quote from Jankowski in which he
stated that he found as many gang members he studied came from intact homes
as from broken homes. What I found was that, regardless of whether a gang
member's home was intact or not, they were more likely to be defined as
unhealthy than healthy. But the lack of a healthy family setting alone is insufficient as an
explanation for the formation of gangs. Feelings of powerlessness may also contribute
You can learn more about
family disruption and delinquency and about family environment
a predictor of adolescent delinquency. The Texas Youth Commission offers
useful insights and suggestions for policy
pertaining to the relationship between family life, delinquency, and crime.
Michael K. Carlie
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be
reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means without permission in
writing from the author and copyright holder - Michael K. Carlie.