Into The Abyss:
A Personal Journey into the World of Street Gangs

by Mike Carlie, Ph.D.        
© 2002
Michael K. Carlie
Continually updated.

~ Table of Contents ~
Home | Foreword | Preface | Orientation

What I Learned | Conclusions
End Note |
| Appendix
Site Map / Contents
| New Research

Up-To-Date Gang-Related News

Part 2:
What Families Could Do

Field Note: An international gang researcher told me "Adults haven't bothered to ask the youths what they want. We'd learn a lot if we'd do that. They know what they need and we must know what those things are."

When friends and colleagues first learned I was going to spend my sabbatical studying gangs, they asked me why I was going to do that. "After all," they said, "isn't it the family's fault?" They were referring to the oft-heard comment that "bad" kids, or kids who join gangs, are a product of dysfunctional families.

I was prone to accepting that explanation back then, but I no longer accept it. After seeing the social environment in which many of the families I studied reside, I realized most gang youth come from families located in dysfunctional neighborhoods. Few families in such dysfunctional settings can avoid becoming dysfunctional - although some do. I learned it was more the dysfunctional neighborhoods that needed fixing than it was the families in them, although both need attention.

A neighborhood is dysfunctional if its residents live in fear. A neighborhood is dysfunctional if its playgrounds are the haunt of drug dealers and pimps. A neighborhood is dysfunctional if its schools have paint peeling off the walls, out-dated libraries, and teachers who are afraid to go to work. 

Life Experience: A friend of mine was going to school for the first time as a teacher. As she entered her classroom she noticed the blackboard in the front of the room was shattered in three places. During lunch she visited with her new colleagues in the faculty lounge. She asked "What happened to the blackboard in my classroom?" "Don't you know," said one teacher. "No," she replied. "You don't know why the position you filled was open?," another asked. "No," she once again replied.

One of the school counselors explained. "There was a shooting last semester. One of the students, a nine-year-old boy, stood up in the back of the classroom and shot at the teacher. The first two shots missed but the third hit her in the neck and killed her."

A neighborhood is dysfunctional if its residents see no hope of gainful employment nor hope for a better life for themselves and their children. A neighborhood is dysfunctional if the social institutions which are supposed to make life full of meaning and bountiful are weak, absent, or in a state of denial.

I think it's possible that dysfunctional neighborhoods produce dysfunctional families, not the other way around. For this reason I believe gang activity and youth violence may be reduced by changing the neighborhood - by making its social institutions more responsive to the needs of local residents. Rebuilding the social institutions (i.e., school, faith, business, government, and families) will restore a sense of "community" and should reduce gang activity and youth violence. 

There's an analogy I like to use that is appropriate here. Have you ever heard some one ask "What's the use of rehabilitating criminals in prison when we just send them right back to the neighborhoods from which they came and where crime is a way of life?" Likewise, what sense is there in trying to rehabilitate a family when the environment in which that family lives is dysfunctional? Healthy families produce fewer delinquents and gang members than do families that are dysfunctional. 

Healthy or functional families may be identified by exhibiting many different attributes. Among them are having parents who:

bulletlove and take responsibility for their children

bulletpromote family activities to build strong and loving social relationships (i.e., take picnics together, trips, tours, and bike rides. Hold birthday and graduation parties, attend sporting events and programs at the local nature center. Take hikes and have weekly after-dinner discussions. Watch a funny movie together and laugh a lot.).

bulletprovide positive family role models (i.e., teach how to be a good father or mother by conscientiously exhibiting role-appropriate behaviors, relate to the children as one would have them relate to others, resolve conflicts without resorting to violence, abstain from substance abuse, model the work ethic).

bulletestablish clear rules and set appropriate punishments for their violation. They celebrate when the rules are followed and use discipline when they are not. They scale punishments to be minor for minor infractions and more significant for more serious violations. At no time do punishments include the use of violence (verbal, psychological, or physical).

bulletpromote the positive use of television and other forms of media.  They set certain hours during which TV may be watched (only after completion of homework and for only so many hours). At least one adult in the family watches television with their child and talks about the programs when they are over if explanations are needed. They use media programs as a teaching tool.

bulletmonitor the content of TV programs, movies, and music to omit the viewing of violence (verbal or physical) and include positive programming (shows that promote socially responsible values and depict such roles as student, child, and parent in a positive light). If violence is viewed, it is discussed with the child in order to build a resistance to and avoidance of its use.

bulletseek out parenting skills training and support for their efforts.

bulletuse community-based social services that assist in efforts to reduce family violence and victimization.

bulletcreate multiple opportunities for their children to learn more about creating a healthy environment for themselves (i.e., the friends they choose, the way they play, the foods they eat, personal hygiene, abstaining from substance abuse).

bulletparticipate in their child's education in a positive manner. This may be accomplished by seeking or offering tutoring for their child when needed, rewarding good performance, encouraging regular attendance at school and participation in extra-curricular activities (i.e., sports, theater and music, community service) and by taking an active role at the school meeting and getting to know their child's teachers and counselors.

bulletknow the children with whom their child is socializing and are wary of children exhibiting values that are in conflict with those the parents are trying to foster in their child.

What Can Families Do?

The greatest contribution families can make to reducing gang activity and youth violence is to raise children who have no interest in getting involved in such behavior. The Search Institute, known for their developmental assets approach to raising socially responsible and happy children, offers families useful insights concerning parenting and family life. 

According to the Search Institute, "There are many things families can do to build assets in their children and adolescents ... An asset-building approach to parenting has many benefits. Instead of focusing on problems, the asset-building approach offers a positive approach to parenting." (Search Institute, site

There's a great deal of literature on the World Wide Web which is available for those interested in raising healthy, gang-resistant, non-violence children. The following list describes several of the best web-based materials available. 

Useful Publications and Web Sites

Reducing Gang Violence

Here are some insights on how families can deal with at-risk, aggressive children, how you can Take Action Against Bullying and how to raise children to resist violence.

Building Strong Families

Competency Training: The Strengthening Families Program: For Parents and Youth 10-14, by Virginia K. Molgaard, Richard L. Spoth, and Cleve Redmond.

"The Strengthening Families Program: For Parents and Youth 10-14 has proven effective in reducing adolescent substance abuse and other problem behaviors and in improving parenting skills and enhancing child-parent relations. This Bulletin serves as an important resource for educators, policymakers, researchers, and community organizations in their efforts to improve the outlook for children and families." (Wilson, August, 2000, From the Administrator)

A growing number of children are experiencing conduct problems—aggression, noncompliance, and defiance—and at earlier ages. Because these problems may be predictive of delinquency, violence, and other antisocial behavior, escalating aggression in preschool and elementary school children is a particular cause for concern. (Wilson, June, 2000, page, [see From the Administrator])

Family Skills Training for Parents and Children, by Karol L. Kumpfer and Connie M. Tait.

"Originally designed as a drug abuse prevention program to help drug abusing parents and their children, the Strengthening Families Program has developed into a family-change program that has served the needs of culturally and geographically diverse families and their children across the Nation.

"Several examples of such varied adaptations of the program's strategy are described in [this publication]. Suggestions for implementing the program in communities are also provided, as are additional resources that should prove useful." (Wilson, June, 2000, page, [see From the Administrator])

Parents Anonymous: Strengthening Relationships

"This Bulletin describes how the organization works to strengthen families by promoting parent leadership, mutual support, shared leadership, and personal growth. Programs that support positive development are also offered for children.

"The Bulletin tells the story of the creation of Parents AnonymousSM by a concerned mother and her social worker, summarizes its structure, and describes key program components. A typical weekly meeting is detailed and examples of Parents AnonymousSM programs are provided." (Bilchik, April, 1999, page, [see From the Administrator])

Family Strengthening and Support Services

Morley, et al., (2000) review several community-based family support programs which have proven to be successful in strengthening families.

Responsible Fatherhood, by Eileen M. Garry.

"This report examines the role States play in promoting responsible fatherhood, looks at trends across the States, identifies and profiles State strategies to encourage fathers to be responsible, and summarizes fatherhood-related data on a State-by-State basis." (OJJDP, 1997)

Family Works: Strategies for Building Stronger Families 

The University of Illinois Extension office provides useful information linked to each of the following topics: Respect, Stress, Managing Time, Responsibility, Schools, Discipline, The Teen Years, Gangs, Drugs, Cultural Diversity, and Maximizing Learning.

Parenting Wisely

The Parenting Wisely intervention is a self-administered, computer-based program that teaches parents and their 9- to 18-year-old children important skills for combating risk factors for substance use and abuse. The Parenting Wisely program uses a risk-focused approach to reduce family conflict and child behavior problems, including stealing, vandalism, defiance of authority, bullying, and poor hygiene. The highly interactive and nonjudgmental CD-ROM format accelerates learning, and parents use new skills immediately.

The Parenting Wisely program: reduces children's aggressive and disruptive behaviors; improves parenting skills; enhances family communication; develops mutual support; and increases parental supervision and appropriate discipline of their children. (Source: The US Department of Health and Human Services).

Click here to read a real story of a single mother of five who, desperate to control her kids, used the Parenting Wisely Intervention. There are other "Model Progams" in which you may be interested (see the list of them on the left side of the web page).

Insights on Childhood

The Incredible Years Training Series, by Carolyn Webster-Stratton.

"The Incredible Years Parents, Teachers, and Children Training Series, described in this Bulletin, is designed to prevent, reduce, and treat conduct problems among children ages 2 to 10 and to increase their social competence." (Carolyn Webster-Stratton, 2000, page, see From the Administrator)

The Nurturing Parenting Programs, by Stephen J. Bavolek, Ph.D.

"This Bulletin describes how parenting patterns are learned and how the Nurturing Parenting Programs help to stop the generational cycle of abuse and neglect by building nurturing parenting skills." (Wilson, November, 2000, page, [see From the Administrator])

Basic Skills for Successful Parenting, from The Parenting Page.

The author identifies appropriate disciplinary techniques for use with children and guidelines for successful parenting.

Families and Schools

The National Parent Teacher's Association (PTA)

The PTA offers several useful flyers each on a different way to provide a healthy lifestyle for children.

The National Parent Information Network (NPIN)

"The mission of NPIN is to provide access to research-based information about the process of parenting, and about family involvement in education. We believe that well-informed families are likely to make good decisions about raising and educating their children." (page)

Families and Schools Together (FAST): Building Relationships, by Lynn McDonald, ACSW, Ph.D., and Heather E. Frey.

"Youth at risk of adolescent delinquency often come from stressed and socially isolated families. These children also frequently fail in school and may eventually drop out. This Bulletin profiles a program, Families and Schools Together (FAST), that brings at-risk children and their families together in multifamily groups to strengthen families and increase the likelihood that children will succeed at home, at school, and in the community.

"Based on research and family therapy, FAST builds protective factors for children and increases parent involvement with the family, other parents, the school, and the community." (Bilchik, November, 1999, page [see From the Administrator]

Focus Adolescent Services

This organization provides useful online  information on parenting teens.

How Can I Be Involved in My Child's Education?, by Lynn Liontos. (This site may load slowly on your computer.)

This two-part publication, sponsored by the Educational Resource Information Center (ERIC) Clearinghouse on Educational Management, answers the following questions: What Can I Do To Involve Myself With My Child's School?, How Can I Help My Child With Homework?, How Can I Make Our Home a Good Place for My Child To Learn?, What Should I Do If My Child Isn't Doing Well in School?, What If My Child Doesn't Like School?, and provides a list of resource organizations for parental involvement.

The Impact of Divorce and Separation on Children

Family Disruption and Delinquency, by Terence P. Thornberry, Carolyn A. Smith, Craig Rivera, David Huizinga, and Magda Stouthamer-Loeber.

"Despite a multitude of happy exceptions, it is a sad truth that children in families disrupted by divorce or separation have a greater chance of exhibiting problem behavior, including delinquency, than children being raised by two parents. This Bulletin examines the impact that multiple changes in family structure have on an adolescent's risk of serious problem behavior." (Bilchik, September, 1999, page [see From the Administrator])

That concludes a review of some of the things families could do to raise children with little interest in gangs or in behaving violently. Now let's take a look at what reformed gang members could do to help reduce gang activity and youth violence.


Additional Resources: What to do when your teenager is in trouble. Resources on teen and family issues.

How to recognize when your child might be involved in a gang from Parenting with Dignity. The National Crime Prevention Council sells a useful kit entitled Tools to Involve Parents in Gang Prevention

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention offers information on best practices for preventing youth violence.

Visit The Dad Zone at Baby Center if you're planning on having baby, expecting a baby, or just became a dad.  Or visit Parenting 101, "a place to build parenting skills that help parents to discipline kids from toddlers to teens as well as to encourage children and adolescents to feel positive about themselves and to become the winners they were meant to be." (page

Building Parenting Skills is a wonderful source of information on how to handle aggression in one's child as well as depression, drugs, and other matters. Ladies Home Journal has some useful tips on raising kids. Parenting Resources, sponsored by the National Institute of Justice, offers a wealth of information on effective parenting.

Parents: The Anti-Drug is a very useful site and one which helps parents deal with the difficult subject of drugs and discipline in the home.

Are you the parent of a tagger?

© 2002 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.