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Selected Readarounds in Child and Youth Care

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Wannabe: Gangs in suburbs and schools

Daniel Monti

It is not particularly hard to make a baby, and there is much about the experience that gives great pleasure. It is a lot more difficult to make a human being. The process takes substantially longer. There are more by­standers watching or offering advice. There are many more ways to do it right or do it wrong. It is difficult to know when you are finished. When you do finish, it may be years before you are certain that it was any good. Worst of all, by the time you figure out that it was good, you may be too old to try again or too tired to care.

In the making of human beings at certain places and times, gangs are one of the groups that watch the progress being made by young persons and offer them advice. They teach children the difference between right and wrong. They let youngsters know where the boundary line between themselves and the outside world is set, and they give youths a sense of themselves in relation to the other persons in the group. Gangs show children how to become a particular kind of human being, and they present youths with opportunities to practice being that kind of person. Gangs reward youngsters for their effort and accomplishments, and gangs let youths know when they have become the type of person that fits in the world where gangs are found.

Gangs are democratic to a fault. They will train minority children and children with blond hair and blue eyes with equal vigor and effectiveness. They attract youngsters from middle-class backgrounds as readily as they draw in children from working-class or lower-class families. On the other hand, we find that gang membership for many youngsters is problematic. They often enjoy the idea of gangbanging more than they like the respon­sibility of being a gang member.

They find drug dealing to be scary, dead-end work. It is only slightly less so when youngsters do it as a group. Felix Padilla showed us that drug dealing does not pay particularly well and that it exacts an emotional toll on the child who does it. He was right. Now we know just how widely these views are held by youngsters and how quickly they come to recognize the precariousness of their situation. Few see themselves staying with this kind of work for an indefinite period of time. They know it is dangerous and that they can be killed doing it. The money may be good, but it is not that good.

Gang members, we know now, often are reluctant warriors, and their gangs can use violence in a far more discriminating way than is commonly thought. They are mindful of the threat that their work and play pose to the neighborhoods where they live and to their families. They could disrupt schools more than they do, and they learn that such behavior wins com­paratively little for them. A gang is important to its members, but it is not so important that most youngsters would give up their life to honor or serve it.

Gangs do not give meaning to a youngster’s life, but they certainly offer ways in which youngsters can build a meaningful life for themselves and with persons their own age. That is why gangs are so important to young persons and why it is folly to try to destroy gangs. One might as well try to destroy the youngster himself. That you or I might not like the kind of youngsters produced with the help of gangs is in one sense irrelevant and in another sense quite important to the making of a gangbanger.

Our liking or disliking of gangs and the way they make a human being is irrelevant for the same reason that our attitude toward most other ways of making a human being in this country is irrelevant. To put it plainly, we adults do not see the building of healthy, emotionally sound, well-informed, and competent human beings as the central project of our lives. We have lost sight of the kinds of persons it is important for a society to make, if it is to work well.

Monti, D. J. (1994). Wannabe: Gangs in suburbs and schools. Cambridge, Mass. : Blackwell Publishers. pp 155-156

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