Violence In Chicago Shapes How Kids Make Friends

In crime-ridden neighborhoods, choosing the right friend is a matter of life ordeath.

Violence In Chicago Shapes How Kids Make Friends

Alyssa Girdwain

Scott Olson/Getty

In crime-ridden neighborhoods, choosing the right friend is a matter of life or death.

If you’re a middle-class kid, it’s easy enough to make friends. It’s the guy next door with the big backyard and the neighborhood kids who come over to play kickball. But for kids who live in disadvantaged neighborhoods wrecked by violence, friendship isn’t that simple.

A recent study published in Sociological Science investigated the link between violence and friendship formation. In it, researchers studied two elementary schools in Chicago, referred to as Brown and Goodwin, with predominantly black students from neighborhoods with violence rates double to triple the city’s average.

For one year, researchers observed children in their schools and neighborhoods. They also conducted in-depth interviews with 44 students ages 11–15, 16 parents and 12 teachers. Students discussed the number and nature of their friendships, their social activities, and how acquaintances evolved to friendships. Researchers expected when and how often children change schools to be the main reason certain friendships formed, but instead they discovered that violence overwhelmingly dictated the friendship-making process.

Most children talked about their constant contact with bullies and gangs and the threats to their personal safety they experience every day .

“I don’t go outside around here and I don’t think their [my friends’] mothers lets them go outside around here either…I’m scared stuff is going to happen to me,” said one 7th grader who witnessed a stabbing across the street from her home. For many interviewees, the are no boundaries between neighborhood and school violence. It’s unpredictable and pervasive.

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Based on the interviews and observations, researchers determined the students in their study use five strategies, often in combination, to form friendships to minimize threats of violence:

“Protection Seeking”

Students who enact this strategy make friends with people who can protect them, should a potentially violent conflict bubble up.

“Around here, you’d be lucky for somebody to come in for you [defend you]. That’s why people are really lucky to get best friends here,” one student said.

“Avoidance”

This is when students avoid making personal connections with other students in an attempt to inoculate themselves against the city’s dangerous influences.

“Testing”

This process occurs when students observe potential friends or put them through tests to see if they’re trustworthy. For instance, one student mentioned that she’ll tell a fake secret to a potential friend. If she hears a different person talking about it, she knows not to befriend the person.

“Cultivating Questions”

Street code dictates this process, as does careful selection. The cultivating questions model accounts for children who select friends based on their abilities to neutralize insults, avoid confrontations, and deescalate potential conflicts.

“Kin Reliance”

Sometimes, family is all you have and it’s hard to find someone as trustworthy or loyal as your own blood. The “kin reliance” strategy is guided by the belief that a good relationship with your family can help prevent violent situations. “You want to be close to your family, just in case anything happens,” said a student.

Honestly, this study is disheartening. If friendship functions as protection from violent situations, it can never be a healthy relationship. The most pure, innocent relationships we have in life are childhood friendships, and it’s crushing to know that a violent environment can deprive children of the experience.