How Violence Warps Childhood Friendships in Chicago

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Friends and family members attend a memorial service for 17-year-old twin brothers Edward and Edwin Bryant, who were shot and killed early Sunday morning on October 31, 2016, in Chicago, Illinois. The two were among 17 people killed and more than 40 wounded by gun violence in the city that weekend. Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

How do children figure out who to be friends with? Obviously, they have only a limited pool to work with — classmates and neighbors, basically — but beyond that, developmental psychologists have found that the process is driven primarily by homophily, or the human tendency to be drawn to that which is similar to us.

As the sociology doctoral student Anjanette M. Chan Tack of the University of Chicago and the sociologist Mario L. Small of Harvard University write in a new article in Sociological Science, “Children have been shown to be drawn to peers with whom they share a broad suite of similarities, including intellectual interests, academic aspirations, hobbies, and physical appearance, as well as personality traits such as humor, politeness, sociability, sensitivity, play style, and play complexity.” This process occurs in a “largely organic, intuitive, and affective rather than instrumental” manner, they write. “Children have been found to gravitate toward similar peers through natural attraction and common activities rather than to engage in character assessments of potential friends or carefully weighing the pros and cons of befriending particular peers.”

Chan Tack and Small’s article, which is fascinating and heartbreaking, is about a jarring exception to this normal process of childhood-friendship formation: What happens in highly violent neighborhoods — or at least the ones they studied. The researchers spent a year effectively embedding themselves in two elementary schools in violent parts of Chicago, hanging out with students and interviewing them about how they determine who to be friends with, and about the nature of those relationships. Specifically, they engaged in “in-depth, open-ended interviews with 44 children in Goodwin and Brown [the names they give to the schools for the purpose of masking their identities], supplemented by interviews with 16 of their parents and 12 of their teachers and … field observations, primarily on site at each school and secondarily in the surrounding neighborhood.”

Chan Tack and Small found that the kids at Goodwin and Brown had very different ways of forming — or not forming — friendships than what the extant literature suggests about other types of kids. In the paper, they identify five strategies they observed among their subjects: protection seeking, avoidance, testing, cultivating questioners, and kin reliance.

Here’s a quick rundown. As you read it, keep in mind that according to Chan Tack and Small, many children engage in multiple strategies:

Protection seeking: This one’s pretty self-explanatory. Some children made friends with children who they knew could protect them from violence. “When I came here I didn’t know anybody,” one student named Marcus told the researchers, explaining how he came to be friends with two other students, Tina and Rob. “Rob was like, ‘Stick around me, ain’t nobody goin’ to mess with you.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, okay, nobody ain’t goin’ to mess with me now.’ Tina, she, she sticks up for me a lot. So, I was like, ‘Yeah, you is my best friend.’ If a dude came over here trying to fight me, they all just be right behind me. So, he would just walk on, get on his jolly way.”

Avoidance: “While many children sought protection in response to violence,” write Chan Tack and Small, “others avoided investing emotionally in friendships altogether. At some times, this avoidance manifested itself in total isolation; at other times, children cultivated many ‘associates’ but no close friendships.” As they explain, this was a strategic decision: If you don’t have close friends, they won’t get you involved in the neighborhood’s many, many dangers. Sam, for example, explained that — as Chan Tack and Small paraphrased it — he was “wary of friendship because such relations [could] give peers power to pressure him into delinquent activities that put him in danger.” If there’s conflict all around you, and much of that conflict stems from social ties, eschewing close social ties can make sense as a strategy.

Testing: “Often,” write the authors, “children created ‘tests’ to assess the trustworthiness of potential friends.” One told the researchers, “I watch people closely before I try to really engage and be close friends with them.” Another explained that she watched potential friends to try to gauge the likelihood that they might spread negative rumors about her. Again, as sad as this may seem compared to how kids “normally” make friends — we are similar and see each other a lot, so let’s be friends — these strategies serve important adaptive purposes in violent neighborhoods.

Cultivating questioners: As Chan Tack and Small write, researchers who study violent neighborhoods have found that “both men and women face a street code wherein signs of disrespect must be quashed.” That doesn’t mean they want to engage in violence — rather, they recognize that “its consequences are costly, messy, and unpredictable.”

One strategy for avoiding violence whenever possible is to keep a close eye on what people are saying about you:

In violent contexts, “quick wits and quick fists confer status” (Papachristos 2009:79). In such environments, early warning about public insults gives individuals time to develop face-saving strategies that reduce the mandate to protect their reputations through physical violence. The children in our study exhibited friendship patterns that were shaped by these dynamics. Children described how they used friendships to help them forge face-saving, nonviolent responses to reputational threats. They did so by choosing friends who would engage in what we call reputational repair work. Children selected friends who were skilled at neutralizing insults made about them in their absence, who informed them about others’ insults, who publicly discouraged them from escalating arguments, and who publicly coaxed them away from physical fights.

In other words, the sooner you find out about a threat to your reputation, the better equipped you are — and the more options you have — to resolve it peacefully. And if things get heated, say on a playground after school, it’s a huge asset to have friends who can visibly discourage you from engaging in violence — “It’s not worth it — let it go.” That makes it easier to back down without being seen as cowardly.

Kin reliance: “Many of the children turned to kin to buffer them from violence and to fulfill the emotional and companionship needs that friendships ordinarily provide,” explain the researchers. Then they quote Tracey, who described to them “how dependence on peer-age kin kept her from transferring from Goodwin to a school with better academic opportunities”: “I don’t know how I would ever survive,” she explained. “You want to be close to your family, just in case anything happens. You might need them for something and they won’t be there. If there was like a fight and you might get jumped on, they would help you not fight but cool it down. Instead of fighting just talk it out to solve the problem. Like that.” Other children expressly avoided non-kin friendships because they had seen, over and over again, the problems that friendships can lead to — here there’s a whiff of the avoidance strategy.

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What really stands out in all of this is the sheer turbulence of these kids’ lives. They really can’t afford to form friendships the way kids from safer neighborhoods do; they always have to watch their backs, and their friends’ backs. A snippet from one interview really drove this point home:

There’s a lot of gangs. It’s a lot of Black Disciples, Gangster Disciples, there’s a couple more. There’s a lot of Gangster Disciple Killers across the track from my grandma’s house. The Tre’s what’s been doing a lot of shooting right here at the gas station … You gotta watch where you walk out here. You can’t walk up to that gas station by yourself. You can’t go to the park by yourself. Matter of fact, no boys should be over there at all unless they know some people over there. Can’t even walk to the library without getting jumped. I walked to the library, I got jumped. Just ’cause I wanted to go read a book I got jumped.

This is an extreme situation, of course — not all kids in violent neighborhoods have to think so long and hard about their every movement. But having to think about everything more is a constant throughout this paper. For Chan Tack and Small’s subjects, nothing can be carefree; there are always threats lurking about.

The whole paper is sad, but perhaps the saddest part comes at the very end, when the researchers draw a direct line between childhood-friendship strategies in violent neighborhoods and the levels of distrust that plague those same neighborhoods:

The core neighborhood condition the children we interviewed responded to was pervasive, proximate, and unpredictable violence. Their response was a notably strategic approach to friendship formation in ages as young as 11, a set of strategies likely to have long-term consequences for trust, prosocial behavior, and interpersonal relations. In fact, given these conditions, it is not surprising that studies of social networks of adults in disadvantaged neighborhoods have reported high levels of distrust (Smith 2007). Distrust may result not from neighborhood poverty as such but from early exposure to interpersonal violence and the tragically strategic responses children are forced to develop. The effects of violence on how children learn to relate to others may be one of the core mechanisms through which neighborhoods affect social relationships among adults.

There’s really no way to overstate the impact of pervasive violence on kids — it’s a lesson social science teaches us over and over and over.

How Violence Warps Childhood Friendships in Chicago