In violent neighborhoods of Chicago, children on the brink of adolescence are so fearful of their safety that they don't form stable friendships at school. Many don't even use the word "friend."
They say they have "associates."
At age 13 or 14, they define a best friend as someone who "always has my back" and "sticks up for me a lot" and will not run away if the "raper-man" comes. They watch their fellow classmates for a long time, even staging loyalty tests before deciding whether to get closer.
These youngsters do not talk in terms of, " 'You like computer games, I like computer games'; or 'You like soccer, I like soccer,' and we become friends,'" said Mario Small, a University of Chicago sociologist who oversaw interviews with 44 students, ages 11 to 15, at two of the city's predominantly African-American, high-poverty elementary schools in 2007 and 2008.
"There was almost none of that," Small said. "They had an extremely strategic and really disturbing way of thinking about friendship. Most of them understood their friendships in terms of the violence in their neighborhoods."
Small and Anjanette Chan Tack, a University of Chicago graduate student in sociology, originally designed their pilot study to compare the effects of student body turnover on friendships among children. They chose two elementary schools in Chicago, one with a high turnover rate and another with a stable student population. Two researchers, including Chan Tack, interviewed students in-depth over the course of one academic year.
Small said they were floored when they found that a kind of "bunker mentality" held sway at both schools, even to the point that the children, both boys and girls, routinely tested their peers and were conducting "background checks" to see whether they could be trusted, cross-checking their dependability with classmates and watching them for months and years.
"It sounded like a warlike situation," Small said. "I really don't want to sensationalize this. But, frankly, it is so pervasive among our interviewees and so powerful that I don't think the analogy is inappropriate. Violence is pervasive in the poorest neighborhoods of Chicago. There are lots of pretty serious beatings, and the 13- and 14-year-olds are already starting to become victims. At this age, the children are still learning how to negotiate their neighborhoods on their own."
One girl said she invited a classmate to a party and staged a fight with someone else to see if the classmate would intervene to defend her. Another girl, a seventh-grader, said she planted false gossip with people she was "watching" in order to test them. If she heard the gossip going around, then she knew those people were not her true friends.
You "start knowing you don't need many friends," a 15-year-old said. "You have friends but don't let them in too close, unless you've been with them forever. Somebody you just met two years ago, nn-mm, don't let them in too close..."
Those attitudes come amid a reduction in the city's most violent crimes.
Chicago Police Department statistics show that violent crime dropped by 4 percent between 2007 and 2009, and sexual assaults and aggravated assaults dropped 9 percent. From January to July this year, violent crime dropped nearly 11 percent compared to the same period in 2009.
But a Chicago Tribune poll taken in July, a day after a police officer was killed, found that only 30 percent of Chicagoans feel their neighborhoods are safe.
Small and Chan Tack presented an unpublished draft of their study in May at the annual meeting of the American Education Research Association, held this year in Denver. Small talked about it in a podcast for The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science in June. He said wanted to expand the study to the entire Chicago school system because it covers a subject "we have ignored for too long."
As if the findings aren't tragic enough, Small told Miller-McCune.com, he is worried about the children's ability to form trusting bonds with people as adults. The pre-teen years are typically the formative time when children learn how to make friends, trying different approaches. But in violent neighborhoods, Small said, children are forced to grow up faster and be more guarded.
"I'm really concerned about this not merely for the present but for the future trajectory of these children," Small said. "They are going to have trouble negotiating romantic relations and relations with their bosses. It's going to take a while for them to open up and be trusting."
And the effects could be multi-generational. In interviews with 16 parents of children in the two Chicago schools, Small's team found that the adults, many of whom grew up in violent neighborhoods themselves, consistently passed on their survival strategies to their children.
"If you have generation after generation of children growing up like this, it can be a cycle where it can perpetuate itself," Small said. "As a society, it's unhealthy. A population so consistently exposed to violence can be one of the clearest indicators of inequality."
In 1993, a survey of more than 500 children in three elementary schools on Chicago's South Side found that 26 percent had witnessed a shooting, 30 percent a stabbing and 78 percent a beating. Crime has been trending downward in the city since then, mirroring national trends, but some districts are more crime-ridden than others. One of the schools in the University of Chicago study was among the top five districts for murder in Chicago in 2007, and the other school was next to two of the top five districts.
A 14-year-old boy who was interviewed put it this way: "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. ... 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."
A 13-year-old girl who said she wanted to be a lawyer told researchers that after a stabbing across the street from her home, "I felt more scared than I already was. I really still won't go outside, because I'm scared stuff is going to happen to me, so I stay in the house and I read and I talk to my friends on the phone."
School didn't feel safe, either. One eighth-grade boy who got into a fight at school about once a year described how fights would start:
"People might not like people looking at them," he said. "So they'll say something, and everybody gets to talking back and forth, and back and forth, and they just end up fighting. The maximum time for you to look at somebody in this school is about four or five seconds."
To cope with the unpredictability and the proximity of violence, from school bullies and from strangers, the children seemed to be trying out a number of different things, Small said. This finding ran counter to previous studies, which had suggested that children confronted with violence usually chose either to withdraw or seek protection.
In his study, Small said, nine out of 10 of the children said they would not start fights, but many said they were willing to finish them. Some relied on their cousins for help or turned to older teens for protection. Some instigated fights just to make sure they were not "disrespected." Some tried to cultivate people who were good at helping them diffuse conflict while saving face, the kind of people who, if you were insulted, would say, "Just let it go, don't worry about it." And many avoided investing emotionally in friendships altogether.
One eighth-grade boy recalled how he got burned when he got into a car with some other boys without knowing the car was stolen. They all got arrested and locked up, the boy said, so now "I ain't been trying to make friends." When asked to name the most important people in his life, he said, "My family. That's it. I ain't never wanted a best friend. I just talk to people. I don't try to make friends with them. ... 'Cause I don't know if they real friends or not."
One sixth-grade girl who appeared sociable and loquacious in school revealed a warier side when it came to emotionally engaging with people. Though she played on several sports teams, she said she did not know anyone very well.
"The reason is, I don't want them to know me," the girl said. "All they know about me is my mom is a teacher and I'm 11 and I'm in their class and that's all. ...I like to keep it that way, because I don't like people to know my business as it could spread."
This girl reported having a best friend at school, but said she had never asked her for her phone number. "I would prefer her to be at school," she said. "I like to be at peace on the weekend. I don't really like to talk to people. I like to be by myself. That's who I kind of am."
"Our children are in some of the most violent crime neighborhoods in the city," Small said. "All it takes is one series of assaults in a park for the young girls to be worried about the raper-man for a couple of years. The thing about the violence here is you don't know when it's going to happen, but it has happened recently enough and near enough that you would be irrational not to be alert."