Tuesday, February 27 2024

Kids need to be seen and heard—they need to be understood and accepted. The search for attention can result, in extreme cases, in violent behavior that endangers themselves and others.

This is a catalyst for the creation of baby gangs, which are almost always formed by groups of teenagers who commit crimes.

Popular in Latin America and the United States, these organizations are also growing rapidly in Europe.

Baby gangs, like other criminal organizations, have a vertical structure with a leader. Roles are rigidly assigned in a way that the group will be most productive and best coordinated. Although the rules of communal living are disobeyed in society, within the group, there are strict rules to be followed.

The various gangs often challenge each other. The most frequent crime they commit is the theft of wallets, smartphones, and shoes. There is a notable propensity for fighting and bullying, and in some cases, they escalate to more serious crimes (like setting warehouses on fire or demanding protection money from their parents). These kids’ role models are soccer players and rappers, who the kids imitate in their attitudes, speech patterns, and style.

Everything is amplified by social media

They frequently capture their misbehaviors on their cell phones and upload the evidence to social media or send it around in WhatsApp groups. The attempt is to find an audience that might see them as “heroes.” Spreading these groups’ content on social media only encourages other youth to emulate their behavior. In the worst cases, in the most deprived neighborhoods, there are even children as young as 7/8 years old who join these groups.

What about the families of these kids?

We can identify two key components in baby gangs:

  • There are those who have experienced “social disadvantage”—difficult childhoods, abuse, or family problems. In this category, we find kids who encountered intolerance and authoritarianism at home.
  • Other times, the kids come from economically affluent families but had overprotective parents who didn’t set rules for their kids. Rather, they accepted any bad behavior their child demonstrated from an early age. In this case, the problem is having not corrected their children as they grew up and having not taught them the value of respect and the importance of acting responsibly.

In any case, as psychologist Tania Vallonchini points out, “There is a noticeable lack of symbolic adult guidance to help teenagers navigate the path of maturing. Often these teens find themselves alone and unable to cope with frustrations and responsibilities typical of their age. In addition, they have a fragile identity that doesn’t allow them to peacefully encounter those who are different from them. The ‘other’ is a danger and not someone that can help them to grow.”

How can we solve this problem?

It is so important to create spaces and contexts where young people can get together in a healthy way. Schools, sports, and cultural associations could play a key role in helping make this happen. Young people need to get together and socialize; however, it is vital that adults create the conditions for this to happen under the guidance of cardinal values like respect and care for others. Alternative “rules of the road” need to be offered.

The importance of school and sports

Schools could offer psychology courses that aimed to teach kids about respect for others.

Additionally, should any troublesome situations arise, the school could have a network setup to help families work through it. Particular attention should be given to the children of immigrants who are torn between their parents’ culture and that of their host country, making it difficult for them to integrate.

Sports are also crucial because this environment can keep kids from getting bored and feeling like they don’t have any prospects. Sports offer kids the chance to live by certain rules, as well as the chance to make a commitment and set a concrete goal. Sports also give kids the chance to dream and to gain social and professional recognition, often allowing them to have a higher self-esteem, as well as more confidence in others and the ability to identify with others.

The presence of Christian communities

Certainly, the church and religious communities also have a great responsibility in solving the issue of violence amongst kids.

Andrea Scaglione, a former drug dealer, who was lured in when he was only 12 by criminals in his neighborhood, recounts, after his conversion to Christianity, the importance of “being on the streets.” Eradicating evil from the streets, he says, is to eradicate it from society.

Moreover, there is no shortage of examples of saints whose mission was to care for children who were experiencing homelessness, like St. Philip Neri or St. Joseph Calasanz. The former, who lived in the 16th century, renounced the life of a merchant his father wanted him to live and became a priest instead. He spent 30 years of his life serving young people and the poor in the congregation he founded. The latter, who lived at the turn of the 17th century, found himself surrounded by homeless, poor school children—almost unwillingly—and continued to find new areas to house and teach them. With the approval of Pope Paul V, he founded the Pauline Congregation of the Poor of the Mother of God of the Pious Schools, led by priests and teachers devoted to the Christian and civic formation of young people through schooling.

A shining example and one of the most famous is the life of St. John Bosco, founder of the Salesians. To him, we can accredit this phrase that says it all: “If young people are educated properly, we have moral order; if not, vice and disorder prevail. Religion alone can initiate and achieve a true education.”

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