Throughout childhood, children learn from the surrounding people. Specifically, a child’s family and friends have the greatest influence on their growth as individuals. Through interacting with these close connections, children learn what behavior is acceptable and unacceptable, legal and illegal, etc. They learn which behaviors are rewarded, punished and even if the behavior can go unnoticed. How behavior is defined and presented by those around them will influence their own definitions and, thus, these definitions will provide a framework for their future behavior. For two years, Kotlowitz chronicled the lives of the Rivers’ family, particularly Lafeyette, age eleven, in his book, There Are No Children Here. He described the multi-faceted horrors the family faced daily from 1987-1989 in the Henry Horner housing project of inner-city Chicago. The family was confronted with poor living conditions, poverty, drugs and violence, and murder.
The family was on welfare and their mother was the primary caregiver of Lafeyette, Pharoah and their five other siblings. The Horner housing project was surrounded by gangs and violence. Shootings and murder occurred almost every day and drug usage and sales were prevalent. Lacking educational and employment opportunities, the family had no other option than to stay in the projects enduring hardships.
These difficulties affected Lafayette immensely. Layfette was between the ages of eleven and thirteen when the book was written. Those are formative years when so much is changing physically, emotionally and socially. The years were even more difficult by his living conditions, which exposed him to criminal activity. During the two years that were chronicled, Layfette saw his brother incarcerated for criminal behavior and watched his sister battle a drug habit. His father battled alcohol and drug addictions. His close friends, Bird Leg and Craig, were murdered on the streets. Layfette’s close friend, Rickie, digressed down the path engaging in drug use, gang activity and use of weapons. Because his family and friends were the primary sources of connection for Layfette, their life choices negatively influenced Layfette’s perspective and outlook on life.
Learning how to act, interact, and react to given situations is learned. Social learning theory states that crime and deviance is learned through interactions with others, especially family and friends. Those with whom we associate can teach us behavior toward crime that is favorable or unfavorable. Tendencies toward crime and deviance can be reinforced through positive rewards for such behavior. Learned deviance from a young age that is encountered frequently and extended over a long period of time increases the probability that such behavior would be ingrained in one’s thought process.
Layfette was surrounded by deviance. Throughout the book, Kotlowitz mentions that for years, Layfette saw family, friends, neighbors and the community choose to engage in criminal behavior; theft, vandalism, assault, police brutality, poverty, and alcohol and drug abuse were commonplace. Layfette drew upon these experiences while making his own decisions.
It was clear that Layfette wanted to make wise choices despite what was going on around him. He valued his mother’s opinion and resisted being involved in crime for a time do to his mother’s insistence. She encouraged him to do well in school and saw his potential for living a life outside of the projects. To increase his likelihood for success, she discouraged him from hanging out with people that would introduce him to a personal, first-hand account of understanding crime. As the story unfolded, Layfette had a hard time evading the impacts of the area’s penchant for criminal behavior.
The oppressive environment was difficult on Layfette. The death of his friends, Bird Leg and Craig, hit Layfette hard. He became withdrawn and isolated himself. Layfette rarely talked to his mother, further secluding himself from her positive influence. He moved from positive influences on to negative ones. Involvement with pseudo-gangs, shoplifting, and negative interactions with the police landed Layfette in trouble with the law. The deviant action displayed by others in that society now seemed to be exhibited by Layfette.
After thirteen years of being submerged into an environment as horrific as Horner House in Chicago, it would be extremely difficult to put aside what Layfette learned over that length of time. Projecting someone’s life’s course based on their passed learning experiences would not fare well in Layfette’s case. I would surmise that the familial experience with drug and alcohol use would put Layfette at risk for similar behavior. His father, sister and brother used alcohol and drugs as a coping mechanism in life. I believe that as life progressed, Layfette would have a similar fate.
Alcohol and drug dependency would not be the only issue facing Layfette. While growing up, he encountered all too often gangs and gang related activity, which included the use of weapons. While I don’t believe that Layfette would be involved in gangs, I would not be surprised if he owned or possessed a weapon. I do not believe that Layfette would use such a device to hurt someone intentionally because he saw the devastation that guns cause in the death of his two friends. He may, however, use the gun for self- protection or petty theft.
Whether it be gun use, alcohol, or using/selling drugs, I believe that Lafayette will be, at some point, incarcerated for criminal behavior. It hurts the heart to project someone’s future based on past experiences. It is especially difficult when a negative projection is forecasted for a child that has no ability to change their life’s course. Yet without a significant change in environment or pro-social groups, people will continue to learn criminal behavior from the society around them.
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