On my first day of work at the community center, I wasn’t nervous. After all, I’d supervised youth “delinquents” in corrections programs; I’d worked juvenile probation. I knew this gang-run neighborhood was teeming with kids who had few choices, and even fewer resources. I knew exactly what they needed: structure, guidance, mentoring. To say no to drugs and yes to education.

I expected to put in 2–3 years and move up and out.

I was not expecting Marco.

Marco was not impressed with me or my college education. He was living a life I could barely comprehend: he’d been stabbed, beaten, set on fire and burned (on purpose) with an iron. In the first year I worked there, he was shot at, hit by a car and “violated” by his gang — meaning they’d taken turns beating him with their fists over some rule infraction.

He lived in abandoned buildings, shoplifted daily and once wrapped his 6-year-old cousin’s head in duct tape to make him stop crying. He slept on the back seat of cars while his mother gave blowjobs in the front. He carried drugs for his uncles, guns for his gang, and money for dealers.

He was 13.

Over the next several years, Marco and his friends gave me an education I never could’ve gotten in a classroom. They taught me fact from fiction about life on the streets, and about what it does to your humanity when you have to fight for your survival every day. They taught me reality from textbook about conflict, connecting, and what a risky business it is to trust another person. 

Because I didn’t go after 3 years, or 10 years, or 25.

I simply couldn’t leave them.

Here’s What I Learned

If you’ve spent any time with children, you know that they are the world’s best lie detectors. They seem to intuitively know when the adults around them are sincere.

For kids living in high-risk environments, this is doubly true. These kids have learned to read body language and voice tones like FBI profilers. For some, it’s a matter of survival. They have developed the ability to “hear” when the adults around them are escalating from argument to violence; to “see” a looming problem like an eviction; and to “feel” the tension that means “it’s time to run”.

Me (answering my phone at 2am): Marco, why aren’t you at home?

Marco: Man, Kay. You just don’t know. It was time to be up outta there. People talking crazy.

In this risky world, disobeying adults is often warranted, and only occasionally punished. These kids will generally act on their own instincts, rather than your directions. They will trust their own feelings in any given situation, rather than your guidelines.

Of course, they have neither the maturity nor the life experience to realize that this approach is badly flawed.

This reliance on their own judgment has kept them safe many times. It becomes reflexive, even in situations where it’s clearly detrimental.

In a classroom, this will look like defiance, disrespect or disobedience.

There are a few ways to combat this:

Be Authentic

  1. Create an environment in which it is “safe” for them to follow directions without question. A space where the rules are clear, fair and consistent; where corrections are given with love and respect; and where their compliance does not come with humiliation.
  2. Practice being non-competitive in interactions. Project calm, loving, assertive energy. If you have hidden doubts about your own authority, they’ll know.
  3. Remember that your tone of voice and your facial expressions will have more impact than your actual words, at least at the outset. You probably know someone who says the nicest words with the coldest intent. Or, as Marco called it, “the shine”.
  4. Be willing to build relationships with them. They are accustomed to superficiality and manipulation. Authenticity will be met first with confusion, and then with joy.


  1. If you listen to high-risk kids, especially if they’re younger than 14 or so, they’ll tell you everything you need to know.
  2. If you don’t know what gang territory they live in, for example, or what the acceptable colors are, then you’re not listening.
  3. If you don’t know what their lives are like, then you’re not paying attention.
  4. Are they verbally abusive or sarastic or fond of name-calling? This is how people talk to them. Are they quick to take offense? Easily insulted? Slow to apologize? This accurately reflects the adults in their lives. Do they hit first and ask questions later? They are accustomed to being hit first, with explanations coming later, if at all.
  5. Do they routinely mischaracterize or misunderstand the statements of others? Remember that we need language even to think. Poor language skills will directly impact their ability to think clearly and communicate effectively. They need words to identify emotions, concepts, ideas — words they often don’t have. Boys, especially, may not even be able to identify any emotions other than rage or sexual arousal. Fear, sadness, loneliness, anxiety, etc., may all be interpreted as anger.
  6. Listen to your kids. Listen to their conversations, their weekend adventures, their favorite music. Give them the words they need to think critically. Help them build a vocabulary that includes optimism, hope, determination and self-worth.

You’re Not Colorblind. This is a Good Thing.

How many times have you heard someone say “Oh I don’t see color.” Or “There’s no such thing as race … we’re all a part of the human race.” Or “We’d all be better off if we stop talking about color and just focus on our humanity.”

Usually, people who express this have the best of intentions. What they are hopefully trying to say is “I don’t treat people badly because their race or color or ethnicity is different from mine.”

The problem with this idea is that race/color/ethnicity plays a critical role in how people experience the world. Racial bias — individualized and systemic — is not a thing of the past. For millions of people, it is a daily reality. Even more so for kids in high-risk environments, because they have few protections against it.

What can you do about it?

  1. Work to identify and eradicate your own biases. Yes, you have them.
  2. Plant the seeds of critical thinking by asking the kids “Why?” and “I wonder why this happened/why you feel that way/why he said that?” Don’t judge the answers; the point is to think it through.
  3. Make sure there is diversity in your program materials, guest speakers, etc., but don’t feel the need to point it out. Let it become the new normal.
  4. Recognize that this is a large and complex issue, and you’re not going to solve it by yourself. Commit to learning about racism and confronting it when you see it.
  5. Advocate for high-risk kids. Don’t let others silence or dismiss them. Speak up for them!

Don’t erase them. See them in living color.

Image credit: Pixabay

Know the Difference Between Discipline and Punishment

You are administering effective discipline when:

  1. The child’s safety and well-being is your primary goal.
  2. Your boundaries are clear, fair and understood.
  3. Your boundaries do not change based on your emotions.
  4. Your boundaries are enforced consistently and impartially.
  5. You are feeling calm; you have no internal doubts about what you’re requiring.

You are administering punishment when:

  1. The assertion of your authority (and the child’s submission to that authority) is your primary goal.
  2. Your boundaries sometimes inadvertently result in favoritism.
  3. Your boundaries change based on your energy level or your feelings.
  4. Your boundaries have been breached without comment in the past, leading to an overcorrection.
  5. You are feeling angry, self-righteous or resentful.

Be the Change You Want to See

Kids in high-risk environments develop a set of destructive behaviors and attitudes which have long-term effects on school performance, social acceptance and economic success. You cannot argue, punish or reason them out of these attitudes.

But you can provide them with an alternate world view.

You can model peaceful conflict resolution.

You can give them opportunities to achieve their goals.

Here is what Marco said when he aged out of program:

I felt like I was in a box. I couldn’t get out, and my counselor couldn’t get in. He tried to help me, but there was no way in or out. He could see the door, but I couldn’t. Then I got arrested with my boys. For the first time, I realized I had choices. For the first time, I thought hey maybe there really IS a way to get out. I did my 6 months in jail and came back to program. I didn’t trust anybody, at first. But I trusted my counselor. He said there was a way, and he had never lied to me, so I kept looking until I found it.

Unlike so many of his contemporaries, Marco found the door. He is, today, a married father of 3 beautiful girls, working in auto repair.

You can BE the change.

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