“The First Family is not in the White House, it’s in your House”
As American citizens we have been raised with the concept that the “First Family” refers to the family of the President of the United States, which resides in Washington D.C. in what we refer to as the “White House”. This is an important honor we give the presiding President and his family as we recognize their leadership, position of authority and convey respect for their family. Thus, when I say, “the First Family is not in the White House, it’s in your house”, it is in no way intended to disrespect or take anything away from the honor of the office of our President. Rather, it is an attempt on my part to use this well known metaphor to catch the attention of parents and drive home a message about the importance of their role in raising their kids as the best means of preventing them from joining gangs.
To illustrate the importance of the role of parents in gang prevention, I am reminded of a conversation I had one day as I was attending the birthday party of one of my church members’ children. The Grandfather of the child was there and as we were sitting together, we had the following exchange:
“Richard, I want to ask you a question. A lot of kids in this community listen to you and with all the problems we are having with gangs and violence and these kinds of kids, why don’t you get them all together and talk to them?” I replied, “Well that would certainly be helpful and I have and will continue to do that. But, I don’t think that is really the best way to handle this situation”. He looked at me somewhat puzzled and said, “What do you mean?” I replied, “Well, since you are a gardener by profession; let me put it to you in a way that I know you will understand. If you walked by your neighbors garden and saw that the flowers were all wilted, dry and dying, who would you rather talk to, the flowers or the gardener?” With that a smile broke out on his face and in Spanish he told me that I was right and had a made a good point that he really had not considered before. I explained to him that our children were like the flowers in our garden and the parents were like the gardeners, and if we really wanted to make the best and most effective prevention impact, it would be the work done with “gardeners”, more than just the “flowers”. Thus, the first hand experience I have gained throughout my 25 plus years of working with gang members and at-risk Latino youth & families has lead me to the conclusion that parent-child relationships are the key to prevention. This may seem too simple and obvious, but as I continue to examine and study these problems and talk with those involved in gangs or considered “at-risk” for joining a gang, it usually comes right down to the parent-child relationship, or lack thereof, that is at the root of these problems.
I realize this point of view puts a lot of pressure on parents and lays much of the carcass of blame at their feet, and although I do not believe the parents are always to blame for every child who goes astray, I do think that if we parents are willing to take part of the credit for the success of our children, we ought to be just as willing to accept part of the blame when our children fail. This does not mean that the parent is a bad person, negligent, or abusive. But what I have found is many parents have simply never really learned many of the things I discuss in this book. Those who have learned these things and practice them, in most cases, have healthy relationships with their kids who are leading productive lives. These parents probably learned how to have a healthy relationship with their kids from their parents, or whoever was the principle person who raised them as children. Yet, all too often, many of us lacked parents who could demonstrate to us how to go about building healthy human relationships and thus we end up using the age old philosophy of child rearing; “If it was good enough for me, its good enough for you”. In order to examine if this age old philosophy is a correct view to use in raising our children, we have to first look within ourselves and be honest about what the practices of our parents produced in our own emotional healthiness. Next, if we already have children, we have to look at what these “inherited” child rearing practices are producing in our own children and their relationships with their siblings, relatives, teachers, friends and authority figures of which parents are the most important.
In working with the problem of gangs, the focus is usually on “what they are doing”, rather than on “what they are missing” that other “normal” kids, who live in the same neighborhoods, go to the same schools and play in the same playgrounds, seem to have that gang members don’t have. As we have come to learn, gangs are nothing more than substitutes for parents and family life that all human beings desire to be a part of. All of us have the same needs to be accepted as we are, loved for who we are, and given attention, dignity, respect, and self-worth. We all have a need for the emotional, intellectual, social and spiritual parts of our lives being nurtured and built up to their inherent potential. I suggest it is this fundamental understanding that is often overlooked when looking for solutions for children and teens that have gone astray. Contrary to popular belief, kids want to respect their parents and live in a healthy, happy relationship with them. But almost all of the gang members I have talked with did not have it and were really brokenhearted about it. It became the hole in their hearts that they have tried to fill with gangs, drugs, alcohol, sex and other negative stuff that just does not fill that hole, no matter how hard and long they have tried to fill it with these other things. I would even go so far as to say that even “good” kids who are successful in sports, academics, or other socially acceptable things, yet don’t have a healthy, happy relationship with their parents, also have that same hole or emptiness of heart, and nothing, not even “success”, can fill it like the unconditional love and acceptance of a parent.
Thus, as we continue to search for answers to a number of issues regarding youth that are being heavily influenced by gangs, I suggest that one of the most important messages we can support is encouraging parent leadership in the home. Parent leadership simply means to consistently make every possible effort to invest our time, talents and money into our own personal growth and relationships in our own home first and thereby communicate to our children they are the number one priority in our lives, which I contend is the key tool of preventing kids from joining gangs.
Richard R. Ramos