Groups of teenagers 'hanging out' on the streets may look intimidating, but young people often gang together with friends as a way of keeping safe and avoiding trouble, according to a study of parents and children in disadvantaged communities for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
The research with families in four neighbourhoods of Glasgow found that young people pooled their detailed local knowledge to avoid hazards, including violence from more organised gangs and aggression from adults with drink and drug problems. They took responsibility for keeping themselves and friends safe by moving around in groups and looking out for each other, using mobile phones to stay in touch.
"We were impressed by the positive part that young people's peer groups played in helping them to stay safe," said Prof. Malcolm Hill, Director of the Glasgow Centre for the Child and Society, who led the research project on children's resilience. "Parents were generally unaware of its importance and young people themselves recognised that sticking together in groups could, in spite of their self-protective intentions, appear threatening to some adults."
He added: "Both parents and children in these deprived neighbourhoods were keenly aware of risks within their communities and the young people had often become experts in avoiding potential trouble. They knew about avoiding people, places and certain times of day, and they deployed a range of other strategies, including keeping a low profile or asking friends or parents to accompany them in order to keep safe."
The study, which combined questionnaire surveys of 'ordinary' families with in-depth interviews, found that parents and children usually identified positive aspects of their neighbourhoods, in spite of high levels of unemployment, low income and drug misuse. These positive aspects were often associated with family, friends and neighbours.
It also highlighted a strong commitment among parents to protect children from the worst effects of low income and to keep them safe from local dangers.
This sometimes meant placing restrictions on children's movements and activities, including visits to local amenities such as parks and sports facilities. Children were mostly accepting of rules about time and place, which they took as a sign of their parents' concern. However, as they grew older some young people kept quiet about certain activities, believing they could take care of themselves.
The report calls on national and local policy makers to build on the strengths and aspirations of parents and children in disadvantaged areas, as well as tackling the heightened risks they face, such as drug misuse and antisocial behaviour. For example, policies could do more to support the informal local networks that share information about safe activities and provide families with practical advice and support.
Schools are also urged to capitalise on the evidence of parents' positive commitment to discipline and their children's safety to engage them as allies in strategies to raise standards of behaviour.
Peter Seaman, co-author of the report, said: "Parenting has been prominent in many government policies, including initiatives to tackle crime, and there is a widespread view that antisocial and delinquent behaviour by young people can simply be blamed on 'bad' parenting. Yet the parents we interviewed described sophisticated strategies they had adopted to minimise their children's exposure to danger and to guard them against temptations to go 'off the rails'.
"They also had high aspirations for their children, wanting them to have better opportunities in life than they had experienced. What appeared to be lacking was the capacity to fulfil the hopes they held, especially in education, because they did not have the knowledge or resources to realise them."