Urban Childhood

Several new books present readers with vivid pictures of how kids cope with the challenges of living in the city

CHILDREN IN DANGER: COPING WITH THE CONSEQUENCES OF COMMUNITY VIOLENCE By James Garbarino, Nancy Dubrow, Kathleen Kostelny, and Carole Pardo Jossey-Bass 262 pp., $24.95; TODAY'S CHILDREN: CREATING A FUTURE FOR A GENERATION IN CRISIS By David A. Hamburg Times Books, 376 pp., $25; BEFORE THEIR TIME:FOUR GENERATIONS OF TEENAGE MOTHERS By Joelle Sander Foreword by Robert Coles Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 188 pp., $16; THE DIARY OF LATOYA HUNTER: MY FIRST YEAR IN JUNIOR HIGH By Latoya Hunter Crown, 131 pp., $1 6

GROWING up has become a perilous journey for children living in the inner cities of the United States.

When asked what he would like to be when he grows up, a 10-year-old in Chicago responds: "If I grow up, I'd like to be a bus driver." Children surrounded by violence don't count on making it to adulthood.

Another young boy living in a dangerous neighborhood in Boston takes comfort from an empty deodorant bottle marked "guaranteed 100 percent safe." It never leaves the side of his bed.

Many suburbanites can't begin to fathom what it is like to be a child in the contemporary American inner city. The dangers and stark realities of daily existence are simply unthinkable in many cases.

Through the power of publishing, however, a range of authors are bringing the plight of inner-city children to the attention of the reading public.

Children in Danger: Coping with the Consequences of Community Violence overflows with heart-wrenching stories like the two cited above. The book is co-authored by James Garbarino, president of Chicago's Erikson Institute for Advanced Study in Child Development, and his research associates Kathleen Kostelny, Carole Pardo, and Nancy Dubrow.

In their 1991 book, "No Place to Be a Child: Growing Up in a War Zone," Garbarino and his colleagues studied the experiences of children in war zones around the world: Mozambique, Nicaragua, Cambodia, and the Middle East. "Children in Danger" explores the urban war zones of such US cities as Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York.

The book defines urban war zones as places where "violent crime, gangs, drugs, and poverty catch children in the cross fire of community violence."

In Chicago, for example, a gang imposed an early-evening curfew for everyone living in a public-housing building. Violators were threatened with being shot.

The children in these areas often depend on schools to provide the stability and safety they don't find in their homes or neighborhoods. But, as this book points out, "Schools themselves are no longer safe places for children."

Schools in many inner-city communities don't allow children to go outside and play at recess because of gunfire. On the South Side of Chicago, teachers often push file cabinets up against classroom windows to block stray bullets. Shootings frequently occur inside schools as well.

"Children in Danger" chronicles the psychological toll that a dangerous life can have on children. Yet the book also explores the resiliency of many children, citing the finding that up to 80 percent of all children exposed to dangerous conditions are not negatively affected. Some children actually grow stronger in spite of their stressful surroundings.

Throughout this book, the authors refer to research in a wide range of areas affecting urban children. But, they point out, few researchers have probed youthful resilience. Who are these resilient children and what shields them from the damaging effects of day-to-day violence? The authors devote a chapter to this issue.

The key for many children is finding someone to count on. "For most children, healing childhood trauma depends on the strength of adult-child relationships," the authors write. "Few children can do the job on their own: the challenges are too great, their resources are too few."

Much of this book is burdened with references to research, and the academic writing weighs the pages down at times. Nevertheless, enough stories about real-life children are interspersed throughout the book to make it well worth pushing through the weighty portions. Unforgettable gems pop up every few pages.

For example, the young girl in Northern Ireland whose brother, mother, and grandfather were all killed in violent incidents. When asked whether this has changed her belief in God, she answers: "Not in God. In man."

The authors provide further insight into the concerns of children by reproducing some of their drawings in the book. Asking children to express their feelings through art often reveals more than young minds can articulate with words.

Seven-year-old Dennis in Chicago draws a picture of two gang members being arrested and handcuffed by the police. After her mother is caught in the cross-fire of two rival gangs, 12-year-old Elizabeth draws a picture of "guy shooting my mom."

Garbarino and his co-authors advocate putting police "peacekeeping forces" - modeled after United Nations peacekeepers - in dangerous urban neighborhoods. "One goal of peacekeeping forces in urban war zones would be to encourage adults to act responsibly as neighbors and citizens." Helping adults is integral to helping children, the authors argue.

Today's Children: Creating a Future for a Generation in Crisis by David A. Hamburg offers a comprehensive, historical look at children and the changing American family.

As president of the Carnegie Corporation, a foundation for child-development research, Dr. Hamburg is well-versed in research on children's issues. The book often reads like a compendium of the past four decades' worth of research. The dense writing hides the urgency of Hamburg's message that, as he begins the book, "Today's children are in crisis because today's families are in crisis."

Hamburg stresses the importance of strong support for children during early childhood - "the prenatal period through the first few years of life" - and early adolescence, defined as ages 10 to 15.

Adults must work harder at understanding the complex issues that contemporary young people are dealing with, argues Hamburg. "There is not the slightest reason to believe that today's young people are less talented or resourceful than their predecessors," he writes, "but their circumstances are considerably different, and so, too, their tasks and obstacles."

This book offers some valuable international perspective on the conditions of children in the US. In a chapter titled "Who's Minding the Children," the author provides an informative international comparison of child care.

Hamburg highlights the poor status of the US in the area of teenage pregnancy. "The childbearing rate of American adolescents is among the highest in the technically advanced nations of the world," he writes. Although births to older teens in the US declined during the 1980s, births to girls under 15 remained stable.

For a fascinating and powerful portrait of intergenerational teenage pregnancy, readers should look to Joelle Sander's Before Their Time: Four Generations of Teenage Mothers.

In the form of an oral history, Sander examines four generations of teen mothers from the same family. As the author notes in the book's introduction, "almost no information exists about why the cycle [of teenage pregnancy] repeats itself so often in families."

Sander spent more than three years interviewing Leticia Johnson, her mother, Denise Benjamin, her grandmother Rena Wilson, and her great-grandmother Louise Eaton. Leticia was 20 when the interviews began, her great-grandmother 83.

This poignant book is told in the voices of these four women. Its real-life drama is gripping, and the decision to let the interviews flow without narrative interruption makes it all the more effective.

Take, for example, Leticia explaining why she got pregnant: "Something was missing in my life. And it seemed like everybody around me was pregnant in school or already had their babies and was still attending, and I remember thinking at the time, Well, this is what's in - having a baby."

As the intimate details of each woman's life unfold, common threads appear. An afterword from the author offers a synthesis and some concrete recommendations for program initiatives.

Getting the story straight from the source is always preferable to having it filtered through someone else. For those striving to understand what it's like to be young in today's world, The Diary of Latoya Hunter: My First Year in Junior High shouldn't be missed. The writing ability of this 12-year-old author (see interview, at right) is far superior to that of many published authors whose books fill my shelves. This young lady has a lot to say and, like most young people, she is looking for someone will ing to listen.

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