On 11 February 1999 the First Presidency began a letter to Church members throughout the world with the following statement: “All about us we see evidence of the corrosive elements targeted to injure our youth.”1 When I served as the police chief of West Valley City, Utah, I discovered that one of the most corrosive elements in the world today is the influence of gangs.
By definition, a gang is any group of three or more people who form an allegiance to the exclusion of others and engage in unlawful or criminal behavior. The impact of gang influence is reflected by recent studies that show two crime trends moving in opposite directions: adult crime is decreasing while youth violence is increasing. The most common denominator in the commission of violent crime by young people is gang membership.
Since young people who join gangs come from every neighborhood, race, religion, culture, and economic level, parents need to know how to most effectively protect children from this menace. The following are signs that might indicate your child is identifying with or has become part of a gang:
Wearing of gang-style clothing. Styles change often; police or local antigang organizations can help you know what is currently in style.
Gang-style doodling on homework, notebooks, bedroom walls, or personal property. Look especially for a “moniker” (a gang nickname).
Significant changes in behavior and attitude, including withdrawal, secrecy, and disrespect for authority.
Association with a new group of friends and rejection of relationships with longtime friends and acquaintances.
Use of hand signs and monikers and a different style of language.
An interest in gangster rap or heavy metal music.
Increased contact with law enforcement officers, beginning with truancy, curfew violations, graffiti marking or vandalism, or possession of drugs or alcohol.
If you suspect your child is a gang member or in danger of becoming one, don’t make the mistake of denying your suspicions. Your feelings are probably right; you know this child better than anyone else. Talk with your child, and express your love. But don’t feel you have to deal with the problem alone. Let your bishop or branch president know, and ask him to solicit the help of youth leaders. Take advantage of community agencies, groups, and school programs that can offer you and your child support, encouragement, and even gang intervention.
You can begin while your children are small to protect them from future gang involvement by strengthening your family. In their letter, the First Presidency urged “parents to devote their best efforts to the teaching and rearing of their children in gospel principles which will keep them close to the Church.” In fact, everything you do to strengthen the family can help protect your children against the influence of dangerous groups. Every individual has a basic need to belong. If the family—the basic unit of society—isn’t fulfilling that need, something else will. Sometimes, even in strong families, children will make poor choices. But if parents do everything possible to make the family the most attractive option, most children will use their agency wisely.
Efforts to educate your children about gang problems may need to start earlier than you think. Experts advise letting your children know as early as their preschool years that there are people who are not good for them and that gangs are bad. With older children, discussing issues surrounding gangs and violence can be vital to preventing their involvement or to intervening if they are already involved. If you are not sure how to begin, help may be available. Some communities have organizations or police officers who can offer assistance in combating gang influence.
As with all “corrosive elements targeted to injure our youth,” the most effective way to steer a child away from gang influence is through teaching and applying gospel principles. In their letter, the First Presidency counseled “parents and children to give highest priority to family prayer, family home evening, gospel study and instruction, and wholesome family activities.” At times it may not seem that these have any effect, but they will. And young people who can be persuaded to be involved in seminary, Sunday meetings, and Church youth programs are more likely to avoid the misery, wasted opportunities, transgression, physical injury, or even death that may come with gang involvement.
Even when parents have done their best, children sometimes become involved with the wrong group. Do not dilute your values or lower your expectations, but be patient and maintain your efforts to communicate. Gang-involved youth usually place a very high value on personal respect. While you must let them know their inappropriate behavior is not acceptable, you must also let them know that you love them and are concerned for them as individuals.
Whatever choices our children might make, our Father in Heaven expects us never to give up on them, just as He will never give up on us. “Children are an heritage of the Lord” (Ps. 127:3), and helping them avoid the pitfalls of the world is worth the best and most inspired efforts all of us can give.