theories have been proposed to capture the ways in which neighborhood and community processes may affect children's development (Coulton, 1996; Earls and Buka, 2000; Haveman and Wolfe, 1994; Jencks and Mayer, 1990), including:

  • stress theory, which emphasizes the importance of exposure to such physical toxins as lead in soil and paint, as well as such social and psychological conditions as community violence;

  • social organization theory, based on the importance of role models and value consensus in the neighborhood, which in turn limits and controls problem behavior among young people;

  • institutional explanations, in which the neighborhood's institutions (e.g., schools, police protection) rather than neighbors per se make the difference; and

  • epidemic theories, based primarily on the power of peer influences to spread problem behavior.

Proponents of stress theory, such as Earls and Buka (2000), emphasize the damaging developmental consequences of exposure to violence and to physiological hazards, such as ambient lead and asthma-inducing air pollutants. For other theorists, the extent of social organization in a neighborhood may well matter for families with young children. Neighborhoods in which parents frequently come into contact with one another and share values are more likely to monitor the behavior of and potential dangers to children (Sampson, 1992; Sampson and Groves, 1989). Contact among parents may lead them to share ways of dealing with the problem behavior of their children, encouraging their talents, connecting to community health and other resources, and organizing neighborhood activities (Klebanov et al., 1997). Others argue further that practices of family management are key to understanding how neighborhood and community conditions may affect children's development (Furstenberg et al., 1998). They point out that families formulate different strategies for raising children in high-risk neighborhoods, ranging from extreme protection and insulation to assuming an active role in developing community-based networks of “social capital” that can help children at key points in their academic or labor market careers.

Institutional models stress the importance for children of neighborhood resources—parks, libraries, children's programs—which provide more enriching opportunities in relatively affluent neighborhoods than are usually available in resource-poor neighborhoods. Here again, the perceived level of neighborhood safety matters, since parents' willingness to take advantage of existing neighborhood resources may depend on their perceptions of the safety and consequences of doing so.

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