‘Kids who feel right, act right’
Understanding added context to Baltimore’s squeegee debate
Baltimore’s squeegee kids are among the city’s most misunderstood groups. Frequently called dangerous or a nuisance, stories abound of them harassing or attacking others. What we don’t hear nearly as much about is the other side: that these kids are making money and sometimes feeding their families by doing the only thing they know how, despite facing daily mistreatment by drivers.
The Baltimore news media recently erupted with stories about a man who was fatally shot by a squeegee kid. Let me be clear: This man’s death was tragic. He should not have died that day. At the same time, few people have questioned why the man began this chain of violence by wielding a baseball bat at children after what’s been described as a nonviolent verbal altercation. Even the man’s father says that he should have stayed in his car and kept driving.
This is a timely example of how the actions of the squeegee kids are often scrutinized in a vacuum. We’re quick to judge them without looking at the wider context.
Kids who feel right act right. As a mental health counselor who works with children, I see this time and time again. When you see a squeegee kid being aggressive, it’s probably because something in their life or immediate environment is very wrong.
Consider their immense psychological risk factors. Many have undergone adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) — difficult events and circumstances that a child may go through. Think abuse, neglect, living in poverty. ACEs significantly increase a child’s risk of mental health problems and of facing lasting adversity. We know that the vast majority of the squeegee kids come from backgrounds of poverty and instability at home and have faced at least one (and likely more) ACEs.
In addition, like all humans, their brains won’t fully develop until their mid-tolate 20s. One strong part of their brains is their alert system, detecting danger and creating strong emotional responses. The least developed part of their brain? The part responsible for regulating emotions, making decisions and controlling impulses. See how that could play out in some of the incidents being reported about these kids?
But why squeegeeing? Shouldn’t they be in school or have a “real” job? Think about all of the things needed to hold down a job. Appropriate clothing. Looking clean and presentable. Reliable transportation. Stable housing. These may all seem like easily attainable things, but for many they’re out of reach. They may not be able to afford a bus pass; if they can, a minimum wage job isn’t enough to offset the costs of transportation and taxes. And since they’re often the sole provider for themselves and their families, school simply isn’t an option.
The recent shooting renewed cries to ban squeegee kids from intersections. But if we take away their employment, they’ll have to find another way to earn money. With no other option, many likely will turn to selling drugs. With one of the highest crime rates in the country, according to FBI data, Baltimore would be setting itself up for even higher rates of drug use and crime. This is the inevitable outcome that no one wants.
The squeegee kids stand outside all day in rain, sweltering heat and freezing cold to make money. They’re not lazy or unmotivated. They’re taking the proverbial lemons life gave them and trying their best to make a lemonade stand. But so many of us view their entrepreneurial efforts as criminal, rather than signs of resilience. It’s akin to a toxic work environment, and we know that people in those environments don’t thrive. They suffer. And these kids indeed struggle to survive in their toxic work environment.
The squeegee kids are not the problem, and we need to stop calling them that. The system that has repeatedly failed them is the problem. Many of them feel abandoned by the city. Until we create policies to provide sustainable education and employment, they’re going to continue squeegeeing because it’s the best that they can do.
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t hold these kids accountable or that they don’t make mistakes. What I am saying is that they’re kids. They’re kids with families, trauma and their own hopes and dreams for their futures, just like you and me. Many come from extremely difficult and challenging backgrounds. And as such, they deserve to be met with kindness and compassion, as we all do. Remember, kids who feel right, act right. If we want to change the actions of the squeegee kids, we need to start by helping them feel right.