Parenting Black Boys and the Persistent Achievement Gap
A recent New York Times article cited a recent report that showed African American boys lagging behind their white and Hispanic counterparts, even when socioeconomic status is taken into account.
The most telling quotes from the article came from Dr. Ronald Ferguson, director of the Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard, who spoke of early childhood parenting practices as key to understanding why these gaps persist. Dr. Ferguson said we “have to have conversations that people are unwilling to have” about black parenting, including “the activities that parents conduct with their 2-, 3- and 4-year-olds. How much we talk to them, the ways we talk to them, the ways we enforce discipline, the ways we encourage them to think and develop a sense of autonomy.”
Dr. Ferguson’s remarks about the way we discipline our children and encourage them to develop a sense of autonomy really resonated with me.
For a lot of black parents, whether they live in the projects or are graduates of Ivy League schools, parenting means enforcing strict rules about propriety and good behavior and respect. No yelling, no backtalk, no questioning my judgment or my rules. It’s my way or the highway. Any hint of defiance –starting with baby’s first “No!”—is punished.
So we grow up to be adults who are really good at being obedient and following the rules, and less skilled at challenging authority. Unfortunately, the ability to challenge and question authority and redefine the rules is one of the hallmarks of leadership. I think there’s a direct correlation between the way we are raised and the difficulties we face later trying to break into senior leadership positions, in corporations, academia or elsewhere.
Although I often complain about my oppositional, defiant daughter, she broke me of a lot of the ingrained patterns I had unconsciously adopted from my own upbringing. I tried to be the type of authoritarian, unyielding mother my own mother was, with nearly disastrous results. My daughter simply wasn’t having it. She refused to back down, refused to accept “Because I said so!” as a reasonable explanation for anything. Escalating the punishment did nothing except make me feel like an abusive bully. So I had to learn another way.
That “other way” involves talking to my children instead of at them, allowing them to ask “Why?” and expect an answer, and occasionally even giving in when they effectively argue in favor of something I’d originally rejected.
My kids are not afraid to speak out and speak up. They, especially my daughter, will risk a charge of insubordination if it means standing up for something they believe in or speaking out against a perceived injustice. They are also independent thinkers. I think this has helped them be more effective students and learners.
As a parent, having oppositional, defiant children can be extremely annoying. But then I remember being a first year law student. We black students would sit in class furiously scribbling notes and living in fear of the Socratic method. Most of us didn’t want to be called on, even though we’d read and understood the cases. We were afraid of saying something “wrong” and proving to the white kids that we were stupid. That we really didn’t belong.
We were blown away by how the white students readily engaged our professors in debate. They “talked back,” sometimes in tones we found disrespectful. They argued positions that seemed flatly wrong. “Why is this guy wasting our time?” was a common thought of mine during my first year classes. “Can we get on with it?”
Except the professors loved this debate. When they called on us, of course, we did just fine. We never embarrassed ourselves. And our professors inevitably said, “Ms./Mr. ______, you really should participate more in class.” Some of us were emboldened and began to raise our hands in class. We figured out that law school wasn’t about passive rote learning, but learning how to see, think about and understand both sides of an argument. Others stayed quiet, and I often wonder how much they really got out of the law school experience.
There was one black man in our section who never stayed quiet. From the first day of class, he would engage in animated debate with our professors, shaking his long, skinny fingers with each point. We would roll our eyes and wish he’d shut up. The professors loved him. That man, Artur Davis, went on to become a U.S. Congressman in Alabama, a seat he held until he gave it up to unsuccessfully run for Governor of Alabama. The seat Davis vacated is now held by Terri Sewell, another friend of mine from Harvard Law School who was equally unafraid to speak up and speak out.
We have to rethink how we discipline our children. We need to teach them both how to play by the rules and to challenge authority – and it starts with allowing them, under appropriate circumstances, to challenge our authority as parents. We need to allow our children to point out when we’re wrong, and we need to learn how to admit being wrong when we are. It’s easier to raise obedient children, but our job as parents isn’t to raise obedient children. It’s to raise the generations that will be in charge of things after we are gone. If we want our children to have a place at the leadership table, we have to create a safe space at home where they can develop the skills they will need as they grow and develop.