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.

13 thoughts on “Parenting Black Boys and the Persistent Achievement Gap

  1. This article really angered me in that there was no mention at all about how schools “race” children and create inequality, despite the huge amounts of social science literature that shows this to be the case. It also did not talk about the effects of neighborhood segregation – for all classes of blacks – that impact parenting differentials between the races. Institutional, societal forces are all over the issue early-childhood education. Yet, but focusing on just parenting practices, this article just further perpetuates a cultural deficiency model of black families.

    While I don’t deny that parenting practices have an impact on schooling outcomes, I do not believe that they do apart from school practices and values, even in early childhood. I have a teacher now saying my son needs occupational therapy, and I have to wonder if his behaviors are being filtered through a lens of race, especially when she compared my son to his father! Looking at a 4 year old, and saying she can see some of him in his 32 year old father made me think that perhaps she is already making my son into an “adult” in a way that is not happening for white boys.

    Schools, even early-childhood schools, treat different people differently: there is ample research and personal narratives to support this. In other words, schools value certain practices that privilege certain people and classes of people. Black boys and their bodies are not persistently underachieving because of parenting practices; while they may come to school, even preschool, with different cultural behaviors, they are hugely disproportionately disciplined, criminalized, and labelled “special education,” and therefore are not given an equal opportunity to learn, and this happens at all class levels. Black boys and white boys committing the same “offense” at school are given drastically different punishments; black boys and white boys with the same “abnormal” behavior are considered differentially as somehow “disabled.” I’ve been told my son knocks things over, is “spacey,” leans on people, and those things somehow indicate he is in need of some “therapy.” Could he just be clumsy? Why are these behaviors indicative of a disability?

    And most people, even those in the black middle class, can’t afford quality preschool. That’s an institutional issue. Quality preschool is known to be a huge predictor of school success. Preschools abound in urban areas, but quality is highly variable. And then once you get in, as my example shows above, how your child is treated and assessed is at least in part dependent on race, class, and gender.

    Your law school example is interesting. I am in law school, and am one that always speaks up, especially about race. While professors may endure it (I wouldn’t go as far to say they love it – I will bring up race when they are unwilling to do so), and I am well known among the faculty, my classmates are not as forgiving. That was also the case in undergrad. Being assertive against faculty members as a black woman has not always been a pleasant experience.

    For black men, I would think that given the discipline and criminalization their bodies have endured over the years, plus accusations of physical aggression, that being more silent in class is not unexpected. Furthermore, in order to “fit in” at an elite law school, where there are 4 black men in a class of 180, being a “race man” would not be the way to go. Many people are trying to get through, because their aggression in the past has not served them well. I agree with you – its for our own good to be assertive. I do it anyway, but I can understand why my classmates do not.

    But again, my larger point is that in the education reform discussion, and the achievement gap discussion in particular, it is extremely disheartening that we are returning to a cultural deficiency explanation rather than looking at how schools at all levels racialize students and create inequality within its walls. Discipline, tracking, special education labeling, resource inequity, parental network closures, etc. all work together to create an opportunity gap for black children. Its no wonder that black children are not scoring high on exams they are not prepared for. Putting it only on parenting practices during the preschool ages is a sly trick.


  2. I’d like to disagree with you LaToya, although I fully understand the historical, social, racial and theoretical foundations of your comment. I teach in a predominantly Black and Hispanic School District in Compton, CA. My students are 50% Hispanic and 50% Black, although the numbers are shifting. I have daily interactions with parents and honestly, it comes down to parenting. Perhaps you could use historical and racial arguments to explain why black parents are not involved with their children’s education but I’m not sure that we can use those arguments to explain why our boys fall behind every racial group, including immigrants.

    When I saw the results of the last California State Test, I lamented for Black kids. I also lamented for what’s to happen in the black community if things don’t turn around quickly. I looked closely at the scores and across the board, in every single school in Compton, CA, except (Bunche Elementary School) Black kids lagged behind Hispanic and immigrant kids.

    This is what motivated me to start my blog at To give Black parents the tools to help their kids at home. It is true that you may not be literate, but provide a quiet environment for your kids to focus and do their homework, then supervise it to make sure that it’s complete. Only 10% of black parents do that, but my Hispanic parents (whom I always need a translator to communicate with) are very active with their kids and complete and turn in homework consistently.

    To turn things around, please let us encourage black parents to take the education of their children seriously. I’m working on a piece on my blog that will startle you. Sorry to write so long, but this NY times piece is nothing new. Black kids are failing, and it really starts from the home, in my humble opinion as a teacher. Thanks ladies. I love your blog. Please visit mind and let’s help our kids excel.



    1. I am willing to believe that there may be different forces at work in different communities. I do believe that there may be differences in the rates at which parents help with homework according to race. Where I disagree is that this is somewhat endogenous to the racial group, rather than a product of systematic and institutional racism. For example, in a previous generation, ask older folks, no one’s parent was as involved with schooling as parents are expected to be today. It is a generational phenomenon. Parents didn’t check homework; it was expected to be done, and if not, the teacher handled it. The cultural rules shifted, and some groups got access to the new rules of the game while others did not. I believe that black folks are always the last to get access to new cultural rules and lifestyles because of segregation and social exclusion, both at the macro and micro level.

      I believe it became in vogue to dismiss a child who, for example, doesn’t turn in homework as un-learnable or unteachable whereas in the past that was not the case. Whether that child knows the material or not becomes secondary; the cultural know-how of turning in homework to show you are a “good” parent and this is a “good” child becomes the signal between the family and the school that a child either deserves or does not deserve educational rewards. We all know the kid who was dumb as hell in school but graduated with everyone else because his or her mama was at the school everyday raising hell. Or the dumb kid who passes every year because they don’t make any trouble, and their parent is really nice, thereby “passing” the cultural “test” for advancement.

      Somewhere in the article it mentions that great teachers can overcome any of these so-called “problems” that stem from the home. I think this is the case because there was a time where teachers were expected to have control over learning; where you did your homework because the teacher said so, not because your mom did.

      I’m intrigued by what you think will happen to the “black community” if things don’t turn around. When have we ever NOT been at the bottom of the educational food chain? Like you said, the data in the article is not new. To me, it just provides further evidence of how schools socially reproduce the racial hierarchy. It’s always been this way.


  3. Permit me to add this. Carolyn I absolutely love your parenting approach to keeping communication mutual between you and your child. Listening to her, and answering her questions intelligently, instead of “I said so” :-). These little things make a HUGE difference in a child’s mindset and perception. Thanks for a great piece!


  4. This is interesting. These ideologies seem to cycle in education every ten years or so. I think it’s dangerous to make blanket guidelines about raising children & discipline is a very tricky subject. You really have to know your child, some need to be reigned in with strictness while others need to be encouraged to blossom. Despite this study, my observation has been its the school environments than it is the parenting. Our kids get labeled so quickly if they are not obedient and some are socially promoted just for being obedient in the urban setting. It’s much deeper than this I think


  5. Here are a few things that make a difference:

    1. Put your kid in bed by a certain time, so they’ll be sharp the next day
    2. Provide a quiet environment for your kid to complete their homework
    3. Talk to your child about her day at school.
    4. Never stop talking to your child about taking school SERIOUSLY.
    5. Attend parent-teacher conferences to get updates on your child.
    6. Be an involved parent. Stay close to your child’s school work.

    Parents who do these things have children who excel in school. There’s a cause for concern when English Language Learners are doing better than English only students on state tests! They all get the same instruction. Many teachers do their best, but the foundation must be laid at home.


  6. I was a student of engineering, so my undergrad and grad experience was probably a little different than law school, but I have to say I marveled at the way my caucasian counterparts felt totally comfortable questioning the teacher, his theories, and even the textbook itself on occasion. I had to wonder “How were you raised?” How do you feel so “okay” with being wrong out loud if you have to… just to make your point. It stuck with me in a profound way, and I have chosen to raise my children differently. I allow them a say in their curriculum; we argue about historical “facts”. I don’t just want them to “blindly agree with what is written”.
    Okay, and from the militant homeschooler, I’ve been reading John Taylor Gatto. Very militant homeschooler stuff, but he makes some very good points about education and parenting.
    Here’s a quote:
    “I don’t mean to be inflammatory, but it’s as if government schooling made people dumber, not brighter; made families weaker, not stronger; ruined formal religion with its hard-sell exclusion of God; set the class structure in stone by dividing children into classes and setting them against one another; and has been midwife to an alarming concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a fraction of the national community.”
    John Taylor Gatto -location of quote
    Read his entire book, the source of this quote, The Underground History of American Education

    Love your blog!


    1. I’m sorry. I. just. can’t. That Gatto quote? No. He does intend to be inflammatory. And it’s just not based on truth.

      This is what is scary about the homeschooling movement; like the exodus of whites families from the public schools system in response to integration orders, it’s based, in part, on these “the government is the source of all our problems” conspiracies that are not grounded in reality, and are really just a front for “we don’t want our children to be with people who are not like us.” It’s a convenient rationale for abandoning the public school system, though, and so I suppose it’ll do.

      I think this post was a good one. Although LaToya is right that we have to push back on cultural deficit models that try to blame black and brown folks for falling victim to a system that orchestrates their failure from the start, it is also true that empowering your children to respectfully challenge authority, to question the world around them, to not be afraid to be wrong, and to consider themselves capable of problem-solving, has particular cache in our society. Are we raising our children to be plant managers, or to assembly line workers? It’s an issue to be mindful of, and I do intend to raise my child with a healthy dose of entitlement; she is as entitled to help shape and control her world as any other child.

      That being said, it is just not fair to blame public schools for all ills in society; it is also not accurate to paint the American school system as a complete and utter failure. Yes, American students are being outperformed by students in other countries on standardized tests. But it is also true that the US is known to produce a particular class of creative and innovative leaders; leaders who did, and do, graduate from public schools. Leaders from other countries have gone on record as saying that yes, their kids know how to perform on tests, but American kids are encouraged to actually think creatively; to problem solve. We don’t have a monopoly on creative leaders, but it’s not fair to say “government schooling made people dumber.”

      I also don’t think it’s fair, or accurate, to say that families have been made weaker as a result of public education. With what does he support that statement? Families are “weaker” because of cultural and economic pressures that can make it difficult for families to stay intact. Moreover, that statement seems to glorify “the way we used to be,” which wasn’t ever all that great to begin with. Behind all those June Cleaver households was a lot racism, classism, sexism, and unprogressive politics etc. I also wonder about the extent to which “weaker families” is just code for non-traditional families.

      Hard-sell exclusion of God??? I’m sorry; we live in the U.S. Separation of church and state; period. If that undermines “formal religion,” those are the breaks; it’s necessary to protect religious minorities. And, I would say its necessary to protect formal religion. Religion is cheapened if it’s forced on you by the state. Religion is about faith; you should come willingly and not because the state says you should. Moreover, schools are not prohibited from teaching and talking about god and religion; in fact, they often do. They are prohibited from promoting the teachings of any one religion over the other. That quote just strikes me as code for a desire to elevate Christianity in our public schools. Which is problematic, based on on that whole separation of church and state thing.

      Now, I can actually get into a critique of schools as solidifying class structures. But that’s not the fault of public schools. Rather, they magnify and further a class structure we already have in our society. We then all endorse policies like tracking and high-stakes testings in the spirit of “accountability,” that merely further the problems. Again, not solely the fault of public schools. More like OUR fault. He should be honest and admit that.

      “A midwife to an alarming concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a fraction of the national community.” ??? Yeah, and pulling kids with cultural capital out of the public school system is really helping with that problem. This is EXACTLY what LaToya was talking about in her responses to my posts about homeschooling. If he is really interested in trying to spread the wealth, agitating for a change in our public schools–instead of abandoning them, and the children left behind along with them–would be a better place to start.


  7. ***sigh***
    I did say it was militant.

    Let me ask you, though, have you ever read about the history of public school education and what country our system comes from? It is very interesting so I’m listing the link, if anyone’s interested.

    As far as American schools and creativity,
    There’s a really great discussion of this very topic on the website.


    1. There is a difference between being militant, and being untruthful. It is wonderful to be passionate about one’s position; I can understand if one person concludes that their particular values trump other values up for consideration. But being “militant” is not the same as being a liar, and the label of the former does not justify the latter.

      The video on “where our school system came from” is based on half-truths and unsubstantiated connections. The very suggestion that our school system even “came from somewhere” is problematic. National education systems are not just adopted wholesale from other countries; i.e. one day you have no education system, and the next day–poof; new system borrowed from new country. Our system is an evolving one, and yes, some ideas are borrowed from other places. From the time of the early colonies, a premium was placed on education; the Massachusetts colonies got right to educating themselves right after they set up homes and places to worship. They understood that education is essential to development of self and society. Moreover, our founding founders supported the idea of free public education; many of the founding founders believed it to be a prerequisite for a robust democracy, and longed to give broader access to education than that which had been provided in Europe.

      Yes, our current system was influenced by the Prussian system, in that Prussia instituted compulsory attendance, insisted on teacher certification programs, and implemented testing; all good things. To suggest, however, as the video does, that it was all part of an evil plot to subjugate the masses and concentrate power in the hands of the few is stretching it just a bit. I had to laugh when the video tried to suggest that because Germany ultimately succumbed to Nazism, that the American public schools system is not only doomed, but part of a sinister plot to instill white supremacy. There are a lot of factors that contributed to the rise of the Nazi movement, including the treatment of Germany by the rest of the world after WWI. To try and suggest that public education, in and of itself, is the root cause of that is laughable at best, and just a lie at worst.

      Moreover, to the extent that compulsory education serves a socializing purpose, I agree with that purpose. Children do not just “belong” to their parents, and parents don’t have a right to just indoctrinate their children with any old ideologies and beliefs. The state has a legitimate interest in exposing children to particular perspectives as well, and thank goodness they do. If you’re a crazy race supremacist, it becomes all the more important that your children be exposed to a viewpoint that counters that. If you don’t believe in equality for men and women, or believe that people outside of your religion should be persecuted, or don’t believe in the basic principles of democracy, that’s fine; but it’s important for the state–for our society–that your child get a glimpse of an alternate viewpoint. So yes, public education is trying to cultivate something among the masses; it’s not “obedience to the crown” but a belief in civic responsibility and duty. Which, I note, has been lacking in our discussion regarding home schooling. I am disturbed, for example, by homeschoolsnewbie’s unwillingness to even consider that maybe we owe obligations to people outside of our immediate family; that maybe we lose something as a community when we pull our children out of the public school system. I don’t need you to agree with me, but how about just consideration of that possibility? The idea that we should always put ourselves–and our children–first before every one else…well, it’s an indication of the deterioration of our common belief in a common good.

      Finally, yes–I agree that the American curriculum needs some revamping. Rote memory and drills that form so much of American education, particularly in poor and working-class schools, is a problem, and the American curriculum is long overdue for revamping. That being said, statements like “government schools have made us dumber” are just not accurate, and don’t help us have a productive conversation about what is working well–and there is plenty working well–and what is not working well.


  8. ORJ “The idea that we should always put ourselves–and our children–first before every one else…well, it’s an indication of the deterioration of our common belief in a common good.”

    Nah, we’ll never see agree on that. I just don’t think its in the interest of the common good, families, children, or individuals to force them in a system that is not working for them “for the common good”. Nope. No ma’am.


  9. Nice sounding words there from John Taylor Gatto, but deeply theoretical. We’ll pretend that the public school system is useless and reserved for the poor who have no financial alternatives for a “better” system. But we revel in the fact that this very system is capable of producing minds like Dr Carson – – and many others like him. It speaks to the possibilities.

    With a society as distracting as this, we can’t “contract out parenting,” irrespective of the system of school. Either way, intense parental supervision is still necessary to ensure that children excel in school.


  10. I was raised in a free and open environment, and I think I have benefited from it – in all the ways you have listed out. My husband on the other hand…I think his parents were too strict on him, and as a result, I see him sometimes afraid to step out of his comfort zone. He is successful, but he is very risk averse and conservative. He will not break rules to the point that he will not request a single vacation day before thanksgiving so that we can drive 6 hours to see his family! I have a battle on my hands as we are raising our baby girl, but I am happy to see that others share my parenting philosophy! Mama knows best!


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