Education

Several years ago, I attended an event honoring phenomenal women in the DC region. Dr. Charlene Drew Jarvis was one of the awardees. As she brought her remarks to a close, she challenged those in the audience to reconsider the basics of education, also referred to as the three R’s: reading, writing, and arithmetic. Instead, she urged audience members to expand their idea of education to a more comprehensive model, explained in the three E’s: expectations, exposure, and education (comprised of the three R’s). As soon as she said it I nodded my head in agreement because I share her philosophy. Though if you had asked me to describe our parenting process when we were in the thick of it, I wouldn’t have used that vocabulary. Nevertheless, we were in fact using the three E’s model to educate our children. And I can tell you that it works. The three E’s are a lot to consider, so we’ll deal with one at a time. This month, it’s expectations.

Always have high expectations.

My apologies in advance if I step on toes, but too often we settle for less than the best from others and expect too little of ourselves. While there are plausible reasons and theories to explain and excuse patterns of thinking and ways of being that keep us from realizing our highest potential, settling for a subjective “good enough” in our education and other aspects of life does not bode well for our children, our families, or our communities.

I truly believe that we, as a community, desire greatness. Unfortunately, too many of us do not have a reliable road map to get us there. Instead, we depend on and beckon to sources of information that keep us in psychological, emotional, and physical bondage (e.g., broken school systems; parenting practices built on deficit-model thinking; popular culture that implores overconsumption of material goods). For the sake of clarity, please understand that I am not suggesting that we eschew any- and everything that doesn’t promote the uplift of African American families and communities. However, I do advocate that we be intentional about desiring, supporting, and presenting the very best of ourselves and holding our children and our families to the same high standard.

The old adage “nothing worth having comes easy” is truth. Desiring and having the best takes work, and in some cases it takes hard work. To reach the pinnacle, we have to develop a mindset that dictates that we think, speak, and behave in a manner that begets our best and the best from others. If you are constrained by a contrary mindset – small thoughts, language that tears down instead of builds up, and unhealthy, unproductive behavior – then you have a lot of work to do. And I beg that you be up to the task because you will not be disappointed with the results.

Our thoughts about our children should be of the highest substance. We should see and imagine them exhibiting and possessing solid character traits and putting forth their best effort in academics, athletics, music, art, etc. In order to gauge our child’s best effort, we have to spend quality time with her. When we are with our children, our focus should be on them – not our phones, not what’s going on at work, not other relationships. In general, we should be informed about their education and what’s going in their lives, including friendships. This level of engagement requires that we have relationships with their teachers, their friends, and their friends’ parents.

We must hold our children accountable for doing their homework, studying, and practicing. And just in case you don’t already know, homework and studying are not the same.

The purpose of homework is to reinforce the subject lesson and it allows the teacher to assess the student’s understanding of the material. If your child has trouble completing a homework assignment, he may not quite understand a concept, or the entire lesson. Either way, it’s an indication that further explanation or attention (tutoring, etc.) is needed. It’s our responsibility as parents to make sure our children seek and get further explanation and/or additional help when it’s needed.

Studying results in mastery of the subject. Studying requires dedicated focus on the subject material to ensure comprehension. Once the subject is mastered, the child should be able to explain the material in detail. Mastery occurs when the student becomes the teacher. If she can’t explain it to herself, to us, or others (practicing with a classmate), she hasn’t mastered it.

Practice (athletics, music, art) develops proficiency through repetition. Some people are born with exceptional gifts and talent, but without practice, they don’t reach peak performance. Practice, like homework and studying, requires time and effort. Nothing worth having comes easy. The best and the strongest put in the most time and effort.

Having high expectations is part of active parenting. An active parent is proactive and intervenes when necessary. Most children take their cue from their parents. If you have high expectations, they will also. If you take their education seriously and hold them accountable, they will take their education seriously. What we do, in large part, dictates what they do. Put in the time, put in the effort, and hold them accountable for their success. At times it’s going to seem daunting but remember, “nothing worth having comes easy”. Do the work. Be an active parent, have high expectations and you won’t be disappointed with the results.

Next month we’ll look at the second of the three E’s – Exposure.

Cultural Self

Diversity and the understanding of systematic oppression and its impact on oppressed and marginalized populations were constant themes throughout my master’s program. I recall a professor saying, “You cannot appreciate another’s culture until you appreciate your own.” I greatly attribute our son’s and daughter’s success and their capacity to love all people to their love and appreciation of their own culture. Because they know and love who they are, they do not denigrate or overvalue people of other races/ethnicities.

My favorite theorist is D.W. Winnicott. I especially like his concepts as explanatory models for optimal parenting. I believe his true-self, false-self concepts appropriately elucidate the psychological toll of racism on African Americans. Basically, the true self is who we are if allowed to grow and thrive in environments that wholly affirm who we are. The result would be a loving, creative individual who lives to his fullest capability. The entrenched false self is the result of what Winnicott calls “impingements”, occurrences that infringe upon your right to be wholly affirmed. Racism is a major impingement. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that African Americans will not be wholly affirmed in this society.

The PARENTS’ JOB is to make sure that the child is wholly affirmed – emotionally, psychologically, physically, intellectually, and culturally.

Let’s examine academic underachievement and colorism in the African American community as explained through the true self/false self concepts. These two phenomena are prevalent in the African American community and whether you believe it or not they can delay or worse, prohibit a child’s ability to experience their full capabilities. Through messages that have been passed down for generations and emanate from slavery, we have adopted ways of thinking that are detrimental to the true self.

Within the African American community exists an idealization of standards that are highly regarded by the dominant culture (the same is true for other communities of color because of imperialism, colonialism).  One that is most damaging is the standard of physical beauty. This idealization places a premium on features that resemble European heritage. It is not uncommon for black mothers and family members to express disdain for a child’s darker hue. The autobiographical literary work, Don’t Play in the Sun, by Marita Golden documents the psychological pain and resulting damage to a child’s self-esteem that comes from a lack of acceptance and affirmation of the child’s physical attributes.  Even worse, the disdain for anything other than European features can result in self-loathing.

“Knowledge about and pride in one’s culture can be a source of psychological resilience, group identification and support. Conversely, the need to deny, distance or experience shame about one’s ethnic or racial identity is often associated with less than optimal psychological outcomes, and can negatively affect identity and self-esteem.” (Greene, 1997, p. 305)

The message from the dominant culture that is the most deleterious to the African American is the belief in the stereotype of intellectual inferiority. This message permeates American culture and has been internalized in the African American community, especially among males.  “Stereotypes portraying young Black males as delinquent have dominated Western folklore and educational literature to the point of being a valid assumption” (Hall, 2009, p. 535).  Similarly, portrayals of white people as the ideal – intelligent, kind, benevolent – are ubiquitous and have been adopted for generations as a valid assumption.

The belief in intellectual inferiority (i.e., belief that whites are innately smarter than blacks) and adherence to colorism are the result of internalized racism. “Internalized racism may result when, unconsciously and without censor, both the negative stereotypes about African Americans and the idealized stereotypes of White Americans are internalized and negatively affect the sense of self.” (Green, 1997, p. 305).

By perpetuating these heinous remnants of slavery, we keep our minds enslaved and our communities disjointed.

If you or anyone in your child’s immediate circle of influence are making remarks or comments that suggest natural physical features (skin color (of any hue), hair texture, nose, lips, butt, etc.) are somehow inadequate, please stop. And do not allow your son or daughter to believe that he/she is not intelligent or cannot achieve at the highest academic level. Educate your child about their cultural background/history. If you are not knowledgeable, make this an opportunity for you and your child to learn together.

I’ll say it again, The PARENTS’ JOB is to make sure that the child is wholly affirmed – emotionally, psychologically, physically, intellectually, and culturally.

Next month we begin to delve into Education.

A short list of my favorite books about African American culture:

The Miseducation of the Negro, Carter G. Woodson

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

The Autobiography of Malcolm X

The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson

Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates

All novels by: Toni Morrison, California J. Cooper, and Marita Golden

References:

Greene, B. (1997). Psychotherapy with African American women: Integrating feminist and psychodynamic models. Smith College Studies in Social Work, 67(3), 299-322.

Hall, R. E. (2009). Cool pose, black manhood, and juvenile delinquency. Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, 19, 531-539.

Response to reader’s comment about Confidence

My response to a reader’s comment on the July post about Confidence was too long, so it’s now a post.

Here’s the comment:

When I read “It is that level of confidence that has garnered her a reputation as someone who will question right and wrong and standup for others and to others” I couldn’t help but think of Sandra Bland. Sandra Bland was also a woman, a Black woman, who was confident enough to question and stand up to a police officer in a situation where he was clearly wrong. Did you ever think confidence was a double edged sword for your children? On the one hand, it made them successful; on the other hand, that confidence could cause others to harm them.

Let me begin by thanking DEM, the reader, for sharing his/her thoughts and giving me an opportunity to further expound on the notion of instilling confidence in children. But before I do that, I want to uncouple the tragic incidents that lead to Sandra Bland’s death and the notion of confidence. Here’s why – when a mentally compromised person – I’m referring to the officer – with a weapon is out to get you, and the balance of power is woefully uneven (unarmed, black, civilian woman vs. armed, white, male police officer) I don’t know if there is anything one can do or say (or not say i.e., silence) to deescalate the situation.

Let me share my personal account of being targeted by an overly aggressive police officer. The officer, who approached my car from behind, was screaming at the top of her lungs about how I ran a red light (I absolutely did not), and threatened to call child protective services for my two year-old, seated behind me in car seat, because she was going to lock me up. I sat in the car in silence. As far as I could tell she was crazy and I didn’t want to say a word, make a move, or display emotion for fear that it would give her an excuse to make good on her threat. After sitting in silence for what seemed like forever, she finally snarled, “You better be lucky I have a heart for children” and ordered me to go. She gave me no ticket and no warning. My decision to be silent was purely instinctive. I didn’t give any thought to it because I didn’t have time to. When someone with a gun who is mad-angry is approaching and you aren’t in a position to run or fight back (fight or flight), you do the next best thing. For me, that was sitting still and being silent.

Now I’ll address the complement to instilling confidence in children – humility. It is imperative to teach children humility. While my husband and I were very intentional about instilling confidence, humility was more organic. From a very early age, our son and daughter learned to appreciate everything that was given to them, including life. We even taught them to be thankful for their intelligence. I remember my husband telling our son (he couldn’t have been more than 10 at that time) that his quick comprehension and memorization were gifts that he needed to cherish. We also demanded that they respect our authority. Confidence is an honorable characteristic, but absent humility it’s less than honorable; it’s arrogance. Our children are confident, not arrogant. They are thankful and respectful. As for keeping them from harm, we pray for their safety and protection everyday. In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Confidence

There’s been a lot written about confidence as a key ingredient for success. I would definitely say there’s a positive relationship. My husband and I have always showered our children with affirmation. When we were expecting our first child, I regularly rubbed my belly and talked to our unborn baby. My mantra was, “You are going to be so smart.” With our second, I (not my husband) wanted to know the sex and was ecstatic to learn we were having a girl. In the search for names we settled on one of Ethiopian origin meaning Beautiful Flower. You see, we began slathering confidence-building language on our children even before they were born. And the confidence-building continued throughout their childhood and into the present. For years I thought my husband was borrowing Hakeem Olajuwon’s moniker when he called our son “Dream”. One day I said something about it and he corrected me saying, “No. I call him Dream because he’s a dream child. I couldn’t have dreamt him up.” Wow, right! We love our children and believe they are God’s greatest gift; therefore, our words and actions reflect that truth.

Positive self-worth (i.e., high self-confidence, high self-esteem) is called a protective factor in children. It mitigates the chances of poor outcomes when challenges and obstacles are an affront to their sense of self. This is extremely important for African American children because we live in a world that tells them they are less than. So when these ubiquitous messages begin to permeate a child’s world, a positive sense of self-worth can ameliorate or altogether negate the subliminal effects. For example, if you watch the news you know it’s rife with reports depicting African Americans in a negative light. If you get your news that way, your child is seeing and hearing negative reports of people who look like him. Over time, all the unsavory depictions, statistics, etc. can have a negative impact on how our children see themselves, their capabilities, and their trajectory. As a rule, my husband and I never had the news on while we were raising our children and we still don’t get our information that way. Instead, we rely on written sources (newspapers, online news) which allow us to somewhat regulate and choose what comes into our home and psyche.

The PARENTS’ JOB – make sure your child knows they are loved and affirm them!

We revel in our children’s attributes – intellect, beauty (outward and inward), kindness, thoughtfulness, athletic prowess, and artistic ability. We really are in awe of them and as such, constantly tell them how great they are. I am certain their belief in their greatness, which came at an early age (from constantly hearing it), is a major factor in their success. When our son was three we went to a colleague’s housewarming. We played a game where we had to take tissue off a toilet paper roll without any instructions as to why. It turned out that for every piece of tissue taken we had to say something about ourselves. Our 3 year-old played the game, as did everyone else. When it was his turn he asserted, “I am smart. I am handsome” so on for every piece of tissue. Everyone’s mouth was agape, except mine. They asked how he could express such confidence at a young age. He was the only person in the room whose descriptors were entirely self-affirming. I have a similar story about our daughter. One day, when she was in fifth grade we were in the car and something she said prompted me to caution her about personal attributes. As we came to a stoplight my words were something like, “No matter how smart, talented, pretty we are, there will always be someone smarter, more talented, and prettier, and that’s okay. It doesn’t take anything away from us” – something like that. I will never forget her response. We were at 18th and Park Road going north on 18th. When I finished speaking, she turned her head, looked me squarely in the eye and tersely replied, “I haven’t met that person yet.” I was at a loss for words and thought. I couldn’t do or say anything. I just waited for the light to turn green, proceeded to drive, and we moved on to another topic.  It is that level of confidence that has garnered her a reputation as someone who will question right and wrong and standup for others and to others even when her peers can’t or won’t. And the same is true for my son. Both children are considered leaders by their peers. Their firm belief in self has a lot do with that.

Until next month, I leave you with my favorite quote, Our Deepest Fear, from A Return to Love by Marianne Williamson.

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.  

Next month we’ll consider the Cultural Self.

Love and Fear

Many years ago, when I was a young mother, there were two women whose paths crossed mine, the first when my son was one and the other a year or so later when he was two or three. If I were to see either of the women right now, I wouldn’t recognize them. I can’t recall why they chose to share their stories with me and until today, I’ve never given much thought as to why they’ve stuck with me over the years.

For the ease of storytelling, we’ll call the first woman Mary. Mary lived in the Trinidad neighborhood of DC. She was a petite woman, probably around 5’2 and 130 lbs. She was a married mother of adult children. When Mary’s son was a teen, he began hanging with the wrong crowd. She described him as tall and strong. One evening after arriving home late from work to an empty house, Mary began canvassing the neighborhood in search of her boy. She found him on a street corner. And here’s the remarkable part of Mary’s story — she walked over, put her fists up and began beating him off the corner without any regard for who she may have been offending or the transactions she may have been disrupting. Clearly, Mary’s son respected her because given their size difference, her fist thumps probably weren’t hurting him; yet he got off the corner and back in the house. And according to Mary, that was the last time he was on the corners of Trinidad.

The second storyteller’s narrative was about her best friend who we’ll call Sheryl. Sheryl was a strong woman — in stature and personality — whose daughter was married to a man who physically abused her. Sheryl’s daughter used to seek refuge at her mother’s home. During one of her daughter’s respites, Sheryl got a baseball bat, went to visit her son-in-law and beat the you know what out of him. Before leaving him in the floor of his home, she told him, “From now on, every time she comes to me, I’m coming for you.”

Not until recently, roughly 20 years later, did it dawn on me why I was so awestruck by Mary’s and Sheryl’s stories. They embodied something that was acutely visceral to my motherhood and the motivation behind all of my parenting decisions — Love and Fear.

And here’s my interpretation of Mary’s and Sheryl’s stories. Love motivated them to enter into dangerous territory to save their children without any thought for their own lives. And fear of losing their children to the evil of this world caused them to literally fight to save them.

My son was not yet two weeks old. It was some time in the middle of the night and he was wide awake. I had to pace the hallway of the apartment to keep him calm. Movement kept him quiet. Otherwise, if I sat down he would cry and I couldn’t bear to hear him cry. My husband was working a 24-hour shift at the firehouse so I had to go it alone. After over an hour of pacing, thinking my son had fallen asleep but afraid to stop moving for fear that he may awaken if his routine was interrupted, I had the idea to walk by a mirror and slightly turn so I could see his eyes. To my horrid chagrin his eyes were wide open. I burst into tears, eventually crying with such force that I began to hyperventilate. All the while he was calm. It was at that point that I seriously began to wonder if I had made the biggest mistake of my young, 23 year-old life. I felt an overwhelming burden (though my son was 9 lbs at birth, it wasn’t from his heft). I was likely delirious from sleep deprivation, but more than that I think I was confounded by the monumental responsibility of having to successfully raise our Black baby boy in a world that doesn’t value Black boys and men.

During our 23 years of marriage, my husband has said things like “you think too much” and “you want things to be perfect”. If there is a tad bit of truth in either statement, imagine the magnitude of my thoughts and dreams for my newborn baby boy colliding with the reality of life for Black males in America and in Washington, DC, in particular. The emotions from this mother were intense love and fear. I wanted to protect my child.

Over the years, friends and numerous acquaintances have asked what’s our secret to raising two successful Black children – top students, academically and socially, and leaders at two of the nation’s best prep schools; one a graduate of Yale and the other at Wash U in St. Louis – two of the most competitive universities in the country; confident, humble, and both having a strong sense of what is honorable and right. I’ve never answered the question because I’ve always been dumbfounded, believing that it just sort of happened.

What I readily accept and admit now is that almost from the time of his birth, and my daughter’s four years later, we (my husband and I) have planned and sacrificed to ensure their lives reflect all the hopes and dreams we could imagine for them and all the blessings and protection God offers his children.

I love to see Black children succeed. My fear of what the future holds for the Black community if they don’t compelled me to write this blog.

This is the first monthly post about our philosophy of raising socially and academically successful African American children. We hope this blog motivates, encourages, and inspires those who are on the journey.

Next month, it’s all about instilling Confidence.