Jessica and Kenneth Johnson* have three children, ages 5, 3 and 1. Like many parents, they want to raise great kids. There is just one issue: They aren’t sure how. Jessica grew up with permissive parents—she had free rein to exercise her desires. Kenneth’s situation was very different. His mother and father were extremely strict, controlling everything from his attire to his friends. Ironically, neither of the Johnsons loved their upbringing. And now that they’re in the parenting seat, they have one question: How do we do better?
Black parenting has never been easy. The nuances of raising children who are bold enough to actualize their full potential, yet have the emotional fortitude and savvy to navigate systemic racial bias, can leave any adult feeling like he or she is up against a Sisyphean task. Even worse, the ideologies on how to make this work have changed over the years.
“We have to get rid of the myth that disciplining is [the only thing] required for our kids. The practice of overdisciplining without mentoring thwarts their ability to question and doesn’t allow children to develop their critical thinking skills,” says Joe Brewster, who with his wife, Michele Stephenson, produced American Promise, the groundbreaking documentary that chronicled their son as he attended one of the country’s most elite private schools.
The great news is that more Black Americans are accessing part of the American Dream. A recent report released by Nielsen titled African-Americans Upending Stereotypes in Education, Income, Media and More shows that more Blacks have reached middle-class status. But finances have not insulated the community against some harsh realities. The unique demands of our demographic—race, gender and overall socioeconomic issues, for example require a new approach when it comes to rearing youngsters. I’ve coined it the “Neo-Black Parenting” style. It addresses the needs of many progressive Black heads of households, blending a little of the old-school ideas with new-school practicalities. The goal is to ensure your child is self-assured and bold, skills that will serve him or her in the classroom, in the face of peer pressure and even around the coffee table when planning new ventures in the future.
“A lot of Black parents don’t want to stifle our kids the way we were stifled—we want them to be more expressive, and we want them to be thinking people,” says Ylonda Gault, former Yahoo! Parenting editor and author of Child, Please: How Mama’s Old-School Lessons Helped Me Check Myself Before I Wrecked Myself. Researchers show that parenting style impacts everything from social skills to academic achievement. And the results aren’t evidenced only during childhood. The core lessons regarding self-esteem, hard work, fun, discipline and authority travel with individuals into adulthood, and they inform how they treat the next generation.
Sociologists call the old-school approach an authoritarian parenting style, identified by control, strict obedience and stern punishments. Parents who practice this are highly demanding but not very emotionally responsive. Researchers say children of authoritarian parents are more timid, have lower self-esteem, lack spontaneity, have higher levels of depression and rely, to an unusual degree, on the voice of authority. They are also less likely to reach their full potential in life because they are almost always figuratively looking over their shoulder and expecting to be reprimanded.
So here’s the rub: Although we want ambitious, confident kids who speak their minds, we are also keenly aware that even the perception of the wrong voice or tone with the wrong authority—whether a schoolteacher or a police officer—could lead to life-changing or life-ending consequences. We must parent in a manner that instills both boldness and discernment.
Why Class Doesn’t Matter
“There’s a dual tension for [children] to be empowered but to also think critically, analyze a situation and respond accordingly, not reactively,” says Stephenson, who also co-authored, with Brewster and Hilary Beard, Promises Kept: Raising Black Boys to Succeed in School and in Life. The most important thing parents can do to prepare their children to succeed in this environment is to fully develop their confidence and analytical skills. It also means having a few tough conversations. The first hard-core reality check is with you.
“Many Black parents remain hopeful that we will turn the corner with equality. But in reality, we have to disavow ourselves of the idea of Black middle class exceptionalism,” says Brewster. There is a thriving Black middle class that is well-educated, double-degreed and living in affluent neighborhoods, but we still cannot be lulled into a false sense of complacency about the realities: Those successes do not protect our children from being mislabeled in schools, from being followed by security in retail stores or from police aggression.
“We have to talk to children about systemic racism and the disadvantage it creates. They need to understand the system and how it works,” says Stephenson. “That way, they are not internalizing the negative messages they receive or the biased interactions they have.” This recognition can begin as early as when children notice that books don’t have anyone who looks like them, and continue to when they become of driving age and have to be prepared for police interactions.
Then we give our children the tools to navigate the system.
Neo-Black Parenting: Make Your Children Ready for the World
A key distinction of the Neo-Black Parenting school of thought is that it recognizes the importance of balancing racial awareness with an authoritative parenting style. The latter approach combines clear, high parental demands with emotional responsiveness and the child’s natural need for autonomy. For example, if a toddler throws a tantrum over a toy in a store, an authoritative parent might make clear that behavior is unacceptable, then acknowledge the child’s desire and explain that there may be an opportunity to get the toy sometime in the future.
Researchers say this style is one of the most persistent predictors of social competence. Studies show children of authoritative parents typically do well in school and develop strong social skills. “We don’t have a future as a people without moving toward a more authoritative parenting style,” says Brewster.
One major way to accomplish this feat is to cultivate the growth mindset in your household. This ideology complements the authoritative parenting style because it focuses on fostering self-reliance and mastery. The concept was developed by psychologist Carol Dweck and popularized in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. “In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment,” writes Dweck. Students who embrace growth a mindset—the belief that they can learn more or become smarter if they work hard and persevere—will view challenges and failures as opportunities to improve their skills.
Ultimately, parenting is all about empowering our children to excel with the kind of confidence that allows them to fearlessly pursue goals and prevents them from internalizing the negative messages and interactions that they are likely to encounter. The choice is yours.
*Name has been changed.
Kimberly Seals Allers is an award-winning journalist, the author of The Mocha Manual series of books (published by HarperCollins) and founder of MochaManual.com, an acclaimed pregnancy and parenting destination for Black parents. Follow @MochaManual on Twitter.
Neo-Black Parenting 101
Four things all proactive parents should focus on:
Dionne Grayman, co-founder and president of the New York-based Mothers Empowered, advises practicing this approach: “I cheer them on, challenge them and certainly check them when they need to be checked.”
2. Support risk and resilience:
“My parents raised me to think that failure was not an option, so when I failed I didn’t know how to recover,” says Grayman, whose Power Mama Academy provides peer coaching and interactive workshops for mothers to develop the leadership skills to empower their families. She advises parents to teach children that failure is part of the process. “We have to support the risk and support the failure,” says Brewster.
“Our children watch how we deal with situations privately and in public. If we constantly flip out and overreact, that is what they will do,” Gault says. “Our family dynamics become a microcosm of how we deal with the world,” adds Stephenson. Additionally, our children need to see us respectfully advocate on their behalf when necessary.
4. Develop soft places:
A lot of the old-school parenting was meant to toughen us up and bring out the best in us, but the problem was, “there were no soft places,” notes Grayman. Today, parents need to create “soft places” by giving love, support and affirmations. They should also show their own vulnerability, advises Stephenson. “When our children see us grappling with [insecure] moments and showing a range of emotions, that is a gift for them,” she says.