I WAS DETERMINED that my son, Max, would read before he entered kindergarten. Really determined. I read to him for hours on end; bought him early-reader books featuring his favorite Disney and Nickelodeon characters so he’d want to know the story; and after his fourth birthday, I enrolled him in Kumon (a Japanese tutorial system that requires that students as young as three do at least 30 minutes of homework every day). Parents: Kumon is the truth! After just a few months in the program, Max was sounding out words and counting to 100. He just turned 5, and he’s reading short books and doing basic addition. Sounds like a lot of work, but Max has a well-rounded schedule: He’s in a Spanish immersion school so he can become bilingual, and in addition to the usual list of sports that active 5-year-olds play, he’s in an art class and an improvisational acting class to work on his social skills and confidence. He’d also be in a piano class if the teacher, after three lessons, hadn’t fired him for being too squirmy!
Now, I realize that the above paragraph annoyed the bejeesus out of many people. To some of you, I’m sure I sound like a psycho “tiger mom,” pushing my son to excel at an
uncomfortable rate. But Max is superhappy, gregarious and still gets some TV and “veg” time; I’m just fully aware ofwhat he’s facing as an African-American boy and want him to be prepared. Why did I want him to read before kindergarten? Because every person I know with a Black boy in elementary school has had the same complaint: The teachers expect less of their sons and are quick to misunderstand their normal boy energy as “acting out.” Unsurprisingly, a little blonde girl and a Black boy who learn at the same rate and have the same capacity for
concentration get treated in vastly different ways.
There’s nothing I can do (or would do) to curb Max’s happy energy. But I do know that as a result of doing Kumon, he can sit down and focus—and his teachers will quickly realize how smart
he is so they will adjust their expectations accordingly. And if Max starts in the advanced class, then that is where he’ll stay. Expectation is the single greatest determination of achievement. Do I need my son to be the next president? That would be great, but I really don’t care what Max ultimately pursues as long as he does it with purpose and passion. I just want him to have a multitude of options, and for the choice to be his.
Max is a very lucky boy: He has two parents who love him and who are intimately involved in his daily life. His father and I have one child and the resources to give him the best education possible. Unfortunately, my son’s situation is extremely anomalous. The overwhelming majority of African-American boys do not have Max’s advantages and will grow into men who
disproportionately face incarceration, substance abuse, low earning power, decreased political capital and a battalion of health issues. Of course, not every Black man is doing poorly, as is beautifully evidenced by our nation’s president. In putting together this issue, we worked with MSNBC correspondent Je. Johnson to create a special package that takes a hard look at the trials and tribulations that Black men face—and honors those who are successfully surmounting the obstacles to succeed and who have devoted their time to clearing a path for other Black boys and men to follow suit (p. 100).
If you have an African-American male child, please take a minute to think about what you can do to prepare him to succeed. Doing the very best we can to ensure that our boys are equipped with the tools necessary to achieve their goals is all that any of us can do. E-mail or hit me up on Twitter to let me know what you’re doing for your son.