Teaching Black Children to Love Themselves
Every child should sense that gleam in the parent's eye. That's where self-esteem starts--the sense of being loved and admired. As parents, that means putting in the time.
--Dr. Marilyn Benoit
President, American Academy of Child/Adolescent Psychiatry.
What's in This Chapter
* Helping your child meet the challenges of growing up
* Understanding what's unique about parenting black children
* Constructing the towers of self-love
* Building your child's self-esteem
* Helping your child become resilient
* Setting the right example
* Laying the groundwork for success
* Helping your child make positive decisions
In this opening chapter, we talk about the importance of fostering self-love in children. We explore the special challenges parents who raise black boys and girls face, and show you how to construct the towers of self-love: resilience and self-esteem. We explore ways to build on children's strengths and to maximize their opportunities to grow up healthy and strong.
Making the Transition from Child to Adult
Childhood is often portrayed as a happy, carefree time--and parents do need to ensure that their sons and daughters experience their full share of joy. But childhood is also a training ground for adulthood. The more effective the training, the better prepared a child will be to face the real-world challenges that lie ahead. Throughout history, societies have used different approaches to moving children into adulthood.
In some cultures, children are trained to be adults through specific rites of passage and tests. Alex Haley, in his book Roots, describes how youngsters made this transition in traditional African societies:
At twelve years of age, the boys of the village were separated from their families and taken to a camp in the jungle by the men of the community. Over a period of six weeks, the boys were taught all the lessons of adulthood. At the end of the encampment they were tested to determine whether they had learned these lessons. . . . Those who successfully passed the test were granted adult status. They had left their village as boys and they returned . . . as men.
In contemporary American culture there are no uniform tests that prove that boys and girls have become men and women. In our society, youngsters learn the disciplines of adulthood, not from lessons that are carefully designed and taught by designated elders, but from watching and listening to the significant grownups in their lives.
In the African American community, extended families of grandparents, aunts, and uncles--as well as friends, neighbors, and clergy--have long participated in the parenting process. Many of these resources are still available, and we will talk about the best ways to access and utilize them throughout the chapters. Still, as more African Americans climb the economic ladder and move out of traditional black neighborhoods, families tend to live farther apart and neighbors don't always share the same concerns. That means parents must assume a greater responsibility.
No parent can provide all of the training and support a child needs. Which is why part of a parent's responsibility involves finding mentors and other role models to help children become stronger and more well rounded. If parents and other significant adults fail to provide the support and positive example children need, they are likely to seek the lessons of manhood or womanhood on the streets. And that spells trouble--especially for black children.
The Five-Discipline Program is an effective way to help young people flourish and succeed. Keep in mind that the word discipline comes from the word disciple, which involves achieving mastery by observing and imitating someone older and more accomplished.
Our goal is to help you apply the five disciplines in ways that provide children with lessons that make them stronger. These disciplines are especially important for black children, who need to feel good about themselves and confident in their abilities to negotiate a world that is often less than fair. It must also be said that all children face a world in which fairness is often little more than a pretty-sounding word. And this raises a question that white folks sometimes ask:
How is parenting an African American child different from parenting any other child? This question may sound naive, but it's one that's at the heart of this book. All children need parents who provide love, strength, and discipline. That said, it's important to never underestimate the extraordinary challenges black youngsters face.
There are certain realities that come with being black in America, and there's no way to avoid them completely, no matter how wealthy or accomplished you become. There's no question that things are gradually changing for the better. Still, race is an issue that is likely to have an economic, social, cultural, and political impact on today's black children throughout their lives. One of our goals in this book is to help parents make race a positive force in children's lives, despite the ongoing struggle to shed the following tired racial stereotypes.
Ten Racial Stereotypes That Won't Go Away
1. Blacks blame all their problems on racial prejudice.
2. Blacks expect special consideration and treatment.
3. Blacks don't take full advantage of educational and economic opportunities.
4. Blacks don't acknowledge that white people have problems too.
5. Blacks continue to use past oppression as an excuse for current social problems.
6. Blacks don't respect the police.
7. Blacks play the "race card" at every opportunity.
8. Blacks are lazier than other ethnic and racial groups.
9. Blacks are more likely to shoplift and to commit other crimes.
10. Blacks hate all whites.
Despite these entrenched negative stereotypes, African Americans continue to move up as a people. Large numbers continue to move out of urban areas and into upscale communities. Future generations will have the opportunity to follow a growing number of role models up the corporate ladder and into the professional ranks. The progress has been dramatic, but it hasn't happened overnight.
African Americans have often been compared unfavorably to various immigrant groups for not making the most of educational opportunities. Those who serve up such comparisons conveniently ignore the many hardships and obstacles black people have faced in this country. In any case, this stereotype has been exploded in the past few years.
A recent study commissioned by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education found that black parents are now 50 percent more likely than white parents to rank a college education as the most important ingredient in a youngster's ultimate success. Previous studies have shown that the educational ambitions of black parents are less dependent on socioeconomic class than those of their white counterparts. However, black parents' placing so much more value on a college-level education is a relatively recent development. "Jews, Asians, and other groups have used higher education as a means of social and economic transformation," one researcher told The New York Times. "The African American community now appears to be following a similar path."
Despite all this positive movement, no person of color is immune to the ravages of overt and covert racial prejudice. So, it's not surprising to hear parents express the following concern:
How do we raise our children to have the strength to wrestle with and make sense of all the adversity--and still have enough strength left to love themselves--and their people? You do so by taking the lead in embracing life's challenges, by demonstrating a sense of pride in your heritage--and by shaping the Five-Discipline Program in this book to the needs of your children. All the while, you keep on fortifying the process by loving your children and doing everything in your power to make sure that they grow up loving themselves.
Building the Towers of Self-Love in Black Children
When parents ask: What is the most important thing we can do for our children? Our answer is: Help them to feel good about themselves and give them strength for their journey. We call these towers in a child's development self-esteem and resilience. They are the two keys to any child's emotional health, and they go hand in hand.
Self-esteem simply means that when children look in the mirror, they see someone valuable, deserving of love and respect, happiness, and success. Children who don't feel good about themselves are less likely to thrive and achieve. They are at higher risk for drug abuse, depression--even suicide.
Resilience means being able to rebound from setbacks and handle different types of adversity. Every person encounters predictable and unpredictable obstacles on the journey through life. Resilient people find effective ways to deal with these challenges--while always maintaining a vision of their long-term goals. Children who are resilient share the following traits:
* They are able to meet challenges head-on.
* They learn well from both successes and mistakes.
* They are optimistic, but also realistic, in their dealings.
* They are able to delay gratification.
Perhaps some of you are looking at the above characteristics and thinking that your child falls short in one or more areas. Don't worry. It's not too late to make positive changes.
Much of traditional psychology has operated under the belief that personalities are set by the time children reach age five or six. We know from our clinical practice that this is often not the case. We've seen adolescents rebound from early problems and emotional scars to lead fulfilling and successful lives. There's no question that the sooner you start building these towers of self-love the better. However, it's never too late to begin moving a child or adolescent in a positive direction. Here are some tips to help you get started now.
Set a Positive Example
Parents often ask us why their children don't heed their warnings and advice, even after countless repetition. The short answer is that boys and girls are far more focused on what parents do than what they say. It follows, then, that the mother who tells her daughter that it's important to read shouldn't be surprised if these words fall on deaf ears if she herself is constantly glued to the TV set. Likewise, the hard-drinking father who chides his son about the dangers of alcohol can reasonably expect those warnings to be ignored.
Your children are observing you all the time--looking for messages about how they should act and view things. The notion of "do what I say--not what I do" is a poor substitute for taking the lead in showing children the right way to act. Still, if you're going to engage in negative or unhealthy behavior, the worst thing you can do is to try to justify that what you're doing is right.
We all know people who will go to great lengths to defend their actions, however self-destructive they may be. "If I'm doing it," the flawed reasoning goes, "how bad can it be?" What makes this wrongheaded approach worse is telling your child that it's okay--or even desirable--to follow your lead.
We understand how difficult it can be for adults to change certain deeply ingrained habits and attitudes. Still, can you think of a better reason for making such positive changes than protecting your child's future?
Let's look at some examples of how parental behavior affects children. Take health habits. When it comes to habits such as eating right or avoiding tobacco and alcohol, your child is watching you carefully and comparing what he sees to the messages he gets in school, on TV, and from his peers. If the child has observed you eating moderately, and abstaining from tobacco and alcohol throughout his life, chances are good that he will follow your lead. If he sees you break an unhealthy habit and make positive lifestyle changes, that can have an especially positive long-term effect.
When parents make positive behavioral changes, children take notice and often ask questions. Here is an opportunity to discuss the matter in detail, and to explain the reasons for the change. You might talk about how hard it is to break long-time bad habits, and point out that it's easier not to start them in the first place.
We are well aware that some parents have difficulty with healthy eating, just as others find it next to impossible to stop smoking. In these cases, we suggest that parents explain their behavior as an unfortunate but human weakness, one that they will hopefully correct sometime in the future. At least then the parent can honestly say to a child: "Smoking cigarettes is wrong, but someday I plan to stop. I want you to understand that, once you start smoking, it's very hard to quit. Look at how much trouble I'm having. So, please, don't you ever smoke."
This approach is not an easy sell to skeptical teens, but it's far better than justifying your actions. For example, we know one mother named Mary who continued to chain-smoke while she breast-fed her infant son.
"Don't you realize that you are putting your baby's health at risk?" friends and relatives would ask.
"That's a bunch of propaganda by the baby formula companies that want women to stop breast-feeding and use their products," Mary would answer. "My smoking isn't going to hurt my child in the least."
There was a time when many more people smoked cigarettes around their children. But that was before the dangers of secondhand smoke to children became widely known. As always, there are some hard cases who refuse to change their behavior, or even admit that there's a good reason for making such a change. This destructive approach extends to many other key areas of life.
Caution: Passing on your own limitations to your children can stifle their potential.
Try to take a clear-eyed look at which of your behaviors and attitudes you want your child to emulate, and which ones cry out for change. If you are truly committed to your children's future, you don't want to burden them with your own destructive habits, outmoded ideas, and personal limitations.
The ability to help children go beyond parental limits is unique to human beings. In fact, humans are the only species in which each generation must teach its young different skills from the ones it possesses. These unique generational shifts among humans make parenting in the twenty-first century an exciting but complex challenge.
Coping with change is never easy. Still, in this fast-moving age, it's important to recognize the skills and social codes that may have been totally foreign to our parents--and even to us--have become critical to the future of today's children.
Take the Internet, for example. Many of today's parents grew up in an era where computers were not widely used and the Internet hadn't even been invented. Today, grade-school children know how to log on to Web sites to search for information and exchange e-mails with their friends.
People tend to be comfortable with the things they know and believe, even if they no longer make much sense. Too often, they pass these attitudes and behaviors on to their children without thinking about the possible consequences. It's as though they're saying: "This is the way I've always done it. Therefore, it must be the right way. I want my child to follow my lead." This approach to parenting is not in a child's best interest.
Excerpted from Strength for Their Journey by Robert L. Johnson, M.D., and Paulette Stanford, M.D.. Copyright © 2002 by Robert L. Johnson, M.D., and Paulette Stanford, M.D.. Excerpted by permission of Three Rivers Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.