Lisa E. Davis and Carol Sutton Lewis are high-achieving African-American women who went to Ivy League colleges and then on to successful professional careers. They have started a new blog, www.groundcontrolparenting.wordpress.com, that is addressed to the challenges families of color face in rearing their children and guiding them towards the best colleges and the most fulfilling professions. Their aim is to be honest, informed, informative, and helpful. For example, they take on the tendency of some African-American families to devote more family resource and attention to a son’s sports skills than his school challenges. Dr. Ronald Ferguson, who I have quoted here, spoke with them and offers both insight and tips for the blog’s readers. Here is one quote from Dr. Ferguson, who is discussing what families of color may need to do differently: “It is creating a rich intellectual lifestyle at home for your child from birth. It includes reading to your child, talking about what you are reading, focusing on how much talking and interacting you are doing with your children. It also includes paying attention to what you celebrate in terms of achievement, celebrating those ‘a-ha’ moments of intellectual discovery with your children.”
Of course this sounds very much like what all families are urged to do. But that leads to another observation from the Ferguson interview: “Ferguson’s research has shown that learning-at-home gaps appear at all socio-economic levels. It further indicates that college educated Black parents seem on average to be less focused on having an academic environment at home (e.g., they have fewer books at home, spend less time reading, doing science projects and playing games with their children) than their white counterparts. Why is this and what can we do about it? `Parents are busy, it is hard to summon the mental energy to focus on this when you get home,’ Dr. Ferguson suggested.” In other words, it may be that a family of color that is successful, has “made it,” may want a more relaxed home life, a reward for achievement. But that is not necessarily the home environment that will allow their children to replicate their parents success. And, in general, the parents will not have the deep resources of family wealth or legacy links to schools and professions that would allow their children to muddle along then leap ahead to a waiting school or internship. Indeed those links are probably more fragile for just about everyone as the race for college had sped up.
The post about boys and sports suggests an interesting area to explore. What I’ve seen — as pure annecdotal observation — is that the sports focus lands more on African-America boys than girls, even in middle and upper middle class black families. So while junior may be taking the big shot in a game, his sister is on the sidelines her nose in a book, reading as far ahead of grade level as her brother is ahead of the curve in sports. Over at CCBC these past weeks they have been questioning the values we consider “strong” in girls and girl characters in fiction. In other words, have we defined “strength” in such male terms that a girl character has to be tough, independent, feisty, physical to be strong — rather than, say, smart, caring, insightful, articulate, learned. But I also think this gender lock step applies to boys, in two bad ways. On the one hand, we don’t have enough of an image of masculinity — especially for boys of color — linked to educational rather than (or alongside) athletic accomplishment. On the other, if we do praise boys–or boy characters in fiction — for sensitivity, creativity, warmth, generosity it often seems as if we are asking a boy to be a girl. In other words, we have not developed an image of what is a male version of being a good guy with guys, a cool brother, a smart, creative leader. We ask girls to be boys and boys to be girls. And this mixup of too rigid gender roles may be particularly damaging for children of color.