"He always points out whenever I do the math problems wrong on the board." The teacher said, tossing her blonde hair. "He's the only one who points it out. I don't know why he always has to argue with me. He's so intimidating." My heart froze. She was calling my small-for-his-age 11 year-old son intimidating because he insisted on excellence in the classroom? Why wasn't she calling him precocious, observant, detailed-oriented? Why wasn't she saying how good he is at math? How could she see him as intimidating? How will people like her see him when he's 15 or 20? How will the police see him? I wondered if I should tell him to stop pointing out when the math problems are wrong. Maybe I should tell him to toe the line more. But what would that do to his excitement about math? Is keeping him safe more important than letting him be himself?
These are common concerns for parents raising children of color. For single parents, the fear for their children's futures is often magnified. In fact, for single parents, it often seems that almost everything bad is magnified. The sense of being overwhelmed is more intense. Poverty is deeper. Loneliness is more profound. Reminders about the loss of a dream relationship with the child's other parent is ever-present.
News and social media are constantly filled with messages that single parents are more likely to raise troubled kids. If the kids are black or brown the message is more certain. "Well, you know she was raised by a single mother. That's why she's on the street." or "You know, there was no father in the home. That's why he acted up and the police had to shoot him." There is almost an acceptance of the idea that single-parenting equals failed parenting. In some ways, being raised by a single parent seems to excuse society from its mistreatment of and fear toward young people of color.
In response to these messages, many parents tighten their reins on their children - vowing not to allow them to make any mistakes - vowing to keep them from fulfilling society's prophecy of their future lives. Yet, in many ways, tightening the rope can create the very same outcomes parents are trying to avoid, by causing children to rebel. Parents need to parent smarter, not harder by considering the following steps:
Developing a strong, trusting relationship with your child is the first step in smart parenting. Take the time to verbally admire your child's integrity, thoughtfulness, creativity.
Set clear rules and explain to your child why the rules exist.
Use consequences, and not punishment. Consequences are a natural result of your child's behavior and teach life lessons that will be valuable in adulthood. Punishment is about making your child feel bad, and is potentially damaging.
Calmly follow through on consequences every time.
Avoid scolding or nagging - it diminishes your child's self-esteem and causes him or her to stop listening to you. Instead, make sure you are calm, and have a conversation with your child about why you were disappointed by his or her behavior - not the child herself. Children want to please their parents - they do not want to disappoint.
Talk less - listen more. When you talk, ask questions about how your child feels, thinks, sees the world. This will help your child understand that what he or she has to say is important.
Help your child understand how important his or her individuality is. Help him navigate the line between advocating for himself and being disrespectful to the adults around him. Make sure she knows you are her biggest advocate, and are willing to fight battles for her when necessary.
Pour back into your child messages that contradict what he or she hears about black and brown young people. Make a point every day to help your child see how very valuable she is, and what great contributions he will make to the world in the future.