Chandra White-Cummings, Managing Editor
How many parents find themselves saying and doing things that hinder rather than help their sons’ development into the healthy, strong men they should be? Almost every parent—parental regret is almost universal. But some parents, more than others, seem to bear the brunt of scrutiny, judgment, and criticism. The intense level of societal oversight into the behaviors of black parents—particularly black mothers—and the outcomes for black children—particularly black sons—can be overwhelming. Fatherlessness is not a uniquely black phenomenon but in the lives of black children, it has become the scapegoat for everything from poor academic performance to strained relationships between black men and women. This is not to say that black parents should ignore the formidable challenges their sons and daughters face. But neither should they become so focused on the negatives that they take on the mindsets and behaviors of their children’s most ardent observers and critics.
In a 2013 Ebony magazine article, Nick Chiles describes the disconnect that develops between what black boys portray and what they need:
“For too many black boys in America, the cool, cold posture they present to the world is a shield for extreme psychological distress. Issues such as being fatherless, the pressure to be hyper-masculine, and the strain of understanding their racial identity can seriously imperil their emotional state. But instead of getting the help they need, what black boys often get is attack and condemnation.”
Subconsciously and too often, the relentless barrage of shade thrown at black children and teens comes from black parents, teachers, and other family members who should know better, but are themselves saturated with the narrative constructed around young black life. Black adults unintentionally find themselves asking the “what’s wrong with you” question instead of the “what happened to you” or “how can I help you” questions. There must be deliberate deconstruction of the deficit-based orientation toward young people that nudges people’s perspectives toward developmental explanations and not necessarily paradigms of pathology.
Instead of seeing black boys, girls, and teens as rule-breaking, disrespectful ingrates, they need to be recognized as similar to other young people their age: struggling under pressure, strain, and emotional distress as they try to navigate the hostilities and micro-aggressions that are commonplace in their world. Black adults must at all costs resist the implicit pressure to present black youth to the world sanitized, controlled, and acceptable to the whites who most often exert power over them. When they see the same fear, suspicion, and condemnation in the eyes of the black adults around them as they see in the white adults over them, it causes tremendous mental and emotional damage. Mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles, pastors and deacons must lead the way in shaping accurate perceptions of black children and youth.
Consider disciplinary approach and style. Dr. Jelani Mandara, a child development expert who specializes in helping black moms raise sons, conducted research that identifies an authoritative parenting style as the most effective with all children, particularly black sons. Dr. Mandara describes this parenting model, “Authoritative parenting combines warmth, responsiveness and freedom for children to make decisions with conscientious monitoring, limit setting, enforcement of rules and high expectations.” He also notes that black and Latino parents generally may be the least likely to parent this way and most likely to employ an authoritarian style which typically employs more control and punishment, and less affection and openness. No blame or shame here though. It stands to reason that parents, particularly parents who are living highly stressed lives and focused on survival might default to a less touchy-feely mode of parenting. But the truth is our children need something different from us to survive.
Assertively challenge the negative media influences in the home and hold entertainers, news media, and purveyors accountable. There are no golden calves and nothing is untouchable. Anything or anyone that erodes our sons’ perspectives or distorts their personality must GO. Teach young black teens to critically evaluate who they allow into their mental, emotional, and spiritual space. Encourage them to become their own lifestyle advocates and apologists who can critique cultural elements and determine how they are being influenced by other people’s ideas and agendas. They should embrace the thought that they are singularly precious persons and entry into their world must be earned.
What other thoughts and strategies can be employed to help restore the mental and emotional health of black youth?
This article is adapted from the writer’s previous work on raising mentally and emotionally healthy black boys.