Acclaimed lawyer and talk show host Laura Coates touched all of our hearts with her frustrations over raising her children to be proud of their blackness. Before she even broke into tears, I was right there with her. My wife Kendra and I are raising 3 children; 12 and 10-year-old daughters and a 3-year-old son. From school choice and television intake to food choices and music consumption, we have had a several experiences of successes and missteps that I feel may help parents raise confident black children in this new millennium. I hope you find them instructive.
- Curate their music
When I was an elementary school teacher, I became increasingly frustrated with parents who would drop their children off with the vilest songs playing in their car , and unedited on top of that. I am also a rapper and spoken word artist. Hip-hop is the soundtrack of my life. With that said, I cannot imagine letting my children listen to songs, hip-hop or otherwise, that have vulgarity. My children listen to songs from Kendrick Lamar & JAY Z to Taylor Swift & Lou (French teen pop artist) but they are songs we choose for them that are positive and contain no vulgarity. Kendra & I introduce new music to them.
I am not naïve. I know that at 12 and 10, our daughters are hearing other music from their friends but since they have been fortified with positive songs or even just fun dance songs, they actually find the more vulgar songs to be offensive and degrading. If we started them off with all the music out there that I listen to as an adult, we would be raising them to think it’s OK to use that vulgar language or see themselves as bitches and that was unacceptable for us. So yes parents, this may mean you’re playing Biggie’s “The 10 Crack Commandments” on the way to get your kids but switching to Elmo’s alphabet song or something from Alicia Keys when they get in the car!
- Curate their television
One of several mistakes we made with my daughters is allowing them to watch all the Disney films with white princess and other television shows without context. It was easy for my daughter when she was 2 to say she’s not a princess because all she saw was not only white princesses on television (pre Princess & The Frog) but white princesses with the purest of names to highlight their beauty such asSnow White, Belle (“beautiful” in French), Sleeping Beauty, and so on. When we started to “go in” on reprogramming, we let our kids watch all of the same shows but asked them questions like “Why don’t you see any black people?” or “Why are the black men acting like idiots?” Other questions included “Why are there no black fathers in this show?” and “Why are the blonde-haired women always silly?” This helped our daughters develop critical thinking skills and now, they tell us about the problems in the shows they see without our even asking.
In addition to using television to build their critical thinking skills, we did the extra work needed to bring black cartoons into the home such as Teddy P. Brainsand The Adventures of Brer Rabbit. Since Princess & The Frog, there have been many other television shows and movies portraying black people positively such as KC Undercoverand The Black Panther. I speak to those shows particularly because they show women in roles of strength as opposed to a male-dependent princess and there is a presence of fathers. Again, you have to be intentional about doing this work. My oldest daughter now calls us Queen Mother & Baba and is obsessed with Wakanda because she grew up seeing her identity as an African American celebrated in our household and then it was validated on the big screen. This also helps them being in majority white schools all of their lives. They feel validated in who they are. We intentionally sent them to private, majority white schools because we wanted them to be confident at a young age that they could compete with people of every background, but we make sure we takethem to school before they goto school by making sure they know their culture!
- Be intentional with your language
This is adjacent to music point. Our children are going to think they are what societies tell them they are and that includes you. If you are using terms like “nigga” or “bitch” all the time, and even calling our children these terms and others, your children will become what they think wethink they are. We live in a society that actively works to denigrate our children every single day. Why have them experience the same thing at home? Our children need to see their parents in healthy relationships. They need to be able to see their parents argue without condescending and demeaning each other. If they see or hear you refer to each other in demeaning ways or even witness physical abuse, they may internalize this in their own relationships
- Give them names that mean something
This is not a Bill Cosby rant about made up names. Never that. What I am suggesting is that whatever name you give your children, make sure it is grounded in something. Whether it’s an African name like Lumumba, naming your child Katherine after NASA’s Katherine Johnson, or naming your child Laquita after your grandmother, make sure your children know something positive about the history of their names. My seventh grade year was a turning point for me. I was depressed and suicidal. The main thing that turned me around was finally listening to all of the stories about black history that my parents were trying to teach me. It made me not want to embarrass my ancestors. Once I understood the origins of my name and learned my history, my entire trajectory changed.
The same school I was held back in in the seventh grade was the same school I graduated from as a member of the National Honor Society once I knew my history. Knowing my history gave me something to be grounded in while living in a society that told me I was less than white people. The names our children are given should be the starting point of that journey towards positive self-esteem. If we do not start them with a positive conception of self, how can we expect anyone else to?
- Create a strong diet
To the best of your ability, introduce healthy foods and water to your children. I understand that some of us live in food desserts where healthy foods are hard to find or food swamps where junk food is abundant. That may mean that you may need to grocery shop in the places you work if the food options are better. If we are serious about building community and one person has a car on your block, maybe you can organize trips to the supermarket and cover gas. If you live in an area where this is not a challenge and you still allow your children to consume an unhealthy diet, you have to understand that malnutrition does not only manifest itself physically.
There is a correlation between diet and disciplinary issues in our children today and you need to be mindful of that. If you have a stove and a refrigerator, you can boil your own water like my family did as a child and then chill it. Of course, this does not speak to areas in severe crisis such as Flint, Michigan, but the main point is that we have to use whatever resources possible to aid our children in eating healthy foods. Some of the fast food restaurants in our neighborhoods do indeed have salads as an option, for example, but even still we choose the items that are not beneficial to their overall health. We must do better.
- Monitor (or ban outright) social media & Internet usage
I have spoken to thousands of students in America and across the globe. I have spoken in many K-5 schools where students have proudly told me they have Facebook pages! There is nothing positive that can occur from a 10 year old having an unmonitored social media page. Our daughters have friends with social media pages, but they have no interest in having a page at such a young age. Youshould be the one to teach your children how to use social media and the Internet or take them to the library where they can get assistance if you cannot aid them. Lastly, many parents I know do not use kid-friendly versions of search engines like YouTube Kids. Our children are more susceptible to click-bait than we are and so we have to be mindful on how exposed they can be to negative influences online.
- Go beyond Wakanda
The blockbuster movie The Black Pantherimpacted our community in ways that we could not foresee. So many black children were inspired by that movie. When I was a child, we were tormented because of our African identity. Groups like Public Enemy & X Clan made it cool to be African temporarily but African kids (even American born ones like me with no accent) still get tormented just because of our names. The Black Panthermovie opened up an entire new generation to the beauty of the African continent. We as parents cannot let these affects be temporary. Many children have an interest African stories now.
Currently, my children are watching Dr. Henry Louis Gates’ Africa’s Great Civilizationsdocumentary series on PBS. They are watching it now not as some boring parental assignment. They are seeing themselves in the stories and The Black Panthermovie is part of that. We should not lose the gains from this movie so make sure you are finding as many ways possible to bring their history into their lives. There are many free resources that can be used just from our phones but if we only use our phones for frivolous entertainment and negative news stories, we are losing a vital opportunity to educate our children beyond the school doors.
The time is now!
If you find yourself proficient in most of the seven steps here, pick the one that challenges you the most and work vigorously on making the necessary changes. Our children are worth the effort. All of us will have challenges raising our children as it relates to their positive identity development. In my 12 year old daughter’s summer camp, she said to her classmates “My name is Ngolela. To call me anything different will be disrespectful.” I do not know what the future holds, but today she is grounded in her identity. At that age, I let everyone disrespect my history and call me “O” just so I can fit in and my performance in school and society overall reflected that. I was lost and acted accordingly. We need to teach our children that they were never meant to blend in. They are meant to stand out. We have to be intentional in our efforts to keep them grounded in their culture so that they can grow up knowing that they were validated at birth. If we can do that for our children, that will be more valuable than anything we could physically leave to them. Godspeed.