6/29/2008 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper
An open letter to black parents:
The death of 17-year-old Javon Dawson inspired me to write directly to you. I particularly want to address those of you rearing children in economically depressed communities, especially where street-level crime and negative peer pressure pose a daily menace.
Dawson was fatally shot by a St. Petersburg police officer during a graduation party. Details about the shooting remain in dispute primarily because witnesses have refused to speak with the police, and the investigation is continuing.
Although I am not a parenting expert, I know a few things about parenting. I have two adult children and two grandchildren. As a college professor for 20 years, including two at a historically black college, I witnessed firsthand some of the results of good and bad parenting.
Good parenting requires honesty, introspection, a willingness to accept reality and a selfless commitment to give your children all of the advantages to live happily and successfully. Good parents take a hard look at themselves, earnestly assessing their own good and bad qualities. They try to impress upon their children positive qualities and values.
If you are an angry sort, for example, you know that anger will not get the average person very far in society. Acknowledge this truth to your kids. In fact, anger is a sure path to trouble. More often than not, anger leads to violence. Talk to your kids about the downside of anger and its companion: violence.
Encourage them to solve their problems civilly, mainly by letting them see you solve problems civilly. You do not have to be an angel. None of us are, but teach by example whenever possible. Try to avoid yelling and physically fighting in the presence of your children. By all means, keep abusive boyfriends and girlfriends away from your kids.
As an adult, you know that attitude determines your altitude. Few people like a rotten attitude. A rotten attitude comes through and shows in almost every aspect of your physical being. Teach your kids the simple utility and advantages of having a positive attitude in school, on the street, in the workplace and in important relationships.
Teach them that in most instances, civility and courtesy will be reciprocated in equal measure and will produce opportunities. Teach them that rudeness will invite equal doses of rudeness and will stifle positive communication.
At first blush, discussing the value of education and teaching it to our kids seem like a no-brainer, but evidence tells me that it is not. We blacks need to become obsessed with our kids’ education, but too many of us are not. Unless we believe, like others do, that our children are genetically inferior to other groups, we need to account for their poor performance on high-stakes tests.
Why, we should seriously ask ourselves, do our children score far below their white counterparts? What can we do to increase their performance? Next to the essentials of food and shelter, we need to make education central to our children’s lives.
In the same way, let us teach our children that speaking correct English will open more doors than street lingo and slang will. Street lingo and slang shut doors in your face. Employers want employees who speak well. Tell your kids not to worry about “acting white.” Speaking standard formal English is a path to success.
Similarly, teach your children that writing well is a plus that will give them a leg up in school and on the job.
Teach your kids to resist destructive peer pressure, especially pressure that involves crime and other unsavory acts and behavior. Your kids should be taught to create their own realities, ones that may leverage opportunities.
Encourage them to obey the law, to avoid crime. A young black male must never fall into the labyrinthine criminal justice system. Once in, too many are swallowed up and lost forever. Sure, they may return to the free world for a while, but far too many become recidivists. My advice is to do all you can to keep your kids away from crime, even misdemeanors.
While we are on the subject of crime, we need to mention guns. Keep your children away from guns. If you own one, you should lay down strict rules forbidding your children from ever going near it. Do not let them hang out with kids who own guns or otherwise handle them in any way. A gun is not romantic. It does not make you a man. A gun in the hand of a child is a sure ticket to jail or to the morgue.
If you have a bad attitude toward the police, do your kids a favor by working on your attitude. Your obvious dislike or hatred of the police will only poison your kids’ attitudes and set them up for dangerous and unnecessary confrontations.
They should be taught to cooperate with the police. Otherwise, the rule of law and the very fabric of civil society are torn apart. Trust is lost. When trust is lost, all else – including police protection – is lost.
Finally, you, the parent, should not automatically take your children’s side in disputes with other children or adults. Get all the facts first. Your children can lie as quickly and as convincingly as the rest of us. And please do not think you always know what your children are doing when you do not have your eyes on them. You do not always know what they are doing.
I hope that you read this letter in the spirit that it was written: as sincere and practical advice for helping black children at risk become successful and happy adults who understand their proper role in larger society.