When Dr. Kerby Alvy was working in the Watts neighborhood of South Los Angeles in the '70s, he noticed something in his job as a clinical psychologist:
"So many parents I was working with were having trouble communicating with their kids. Why weren't we training parents?" he said.
He also realized the intense challenge for parents in Watts--the challenge of "raising black kids in a racist society." Those two ideas combined helped Alvy, along with a team of other psychologists and professionals, to develop the Effective Black Parenting Program, a training course for black parents to better learn how to work with their children. Alvy and his colleagues have just released a book, The Soulful Parent: Raising Health, Happy and Successful African American Children, sharing decades of wisdom gleaned by parents and trainers in the program.
Still, nearly 40 years after it was developed, the name of the program often raises eyebrows. Why do black parents need someone to tell them how to parent effectively? The answer, Alvy said, is the continued racism and difficulty that black children still face in the society.
"If white folks have programs that help them put their kids at an advantage in the society, by rearing in positive ways, then, dammit, black folks deserve the same opportunities," Alvy said.
Alvy said he and his colleagues discovered that many parenting techniques that black parents tend to use are holdovers from slavery, a time where very specific practices were used to keep children safe. Alvy said these notions don't come from African ideas about child rearing, where children are viewed as an extension of the parent, but out of situations where parents are raising children under duress. Corporal punishment is one example.
"This value, however, was almost impossible to maintain when hundreds of thousands of Africans were forced into slavery," Alvy writes. "Once they were sold to slave masters, they continued to be beaten if they did not obey their masters."
And parents used this same kind of punishment to keep their children from getting beaten.
"Thus, the origins of Traditional Black Discipline, which emphaszes whipping and punishment and which gets expressed in the idea that, 'I must protect my child from white harm, even if it means I must beat the black off of him,'" he writes.
When parents realize the origins of their behavior, many of them are shocked and convinced never to use corporal punishment again and to instead try alternative means of discipline.
Alvy said his black colleagues have pointed out to him a similar tendency when it comes to praise.
"Sometimes when a slave master or overseer was saying a child was coming along, the parent would quickly point out bad qualities, playing down the child's goodness because they didn't want their child to be sold," Alvy said. "That sort of thing can get perpetuated--we don't want to let the kids know that they're doing well."
With history and even modern attitudes playing against them, Alvy said black children need a particular emphasis on the beauty and power of their own heritage.
"It's very important to bring their attention to how much hardship black folks have overcome just to survive in the society, and what they've contributed," Alvy said. "There's a glorious history of blackness. It's real improtant that the parents convey this and encourage it."
That doesn't mean always shielding their children from racism or pretending it doesn't exist, Alvy said. In the Effective Black Parenting program, parents role play scenarios in which their child encounters racism and helps them learn to deal with it. That also means learning to speak positively about one's own heritage and making sure derogatory comments don't slip in.
"There are phrases like, 'Act your age, not your color,'--self-disparaging comments that some black parents have used with their kids," he said. "It's a lousy thing to do with your kids, to demean your own group."
While recent research points to parenting strategies like corporal punishment to be more about the stress parents are under, rather than the race, Alvy said these ideas overlap in a society where your race has so much to do with your economic status.
"Blacks are disproportionately poor in this society, and poverty is the biggest stressor of all," Alvy said. "There are more stressors when raising kids with diminished resources. It is a matter of stress, but there's more stress in certain races."
Alvy's organization, the Center for Improvement of Child Caring, has been training parents and community members how to be more effective parents for more than 38 years, even adapting the curriculum for Latino parents as well. But to continue on, he said the center needs some angel donors to help them continue with its innovative work.
"Bill Cosby quotes this program in his work. He should chip in. He's chipped in to African-American colleges," Alvy said. "There are some African-American folks who do have a lot of resources, and it'd be great if they'd help us bring this program to more and more communities."
Despite limited resources Alvy said his group is still dedicated to getting the program out there, including in Chicago.
"We're trying to train more people. We can put on workshops in Chicago again. We can organize," Alvy said. "We want more communities to have training programs so that more people can run the program."
Photo credit: Annabel Symington
© Community Renewal Society 2011