Five years ago, Nick and I traded in our home in a lovely, comfortably upper middle class neighborhood in New Jersey for a house in an equally beautiful neighborhood in Georgia that just happens to be a stone's throw away from a town full of working class/blue collar Georgians who have, shall we say, some interesting child-rearing tactics.
They cuss around and at their kids in the middle of the cereal aisle.

They fight with their significant others in public, in front of their kids, and slap the little ones when they get out of pocket, especially if there's an audience to witness their discipline.
They let their kids roam the streets until somebody else's mother tells the kid to go home.
They ride around in their cars with the windows rolled up, chain smoking while their babies bounce around in the back seat, sans seatbelts and boosters their little lungs taking in a lifetime of carcinogens, their little bodies one sharp brake from flying through the back window.
When it comes to showing up for parent/teacher conferences, or sending in donations for a teacher gift, or chipping in at the PTA-sponsored events, they're nowhere to be found.
This is bad parenting messy, sickening, wrong. Now, close your eyes and conjure up an image of the mothers and fathers who go all in on their kids like this who exhibit the worst kind of parenting acumen. Who do you see?
Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell would have you believe that these are characteristics of ghetto parenting, a phrase she coined in a recent column about a trio of black brothers whose lives were turned upside down when, Mitchell writes, their drug-addicted mom's bad parenting led to the tragic death of her 5-year-old son and last week's murder conviction of her 23-year-old son. Mitchell's claims the boys are victims of ghetto parenting, and, in her column, “Ghetto Parenting Dooms Kids,” she goes on to explain exactly what that is:

Ghetto parenting is cursing around, and at, a child. 

Ghetto parenting is brawling with your man or your woman in front of your child.

Ghetto parenting is letting your child roam the streets until somebody else’s mother has to tell the child to go home.

Ghetto parenting is putting your child off on friends and relatives because you want to hang out in the street.

Ghetto parenting is getting so hooked on substances that the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services has to remove your children and place them with strangers.

Now, where I come from, ghetto parenting would be considered code for poor, urban black and Latino moms and dads who are real good at making kids but who suck at raising them, leading to a never-ending cycle of poverty, abuse, crime and broken lives. The word ghetto falls right in line with the clever and really subversive evil game people play with adjectives to describe black people in the harshest, most stereotypical ways.
So in the course of a 700-word column, Mitchell racialized bad parenting, essentially intimating that falling down on the job as a mom or dad is ghetto i.e. negative and black.
The hell?
I assure you black moms and Dads impoverished black folks in particular don't have a lock on bad parenting. Indeed, the incidents I described at the beginning of this post were all meted out in and around my predominately white neighborhood here in Georgia by white parents. The first time I saw a white mom draw her hand back at her baby, and drop the F bomb in front of her little ones and mine! in the middle of Wal-Mart, and let her kids wander in my yard to play without any knowledge of where her kids were, I got real clear on this one simple truth: A bad parent knows no color, no economic level, no background, no class. And sometimes, what we consider a hot ghetto mess is actually just a mess, and not indicative of anybody's ghetto (where, by the way, for every bad parent who clogs up the system, there are 20 good ones doing right by and their best for their babies, despite the statistics, despite the odds).
In other words, Mitchell needs to go back to the drawing board on that ghetto parenting phrase. It ain't working. And it's insulting as all hell. It's hard enough trying to escape the stereotypes and labels and boxes society hangs on black moms I've written passionately about those stereotypes in my posts Black Moms Are Different and That's Okay and Can You Name One Positive Portrayal of Black Moms in Hollywood? without a fellow journalist an African American one, to boot hanging her hat on stereotypes of a whole group/class/color of black moms.
Bad parenting is simply bad parenting.
What's being ghetto and black got to do with it?

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  1. MelADramatic Mommy

    You nailed it. Bad parenting is colorblind. Shame on Mitchell.

  2. Thank you. She tries – I believe in the comments – to say that she wasn't just talking about Black moms, but….really?? Using an example of black kids and a black mom that lives in housing projects in Chicago?? Puh-lease.

    I would, however, also push back on what you are calling "bad" parenting, though. Most of what you're talking about are not inherently "good" or "bad" parenting practices, especially the last one about parents and school participation. That's a very recent thing – PTA participation and whatnot, of this generation of parents, cultural capital that's rewarded in schools. I don't think it's bad parenting to not always be up in the school as a parent – our parents didn't have to do that. I agree on the car seats, but the smoking is a well-documented addiction that's hard to break. Of course its not good for kids, but I wouldn't label a parent "bad" for smoking. The cussing – I try not to cuss around my kids, but it's a habit that again, many of us grew up with that I don't think was so bad for us. Cussing AT the kids is a different story – indicative of emotional abuse. Slapping the kids – I'm not sure if you are being literal, or using it as a proxy also for spanking. That's a whole 'nother convo…

  3. You hit it on the head. The examples often used by the media to express the state of parenting in many communities in our country tend to be charged with "racial" indication making it easier for those who fall outside those defined perimeters to never question their own behavior or the behavior of those around them. And the media is always quick to identify whether the "abusive" parent or persons in question are black or Latino but when reporting on stories where the families are "white" never identify their heritage as if it is "obvious" by the color of their skin – unless they are new to this country or have religious backgrounds other than Christian. (I use count the number of times the reporters mentioned the ethnicity/race/religion of those involved in each story while watching the morning news)

    The sad thing is by "colorizing" her point of view Mitchell continues to perpetuate a ghetto stereotype of black communities and families that not only define it for those outside looking in but for those on the inside looking out.

  4. Wow. Just wow. I think what really strikes me is that beyond the writer's clear prejudice that no one else in the publishing process…a supervisor, an editor, anyone! stopped it either. No one thought, "hey maybe labeling this behavior as 'ghetto' is a) racist and b) missing the point. I think that the phrase she SHOULD have used is 'poverty parenting'. No doubt what happened was tragic, but her article was just simple glossing over the real issues. I guess selling something as "bad black parenting" is easy, which says a lot by itself.

  5. Earl's Daughter

    How about labeling it "bad parenting" which is what it is. Sad to see sensationalism in such a much needed to be addressed topic!

  6. Greening Youth

    W.O.W! Bad parenting knows no boundaries, race or economic status. Very sloppy, Mitchell!

  7. 3 Boys and an Old Lady

    Call it what it is – POOR PARENTING! There are lots of parents parenting their children regardless of race, economic situation, etc. Stop making excuses for the lack of parenting and call it what it is…POOR PARENTING. Mitchell is correct in saying "I know some of you will be offended by my word choice." However, she is incorrect in stating that "ghetto parenting is the only phrase that can describe what is going on".

  8. LaToya,
    I have to push back on your pushback. There were many things that our parents didn't do that we have now come to describe as "bad" parenting. We didn't have car seats and boosters when I was little, but we've come to realize that such behavior is extremely dangerous and life-threatening. Our parents smoked around us like chimney—until smoking was revealed to be an evil for everyone involved. Our parents didn't really read to us very much, nor get involved in the life of the school—until we realized that reading and joining the PTA have an immediate and direct impact on the achievement level of your child. So I would strongly disagree with you that those parenting behaviors are not "bad." No, they might not be criminal, but they certainly aren't putting your children in a position to be as successful as they could be. Unless you don't believe that putting your child in a position for success is part of a parent's job, then how could you not see them as "bad?"

  9. Jacqueline Lewis

    I grew up in the Lower Eastside of New York City. Not rich at all, some may say we lived in poverty. But, my parents had my sister and I together, clean, and never talking back. Poverty in some (or many) cases are not because they can't do better, they don't want to do better, whether it is black, white, or otherwise. Bad parenting is just that, and unfortunately because races still are so segregated they do not know what a black family consist of, who they are and how they parent there children. My husband and I have 2 boys and they know not to act like a fool, or else.

  10. Teresha@Marlie and Me

    It's a dang shame that you had to take to your keyboard to write up a post explaining the difference. Mitchell's article just shows that you can be smart and ignorant at the same time. I hate to see some people further their careers by peddling stereotypes of their own people

  11. I live in a prodominately white county that's sprinkled with upper and lower middle class families depending on the area. I assure you what you've described is color blind.

    We really need to stop using the term "ghetto" when describing ill behavior. The media has taken derogatory terms and have made them acceptable verbiage. It's not acceptable and I'm sick of it as well.

    P.S. I still haven't seen Precious 🙂

  12. I agree with your stance on bad parenting vs. "ghetto parenting" but what was the point of mentioning New Jersey vs. Georgia. The events you mentioned could have taken place Anywhere, USA. I get tired of people moving to GA only to bash it when they get there and continue to stay. I don't think this tidbit was necessary to make your point. Are you considering going back to New Jersey where the good parents are? I would . . .

  13. MBB Founder and Editor Denene Millner


    I think you missed the point I was making. I wasn't bashing Georgia; I was making a comparison between two places where my family has lived since I became a mom. I mentioned NJ because we didn't have proximity to poor and white working class people there; those are the neighborhoods no person of color wants to get caught in—day or night. In fact, the few times I did bother to venture there, I got called the "N" word consistently and treated with contempt and disrespect by people who don't look like me.

    I expected more of the same down here in Georgia, but we have been pleasantly surprised to note that these communities actually welcome us with open arms. There is very little contempt or disrespect from them toward blacks (when someone has a problem with our race, it's pretty clear, and we steer away), and so it makes it easier to be around them more. And so because we tend to mix and mingle in the same areas, we see their lifestyles more readily. And let me tell you, you see pretty quickly that poor black people DO NOT have a monopoly on bad parenting when you see these neighborhoods up close.

    But it's not even fair of me to suggest that only poor and working class white people raise their kids in this manner; for sure, I've seen plenty of white folks with money act the same way.

    Do bad white parents live in New Jersey? Sure. Bad parents, regardless of color and class, live everywhere. We just see more of it down here because our neighborhoods aren't so rigidly separated as opposed to up North.

    And I don't plan on leaving Georgia any time soon; I love it here. And I say that pretty often.

  14. This is the first time that I have read your blog, I found your link via Twitter today.

    I want to start by saying that I have not read the article that you are referring to at all nor do I know the person that wrote this, so this is only my opinion based on what your post says.

    Being a bad parent has nothing to do with race…that is true, we are all, no matter what the color of our skin may be, either good parents or bad ones. I think that there are more bad parents today than there are good ones. I have seen more kids that are black far more behaved than many white kids that I've witnessed.

    There was one comment about smoking and it not being bad parenting. Well it is when you do it in the car with your kids. My husband smokes and he does not do it in the house nor in the car. If we are on a long car ride, he stops and smokes while the kids and I go to the bathroom. That's just the way it is. It's an addiction, but one that can be controlled to the point that you won't fall out if you don't get your nicotine fix right then and there.

    We live within one mile of what I call the "ghetto", which is the government housing where white, black, latino, etc live. Now, I also want to add that not all govt housing is the "ghetto" in my book. It's the govt housing that the kids are roaming the parking lots and streets without a parent in site. It's the govt housing where the parking lot is full of Escalades and BMW's. It's where when your in the store and you see the cussing and slapping {literally} and the snatching of the arms of the kids {the bad parenting} and you happen to end up behind them driving home that you know where they are going to pull into the parking lot at. So with that being said I can see this "ghetto parenting" phrase. But then again like I said I didn't read the article {maybe I should} and my definition of ghetto is probably not the same as all. I think that it could be just the way one interprets it. But I do think that the writer shouldn't have referred to a black mother and kids and then call it "ghetto parenting". I think that she said have given a different example or several examples with different races.

  15. When someone says ghetto I don't take offense and I think thats where a lot of people go wrong. When you take offense you take whatever it was that offended you and hold on to. Let it go, I'm black but that's not who I am. If someone wants to paint black people in a certain light warranted or not If it doesn't apply to me, then I don't apply it. I grew up mostly around white people, white schools, heck my hubby is white. I still had to deal with some hard situations, not nearly as hard as others. I saw plenty of ghettoness. So if ghetto means black well someone's limiting a word.

    It's def gonna be hard to escape something you aren't so quit running. Stereotypes are a real natural thing I deal with it myself but you see past it and then see how stupid it was to think about someone that way or you see how true it was. Why even listen to the media, they follow us, real people. When they don't they make up stuff for real people to think is real. A dirty cyle that never ends. Racism should be dead a long time ago but I think because of how some black families are raised then it stays around. I'll have to post more on this to explain what I mean. I just wanted to add my 2cents.

  16. Chocolate Mom aka Blupoetres

    I'm just shaking my head at the ignorance. And I must say that as a teacher parents missing from their children's academic lives come in all shapes, sizes and colors! Parent-teacher night over the past few years has dwindled to the point of "why are we doing this if the parents aren't showing up?"

    TV, video games, cell phones, and computers are raising today's kids, my brother calls them "screenagers" because everything they do is on some type of screen.

    I hate the term "ghetto" because it always seems to refer to US when I've seen so many other cultures getting there "ghetto" on many times worse than we ever could.

    I just try to keep telling myself – each one teach one – maybe if more "ghetto" parents see more DoRight parents, maybe, just maybe, when we grow old the future doctors, lawyers, attendants, nursing home aides will actually give a damn about us!

  17. @Nick: Actually, the data does not show a direct link between parent involvement in school and student achievement. What it shows is that middle-class children, whose parents have the time and resources to devote to being in the classroom, volunteering, etc, are rewarded by teachers over their working class and poor peers. Read Lareau's "Unequal Childhoods" – not a perfect study, but a good one to see how class is reified in schools so that the things you think of as "good" parenting vs "bad" parenting are actually just markers of class that are rewarded and punished in schools by teachers and reflected in how teachers treat students and grade work.

    Furthermore, if it were true that our parents having not done these things for us made us worse off than our kids, you would see a difference on tests of ability between generations. And you don't. More evidence that these things are symbolic.

    Lastly, I still just don't see any value in labeling parenting as "bad" or "good,", just like labeling it "ghetto" is counterproductive. Parenting doesn't occur in a vacuum – most parents, the vast majority, no matter their situation, their environment, are doing the best they can with what they have – their own educational experiences, their neighborhood and family resources, how they learned to be a parent, what other parents are doing. I recognize that how other people parent has an effect on my life; I get annoyed when kids are out all night too. But labeling their parents as bad gets us no farther in making kids into productive adults, and what happens in schools is that "bad" parents is translated into "bad" kids. Is that what we want?

  18. Latoya, I respect your argument, as I too hate labels, but as the daughter of a woman who was a drug addict and an alcoholic, I have to disagree with it. There is without a doubt, such a thing as "bad and good parenting". Let's just call it what it is. Just as there is good and evil in this world. My mother beat me and my siblings, she humiliated us and caused us so much pain, that we'll be dealing with it for the rest of our lives. If that's not "bad" parenting, then please tell me…what is it?

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