If you have any interest in understanding how to raise brilliant and successful African-American children, particularly boys, you have to grab a copy of “Promises Kept: Raising Black Boys to Succeed in School and in Life.”
Written by married couple Joe Brewster, M.D., and Michele Stephenson—the filmmakers behind the masterful documentary “American Promise”—with the considerable assistance of writer Hilary Beard, this book is a profoundly important work presenting the latest research and innovations that can nearly guarantee improvement in the outcomes for Black children.
Thanks to President Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative—and, unfortunately due to the disturbing murders of Black boys like Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis— the challenges surrounding Black boys in America have suddenly found a place on the front pages of the nation’s newspapers and websites. But as you know, it’s an issue that we’ve been writing about for years here at MyBrownBaby.
When I was working on my series for Ebony magazine on the state of Black boys in America, which Ebony called “Saving Our Sons,” one of the first people I turned to was my good friend, writer Hilary Beard. Hilary is a three-time New York Times bestselling author who is a master collaborator, working over the years with such big names as Venus and Serena Williams and Angela Bassett and Courtney Vance to bring their stories to life in books such as Venus and Serena: Serving From the Hip: 10 Rules for Living, Loving, and Winning and Friends: A Love Story. In other words, Hilary does the same thing that my wife Denene and I do—helping celebrities and other successful folk tell important stories that advance our understanding of the human condition, particularly that brand of the human condition lived by African Americans.
Brewster and Stephenson put together the award-winning documentary “American Promise” that chronicles the 12-year journey of their son Idris and his best friend as they make their way through Manhattan’s high-priced Dalton School. The film is a mind-blowing look at the difficulties even middle-class Black boys have navigating the academic world, particularly in a predominantly white setting.
The couple sifted through 800 hours of footage to produce a documentary that won a Special Jury Award at the Sundance Film Festival and that has been inspiring audiences across the country over the past year.
Brewster and Stephenson wanted to give the public a comprehensive set of tools that could help in the raising of Black boys, so they enlisted Hilary’s help to write “Promises Kept.”
As I discovered when I was working on the Ebony series, there’s a vast amount of research that scholars have been conducting on Black boys over the last 30 years, pinpointing parenting styles and teaching approaches that are successful in educating Black children. Unfortunately those approaches have not been widely shared with the general public. But “Promises Kept” attempts to remedy that problem.
Starting even before a child is born and continuing all the way up through the school years, the book offers a bounty of material. I feel quite confident in saying that parents who employ just a third of the suggestions in this book will raise successful students and human beings. Just a sampling of the chapter headings illustrates just how comprehensive this book is:
—Close the Gap Before It Opens: How to make the right choices for your son before he’s even born
—Build Your Son’s Brain: Using brain science (and common sense) to develop our sons throughout early childhood
—Be His First Teacher: How to begin your son’s education at home
—Put His Armor On: How to talk to our sons about race
—Hug Him and Tell Him You Love Him: How to use parenting styles that work
—Protect Him From Time Bandits: How to teach our sons to manage their time
I found the chapter on parenting styles to be especially profound, delving into the amazing work that Professor Jelani Mandara of Northwestern has been doing in Chicago. Mandara’s research has shown how the authoritative parenting style can overcome family income, parents’ educational level and a host of other deficits in raising successful children.
What is authoritative parenting?
“Authoritative parents demand a lot from their kids and are very in tune to their needs,” the authors write. “They behave warmly toward their children, listen to their thoughts and ideas, and attempt to address their concerns. In authoritative homes, there are regular family outings, the households are cognitively stimulating, TV-watching is limited, the children don’t have to do an inordinate amount of chores, and they aren’t forced to attend religious services very often. Authoritative parents have certain rules they will not argue about, but they allow their kids to challenge and debate them.”
This parenting approach will feel foreign and even wrong to many Black parents, who were raised in strict, authoritarian households where the children were seen and not heard and certainly couldn’t challenge or debate any of their parents’ edicts. But Mandara’s research shows that the unbending approaches used by the vast majority of African-American parents are the least effective in raising Black kids.
Mandara feels so strongly about the benefits of the authoritative approach that he actually brings single moms onto the campus at Northwestern and teaches them how to be more authoritative in raising their kids.
“They [children in authoritative households] do better on pretty much everything that we can measure: mental health, drug use, high-risk sex activity, delinquency—starting from an early age on up and even in college,” Mandara says in the book.
I was stunned when I heard this for the first time, that something as basic as parenting style—something that every parent can control—could trump all the things that we typically think matter most in a child’s life, such as parent income and parent education level.
“We think that it’s time to stop thinking of Black males as a problem and instead start seeing them as solutions to many of the challenges America faces,” the authors write in the book’s introduction. “Rather than only seeing them as being ‘at risk,’ we think we need to see more of their promise.”
Amen to that.
If you have a little one—or not so little one—in your household and you’d like to be equipped with tools to make your childrearing journey more successful, you must read this book.
Nick Chiles is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and a New York Times bestselling author of 12 books, including the upcoming "The Rejected Stone: Al Sharpton and the Path To American Leadership," which he co-authored with Al Sharpton.