Posted by the prisoner's wife On 8:33 PM
“Where's the munchkin?” She asked looking around for my son, who is usually attached to my leg, especially when in the company of people he doesn’t see a lot.
“He’s outside in the jumper,” I smiled and pointed toward the backyard.
“He's Baaaaaad!” she chuckled and walked off saying something about my son being cute.
I was taken aback. Her words stung my ears while I tried to brush aside her comment. Bad? My munchkin?
My son isn’t bad. He’s very active. At three he loves Thomas the train, Curious George, running, jumping, playing, his mommy, picking up rocks or bugs, kicking a ball, building sand castles, going to the park, any kind of truck, and eating strawberries…not in that order. He loves life, has a smile that can at once break and heal your heart, and he asks a million questions.
A few months ago I heard Geoffrey Canada, the founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone, on This American Life. He spoke about his program, which aims to end poverty in Harlem by educating kids from birth through college. His program boasts amazing results. Most of the students in his charter schools score at or above grade level and many have gone on to attend college. Although his programs are phenomenal, what blew my mind was the Baby College program. Baby College teaches parents, mostly poor and Black and Latino, to rethink how to parent. The program starts even before the baby is born. They discuss brain development, types of non-physical discipline, and having high expectations for your kids.
In the episode of This American Life, they discussed a study that tracked the dramatic differences between the number of encouraging words upper middle-class parents, and their poorer counterpoints, spoke to their children. The differences were stark. The well-off parents, on average, encouraged their children 500,000 times by the age of 3, and only discouraged them 80,000 times. Conversely, poorer children heard only 80,000 encouragements and 200,000 discouragements by the time they were toddlers. Which brings me back to the woman’s comments about my son.
This woman so easily brushed my son off as “bad” because he’s not always quiet, has his own mind, and likes to see what’s around him. I suppose, in her mind, he’s "bad" because I don’t beat him into stick-still submission. At three, my son shouldn’t be afraid of me, shouldn’t be afraid to learn about his environment, or move. His job isn’t to stick so closely by my side that he can’t do anything else. At three, he should be learning all that he can about the world around him so that he can grow into a well-rounded adult. I think many of us forget (or don’t know) that a child’s brain develops through exploration and being able to discover their world. Does that mean they’ll always explore quietly and in the ways that we’d want them to? No. But does that make it wrong? Definitely not.
Her comments also made me think of my students. I wonder, how many of their parents have continuously told them they were bad, or stupid, or crazy. I’m sure many of them have heard these words so many times it has become some sort of sub-conscious mantra. Today, I was in a parent conference, and my student’s mom threatened to “knock her teeth out” and “slap the shit out of her” on about four occasions. Clearly this mother believed heavily in “spare the rod, spoil the child,” but is it working? Is this little girl the best and brightest student I’ve encountered this year? No, she’s failing, and perhaps part of the reason lies in the messages she gets from home.
I know that I can’t control what others say about my son, but I can control how he is treated at home. Let’s face it, my son has enough strikes against him: he’s a young black manchild who’s father is incarcerated. My job, however, is to nurture him in such a way that he grows up strong and proud and loved.
How do you show your kids you love them?
Do your encouraging words outweigh your criticisms?
*listen to the episode of This American Life mentioned in this post here.
*Find out more about The Harlem Children's Zone