The car ride to and from school is a boon for parents. Our kids are forced to listen to us, since we control the radio, the windows, and the hotspot. I use these precious minutes to learn about my kids’ school days; talk about mean girl antics, homework, and, of course, what’s for dinner. They are relatively forthright about what’s going on — though it may take hours before I get the whole story from my 10-year-old daughter, especially if she was in the wrong. My teenage son, who used to tell me everything, typically responds with one-word answers and then disappears into his phone. Not to be ignored, I pepper him with: How did you do on your exam? Were you prepared? Why do you have missing assignments? Did you email your teacher? And, before I know it, he shuts down and I am on fire, threatening to send him to public school if he doesn’t perform better.
We live in a country where individual achievement is prized and where being number one is the only goal that matters. But for parents with fewer resources, and those who are victims of systemic racism, success isn’t always about taking the top spot. Sometimes it's about homeownership, a good job, and breaking generational pathologies: teen pregnancy, incarceration, drug addiction. For Black families like mine, education is one path to fulfillment. Having overcome 400 years of enslavement, forced ignorance (it was once illegal for Blacks to read or write), and then legalized segregation, racism, and class barriers, our passion for learning has been our way out. Our ancestors infused us with a winning mindset: we could achieve our way through anything but we would have to be twice as good as white folks to get half of what they have.
l leaned on him, hoping my fire would become his through osmosis.
I inherited this mindset from both my maternal and paternal grandparents. Black Southerners, they were part of the Great Migration and came west to Los Angeles in search of a better life. While they never spoke of sitting in the back of the bus or attending segregated schools, the middle-class life they carved out for their kids and grandkids was the result of staying the course and a belief that the American dream was theirs too. Their willingness to put family first gave me a leg up and I grew up knowing I’d use their example to parent my kids into greatness. I am surrounded by similarly driven parents obsessed with raising good citizens and productive members of society. We know that Black kids don’t have the luxury of being average. Being average is a race to the bottom, a scarlet “F” for failure. If they are average, then we are average — a disappointment to our ancestors.
While I haven’t literally said to my son that you have to be twice as good, I am guilty of telling my high schooler “don’t get out-worked.” I began this messaging in earnest once he made his choice for high school. It’s an all-boys prep school known for its nationally ranked football team, and I wanted him to understand that he would be a minority in a majority Latinx high school and that some of the boys would be hungry for straight A’s, enroll in AP and honors courses, join clubs, and advocate for themselves. They would work because they were the sons of immigrants who wanted a better life for themselves and their future children. My son, who has always been strong academically, set the bar high for where he wants to attend college. His freshman grades were great but shortly after the start of sophomore year, he stopped putting forth effort and his grades did not match his goals. Alarm bells went off.
l leaned on him, hoping my fire would become his through osmosis. I fussed at him, made demands, and used racial guilt to inspire him to grab for the brass rings of excellence. I insisted that Booker T. Washington didn’t want to clean the church but did so with excellence and pride because he understood what was at stake. I told him that he owed 1960s activists who were imprisoned or murdered so that he could lollygag through assignments.
Though this racial guilt got his attention, it was short-lived. Our conversations became mostly about grades — and eventually, my honor student started to shut down. He grew quiet and I had to recalibrate, because insisting on Black excellence was backfiring. For though he is a beneficiary of all who came before him, he is coming of age during a worldwide pandemic and racial reckoning with lingering aftershocks that directly impact his mental well-being.
After he started showing signs of depression, I hit pause. While I still believe that Black excellence is important, it is not everything. I looked at the research that shows that 53.3% of Black youth experience moderate to severe depressive symptoms. I read about how rates of suicide among Black youth have doubled since 2014, and learned that anxiety, stress, climate change, police violence, and the pandemic put Black kids at risk, according to the U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory. I didn’t want any of this for my son or daughter, so I switched my efforts to motivate who he is as a learner. When he earned a 78% on an honors Algebra 2/Trigonometry test, I did not hit the roof. Instead, I asked if he did his best. When he said that he had, I high-fived him and turned the volume up on the radio. When I chilled out, he began opening up and we were back on healthy ground.
I pivoted out of necessity and know that among the diverse ways Black people parent — authoritarian (old school), permissive, gentle — reimagining how we shepherd our children into fulfilling lives in this climate is worth a try. “I am a double-Ivy League graduate. I have been there and done that,” says Dr. Taniqua Miller, M.D., an OB-GYN in Atlanta, Georgia. “If my children choose to follow that path, I will support [them]. But I know through my own growth that there is so much more to life than racking up the accolades.” Miller has suffered from burnout herself, the consequences of being twice as good, which she says manifested in myriad ways including upper back and chest pain. She eventually left the working environment in which she felt undervalued, and recentered herself so she could be a better mom and wife.
From her own experience, the mom of three now has a different approach to parenting. “I want a little more ease for my children. I would rather focus on allowing my children to live in their strengths instead of forcing them to be good at everything.”
Often our “thank you” comes in the form of our kids’ straight A’s, prowess on the gridiron, and difficult routine on the balance beam — without regard to the emotional or physical costs of these achievements.
This is one example of how Black parents can pivot when it comes to grades and pursuing Black excellence. Another is to go where we are wanted. In the not-too-distant past, with a few exceptions, the only colleges open to Black students were HBCUs. Since the mid-1800s, HBCUs have continuously and reliably provided college access to bright Black Americans that predominantly white institutions systematically denied. The latest U.S. Supreme Court ruling against affirmative action strongly suggests that being twice as good will not be enough to overcome “a superficial rule of colorblindness as a constitutional principle in an endemically segregated society where race has always mattered and continues to matter.” Black parents nodded in agreement with this dissent written by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who criticized the latest racial boulder wedged between our children and institutions of higher learning.
Perhaps it's time to forgo the scramble for a spot in the Ivy League and revisit HBCUs as a pathway for our highly intelligent children to be in environments where they are welcome and highly likely to graduate. This is an option I have suggested to my son, whose dreams lie in universities that offer engineering and formal lacrosse programs. Ultimately, I want what he wants and have emphasized that wherever he goes, it must be a university that wants him and a place where he will find community.
Speaking of community, when we go to college, everyone goes with us. Our success is plural and we feel a debt to repay financial and emotional support bestowed upon us by our village. So many people supported us and the pressure to not waste their time or money is intense. Often our “thank you” comes in the form of our kids’ straight A’s, prowess on the gridiron, and difficult routine on the balance beam — without regard to the emotional or physical costs of these achievements. Not to mention our ego is tied to how amazing our kids are. While overachieving wins external praise, kids need to know that their parents love them no matter what. I took my own advice and doubled down on praising my son for being him. That was a winning strategy. His enthusiasm for school returned and the grit I thought he was lacking is slowly revealing itself.
Admittedly, it is hard to shake a mindset that being twice as good as white people will combat negative stereotypes and give our children access to the American dream. But as parenting trends come and go, Black parents must continue to fight for our children’s humanity, not just in relation to white people, but in who they are inside.