Category Archives: Guest Bloggers

GCP Event: Great Advice on Raising Boys from Kathryn Chenault

This past Saturday GCP had another live event: A conversation with GCP mom Kathryn Chenault. Kathryn, an attorney who stepped away from her professional life to devote time and effort to raising her two sons (who are now wonderful young men in their 20′s), graciously hosted us at her glorious home. Beautiful surroundings, great weather, and wonderful advice from a boy mom extraordinaire.

A great group of mothers were there to hear Kathryn and join our conversation about raising boys of color. Kathryn had so many words of wisdom to share, and the other mothers had lots of questions and stories of their own to share.

Here are five of Kathryn’s many helpful tips for raising boys:

1. Help Them Feel Good About Themselves: From the time that her sons were very young, Kathryn focused on helping them feel good about themselves and making sure they knew that she was their ally. She regularly told them “they could do anything”, that success would be theirs if they worked hard for it, and that they should talk to her about their issues and concerns. While we imagine and hope that most parents feel this way about their sons, Kathryn reminded us how important it is to tell them this on a regular basis. She also regularly talked with her sons about the golden rule, telling them that they should “treat others as you would want to be treated”. Basic but important lessons to remember to teach our sons.

2. Be a Parent Volunteer at Their Schools: Kathryn described spending a lot of time at her sons’ school, particularly in the earlier years when the school was generally more receptive to parent involvement in the classroom. (We at GCP were especially happy to hear this, as we have been encouraging our parents to spend as much time as possible at school, or if their jobs prohibit this, do what they can and befriend a mom who spends more time there.) She talked about the benefits of being able to observe her sons in school with their classmates, and as importantly, the benefits of developing a relationship with the teachers which helped ease communication throughout the school years. When she observed something in school with which she didn’t agree, however, she was careful not to challenge the teacher directly at that moment, or suggest to either her sons that she didn’t want them to follow the school’s rules. This is key, as parents should try to avoid behavior which labels them as a constantly complaining or troublemaker parent, most importantly because it rarely gets them to the desired results.

3. Read Along with Your Son: Beginning in their early years and continuing through high school, Kathryn independently read some of the novels her sons’ were assigned and chatted with them about the readings. Not only would this give her a good sense about where they were with their reading comprehension, it allowed her to fully participate in interesting conversations at home with her sons about the books they were reading at school. (We at GCP learned this from Kathryn years ago and were surprised and delighted to see an increase in our sons’ enthusiasm about talking about school work.) Short on reading time? Cliff Notes work too!

4. Keep them Grounded: Kathryn would regularly remind her sons not to get too comfortable in whatever creature comforts she and her husband have been able to provide for them. She let them know from an early age that they should take nothing for granted, especially any luxuries they might currently enjoy. She also told them from an early age that they would need to get good jobs to be able to afford the nice things they seemed to like and desire. (Since both boys are college graduates pursuing careers, this message seems to have stuck.) Parents who have been fortunate enough to be able to provide well for their children must remember to make sure their children know that they will have to work hard to continue these great lifestyles for themselves once they are through with school. This message is particularly important now, as current economic data suggests that our children’s generation may not surpass us on the economic ladder. Best that they get the message of “every tub on its own bottom” sooner rather than later.

5. Encourage Them to Seek Mates with Similar Values: One of the mothers asked Kathryn for advice concerning our young adult sons and dating. This sparked a candid conversation about how different the dating world seemed to be these days, and that advising our sons to “find someone just like us” didn’t seem to be working so well. We ultimately agreed that the best advice we could give our sons would be to look for mates who shared their values and who made them happy. Considering the passion and enthusiasm with which the mothers engaged in this discussion, we could have had a whole session on this topic!

Thanks so much to Kathryn Chenault for giving us so much food for thought about parenting our boys and for hosting this great event. Thanks so much as well to Gwendolyn Adolph for inspiring and planning it. We hope to have more GCP live events; we will keep you posted!!

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What Works: Vernon Young, Jr. 

This is the first in a series of profiles of young men who successfully navigated adolescence, academia and adversity to become interesting and productive citizens of the world.  Their stories of what worked for them can offer inspiration to our sons as they contemplate their future, and to parents as we try to guide them along the way. GCP contributor Kareema Pinckney brings us Vernon’s story.

 

Professional photographer Vernon Young Jr. is a visual storyteller who uses his photographic skills to capture the most intimate moments of life.

Much of his work depicts his love for people and the human condition.  His passion for photography makes him sensitive to the beauty that is all around, capturing the essence of each subject in every session. He loves his work, and is thrilled to be able to devote so much of his time to pursuing his passion.

Vernon never thought joining the military would be key to his finding his passion and following his dreams.

Twenty-seven year old Vernon is a native of Pittsburgh, PA.   As a child he lived with his two parents and six siblings in a low-income housing development.  He witnessed other family members’ struggle with addiction, friends’ deaths, and felt the stress of limited resources.

It wasn’t until his parents decided to move the family to the South Side of Pittsburgh and regularly attend Lighthouse Church that his life would change forever. Vernon explains:

“I hated moving at first, but I now know it was a greater plan for my life. This move opened my mind and my heart to be influenced in ways that I had only dreamed about. With the clarity that I received from church, I was able to get through some of the more difficult decisions in my life.”
 
Vernon’s first love was football, and he nurtured childhood dreams of pursuing a college scholarship and one day entering the NFL.  However, he ultimately determined that he was more interested in attending college for business rather than pursuing a sports scholarship. But the daunting financial obligations of college convinced the young man to follow in his father’s footsteps and serve in the U.S. military.

Vernon’s belief that the military was his best option didn’t eliminate his skepticism about what he was getting into.  He notes,
“I thought these wealthy congressmen were sending young people to be killed for a war I knew nothing about at the time. I was uneducated about the methods of war, the tactics we used as a country and why we were in war at the time. “

However, it wasn’t until Vernon was exposed to photography in the Air Force that his perspective drastically changed.  “I wasn’t supposed to be a photographer in the Air Force. I was actually selected to be a services apprentice.” In his third week of training  he required emergency surgery, and was switched into the photography unit during his recovery.  He was quite happy about the switch.  “I felt this was a blessing in disguise because I wanted to be a photographer, not a cook.”

Vernon quickly discovered how much he loved photography, and that he had a real talent for it. In 2008, he was selected to Syracuse University’s S.I Newhouse School of Public Communication’s Military Photojournalism program, which is designed to equip military photographers with the tools necessary to document high level missions. 
 
Through his military service Vernon was able to express his love for storytelling through photography. He learned how to look for the emotions in his shots, and take the shots in difficult mixed lighting situations.  Vernon currently serves in the U.S. Air force as a full-time photographer.  He also takes time to use his gift to capture intense heartfelt moments outside of work, which can be seen here.  

Vernon is proud of his decision to join the military.   “If I knew then what I know now, I would do exactly what I did. I’ve gained experience with some of the top professionals in the world, received a college education to further my ability to complete my mission, and am able to spend a lot of time with my family. The military has enabled me to learn, become passionate about my work and improve my overall quality of life.”

Vernon further advises young men that when considering the military or any important decision, to always make sure you have a plan.

“If you go into a situation without a plan, you plan to fail. I would advise a young man to join the military to learn to serve first and then to achieve his personal goals in finances, networking and education. The military has set my priorities straight, while some of my friends never got around to developing a healthy balance in their lives. If one is afraid to join because of war, one must realize there are just as many murders in the U.S. as there are deaths in the war.“

For Vernon, joining the military yielded wonderfully positive results.  Have you and your sons considered this option? Should parents be concerned about preparing our sons to go to war in order to give them an opportunity to advance their education?  Or do you feel that the potential benefits outweigh the risks?   Have any of your sons had great educational experiences through their military service? GCP wants to know!

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Reflections of a Divorced GCP Dad: On Being There

Today’s post comes courtesy of GCP Dad Michael Mayfield, who lives in North Carolina and has two college-aged children.

I never envisioned myself married to an incredible woman and having two amazing children. It seemed like too much responsibility. Seems so even now – so much to teach and instill. Too many mistakes were made, and maybe that’s why I lost the incredible woman. Fortunately, the four of us have managed to love and support each other over these twenty-four years.

After the divorce, it always made sense to stay where my children were. I would never have wanted them to say, “He wasn’t there.”

I recently asked my college aged son what he remembers about my impact upon his upbringing and he said,“Your presence was definitely felt. You were there.”

My biological father wasn’t a presence in my upbringing. I never had an issue with this because my mother and stepfather did a great job with my siblings and me. I don’t know what I missed from not knowing my father any better, but I believed that I had experienced enough of a paternal presence to be a good father to my children.

For parent/teacher meetings, award ceremonies, Spelling Bees, recitals, “24 Math” competitions, and awards, I was there.

In the seventh grade, my son took the SAT, and scored higher than I ever did in high school. At the year-end awards assembly, fifty-two middle school students were recognized by their teachers as “Most Promising.” In a school with a nearly thirty percent minority population, only four of the “Most Promising” were children of color. Though he was a great and dynamic student, never missed a day of school and played on several teams, my son was not among the four.

A few awards later, the principal walked onto the stage to announce that six students had brought honor to Guilford County, North Carolina for ranking among the top two percent in the nation on the SATs. And one of those students attended this school.

He called my son to the stage.

The message that this assembly sent to children of color in the auditorium was disheartening, but the message that it sent to his perplexed White classmates and their parents was just as bad, if not worse. The middle school teachers didn’t see the promise in my child nor many other children of color. My son, whom the principal just identified as one of the highest achieving students in the county and the country, was not considered to be among the “Most Promising” by his teachers.

It was a teachable moment and I was there.

For bumps, bruises, practices and games, I was there.

In ninth grade, my son broke his leg in a freak accident while he was warming up for his second high school basketball game. I took the crestfallen ‘baller’ to the car after he discovered his season was over. For a few moments, I was “Daddy.” Not “Dad” – “Daddy.” He remembers that I was there (and that I slammed his finger in the car door as we went to get the declarative x-ray, but that’s another story).

Prior to his freshman year of college, my son spent six weeks in the Alaskan Wilderness for Leadership Development. With no cell or electronic contact, he was roughing it. We did not speak to him for most of his sojourn. Then, one morning at 2 a.m., when his mom and sister were fast asleep I got THE CALL. Excited and unguarded, he joyfully told me about his adventure. It was a vulnerable and reachable moment. He reached out for me. I was there.

And I wouldn’t have missed any of it for the world.

There are always things that I wished I had done better or differently. There are things that my son and daughter may want to approach differently than I have. But I’ve tried to be an accessible model and to teach them what I’ve learned in life.

Most importantly, I have always committed to being there. And I always will.

Michael Mayfield’s son Brandon is a Morehead-Cain Scholar at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His daughter Lauren is a sophomore at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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Notes from a GCP Dad: Tell Your Sons to Step Away from the Nik•Niks

Today’s post is from GCP Dad Darrell Williams, Chicagoan and father of a 21-year-old son. Darrell has had a long career in the financial services industry, and currently works at a leading investment firm.

Raise your hand if you know what a Nik•Nik is.

Anyone? Not even you seriously old school brothers and sisters?

A Nik•Nik is a shirt. A very popular shirt in the mid-1970s. Nik•Niks were so popular that some brothers were willing to give up a body part to acquire a couple of these sartorial masterpieces, and the true “ballers” of the of the era had several. As you can see in this link, Nik•Niks are tight-fitting shirts of man-made material that came in a near infinite number of color and pattern combinations. Of course, this provided the near infinite opportunity for the Nik•Nik company to lighten the wallets of young men of every race to the tune of about $35.00 per shirt. Chump change you say? Perhaps for some. But my solid brown Nik•Nik shirt represented 15 hours of lugging office supplies for Stevens Maloney back in the day.

Everyone has a few Nik•Nik equivalents that they can find buried deep in that closet back at Mom’s house. For some it might be that Members Only jacket. For others it might be that Starter jacket or those Calvin Klein jeans. Perhaps it’s that FUBU gear, or those Phat Farm or Baby Phat jeans. They all have two things in common: today you wouldn’t wear them outside of a Halloween party even if they actually fit – which they don’t. And most importantly, today you would rather have the money you spent on all that gear back in your pocket.

That $35.00 I worked so hard to scrape together to acquire my Nik•Nik shirt would be $752 today if I had left the shirt in the store and bought and held the S&P500 index instead. Would I trade my Nik•Nik shirt today for $752 dollars? Of course I would. I look back on that teenager who worked so hard to acquire that shirt and wish someone had pulled him aside and told him that he wouldn’t give a damn about that shirt two years after he bought it. I wish someone had told him that he could improve his future life by investing rather than by spending.

To be fair, my parents actively discouraged me from buying my Nik•Nik shirt at the time. While they didn’t walk me through the power of investing, they did assure me that buying the shirt was not the best use of my earnings. I heard them, but it was my hard earned money, and I just had to have that fly brown Nik•Nik shirt. Now that I am older, arguably wiser, and in the position to watch history repeat itself, I am determined to try to get the message about why and how to save money across to my son and his peers.

Until our kids actually start paying serious bills, they are not inclined to spend time thinking about how these bills get paid, or focusing on how to get and hold onto money. But we parents need to talk to our children early and often about the power of saving, investing and the magic of compound interest. They need to hear it not just from us, but from other trusted adults as well, since our kids are often much more likely to pay attention to this type of advice from them– possibly by several orders of magnitude. And as I know firsthand, they are not always inclined to take this advice from their parents.

So please talk to your sons and daughters about what happens if they take the two hundred dollars (or more) they are asking you to use to buy them the latest sneaker, outfit, or other fashion item and invest that money instead. As importantly, ask your brothers, sisters, friends, cousins, any and everyone close to your children to talk to them about the value of saving money over time. Ask them to tell your sons that spending $295 on a pair of skinny, low-rise jeans could take about $5,800 out of the pocket of their 65-year old selves. That’s what you have if that $295 is invested at a 7.0% compounded return. Ask them to ask your son if he would rather have a pair of pricey high fashion jeans right now, or as much as $5,800 at the time he’s ready to retire. Tell him what the 65-year-old him will think of the 21-year-old him if he spends his money on the fashion of the moment. (If you are talking to a teenager, adjust the math accordingly, and the numbers will be even higher.)

Tell your friends to tell your son that these are critical life lessons that will put and keep money in his pocket for the rest of his life. Tell him he is a terrific young man regardless of the label on his shirt or the cut of his jeans. (And while they are at it, they can tell him to pull those jeans up and keep them up.)

I certainly plan to talk to my son and his friends about the power of investing. I may not have been able to resist blowing money on the fashion must have of the moment, but I hope I can save some young brothers (and maybe my own son) from making the same mistake.

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Ask Dr. Michael G. Thompson: Educating Our Sons

How can we help our wonderful, maddening, lovable, frustrating, genius, unmotivated, spectacular sons grow into healthy and happy young men? In our ongoing efforts to seek parenting advice and info from people who have made finding answers to these kinds of questions their life’s work, GCP connected with Dr. Michael G. Thompson, the renowned clinical psychologist and boy guru who has authored or co-authored several now-classic books about raising boys, including “It’s a Boy!: Understanding Your Son’s Development from Birth to Eighteen”, the New York Times bestseller, “Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys”, and “Speaking of Boys: Answers to the Most-Asked Questions about Raising Sons”. For additional information, see an earlier GCP post on Dr. Thompson, “Dr. Michael G. Thompson: Helping Parents Raise Their Sons”, (April 27, 2011)

Dr. Thompson is a consultant for independent schools and public school districts across the United States. In this capacity he has observed thousands of boys in schools, and as he writes about African American boys in his books he shows a thoughtful sensitivity to the particular issues they can face in school. We were thrilled when Dr. Thompson agreed to answer questions we compiled from a group of African American parents. This is the first in a series of posts in which we will share these questions and answers. These first questions are focused on educating our sons.

How can we help our sons become excited about learning? How can we help them to engage more with books, reading, writing and school in general rather than just video games? Even when they show signs of intellectual curiosity in the early school years, it tends to wane as middle school approaches.

You have asked the central question in education; how can we, as parents and educators, transform a child’s natural curiosity and desire to develop skills into focused academic learning. Traditional education makes the assumption that learning is hard and that children need to master basic skills—many of them boring—in order to begin to enjoy learning; since the time of John Dewey, progressive educators have hoped to tap into children’s natural curiosity and energy so that learning is enjoyable from the start and grows into a discipline pursuit. I think you need to start with this fundamental truth: Children like to learn but they very often dislike being taught. The best schools are the ones with both a progressive approach and high expectations. When you apply this principle to parents as teachers, you have to mix activities and enrichment throughout childhood with high expectations for performance. In middle school, you may need to put boys into a situation where other people like coaches and camp counselors are providing the demands (focus, discipline, etc.) as well as the rewards that boys crave (respect, public attention, status among their peers).

What are the advantages of single sex education for boys? Are there
any particular advantages for African American boys?

All boys, but especially African American boys, are under pressure to appear cool and strong and masculine in order to win the respect of their peers. One of the ways that boys can appear cool is by not conforming to adult values, i.e. by not liking school. In a single-sex environment boys find it harder to disrespect school or outsource being a good student to girls. They compete only with other boys for the top spots in the class: athletic, academic and in leadership. Also, once they get to adolescence and are on a biological basis profoundly distracted by girls, a single-sex school keeps them focused by removing the distractions. Do all-boys schools guarantee academic success for all boys? No. No school does.

How can we make sure that teachers and school administrators who may harbor unconscious biases with respect to African American males do not misinterpret normal/developmentally appropriate behavior on the part of our sons?

Racism is not as bad as it once was; we’ve made considerable progress, but it occasionally crops up in the way teachers understand and respond to the behavior of African American boys. Accusing teachers of racism or racial insensitivity always makes them defensive; that’s a tough road to go down. I think every African American parent should have an administrator at the school whom they really trust, so they can go, in private, and ask whether the teacher is seeing the situation clearly or fairly.

We are concerned about the impact of racial identity development on boys’ social maturation. Boys of color can struggle with an additional burden of trying to meet cultural expectations which others place upon them or which they place on themselves (e.g., jock, hip hop expert, street wise urban male) which may be departures from their actual personalities. This can be especially problematic when they are greatly underrepresented in their school community. How can we help them deal with this burden, which can
impact them socially and academically?

Talk about it and talk some more. All you can do is acknowledge the burden, listen to a boy describe it, empathize with his feelings and admire the courage it often takes to be a minority student.

* * * *
Stay tuned for more Q & A with Dr. Thompson.

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A GCP Dad Asks: Are Video Games OK for Young Kids?

Today’s post comes from Oliver C. Sutton III, father of two young boys and a loyal GCP reader. Great to have a GCP Dad’s point of view!

Over the past several months there have been a number of posts here at GCP that I have found enlightening, entertaining and not quite useful to me yet. You see, I am the proud father of two young boys. The oldest is four (going on 14) and the youngest is one and one-half.

A reference in a recent GCP post about video games got me to thinking: Is it ok for young kids to play video games? I was born in the ‘70s. I was one of the lucky kids to have an Atari (Thanks Mom and Dad). I grew up watching cartoons Saturday mornings, then Kung-Fu movies, then, if it wasn’t nice enough to go outside, I booted up the Atari and went to work zapping Space Invaders, navigating a highway for Frogger or avoiding all sorts of Pitfalls. All these years later, you can often find me on the weekends in front of a screen with a controller in my hand.

There have been loads of articles about video games, their effects on people and more importantly, on kids. I played video games growing up; I turned out pretty well (although perhaps my wife might want to weigh in here). Some of you may be wondering why I still play video games. There are loads of reasons; I’m competitive, I’m a bit of a nerd, I’m still a kid at heart and it’s how I like to unwind and clear my mind. There’s nothing like pressing a few buttons and then watching some bad guys go up in smoke. I also enjoy the feeling of tossing a Hail Mary on 2nd down just because you have that option. But seriously, I just enjoy the mental down time some games provide. Some of the games have some pretty tough puzzles to solve and that can be fun too.

But back to the question: is it OK for kids to be playing video games? I say yes. This is not an overwhelming endorsement for kids playing any video game they want; I feel wholeheartedly that there should be limits on what they can play, when they can play and with whom they can play. Like Seinfeld’s ‘Soup Nazi’, I will control my children’s video game interaction with an iron fist.

Take my oldest. He’s at the age where he recognizes video games on any number of platforms, whether it’s a Smartphone, tablet, console or PC. If he sees you playing a game or even just using your phone, he’ll ease over to you, watch for about 15 seconds then ask if he can play ‘Angry Birds’. I do not approve of this particular type of game play, especially on my phone. I’ll let him play a Memory game on my phone, which he seems to enjoy. You see, if I allow my kid(s) to play video games at this age, they will be games with some sort of learning or problem solving component. I know what you are saying (if you know anything about popular video games): ‘But Angry Birds is a problem solving game.” And you are right, but it’s a bit too much for my 4-year-old. He doesn’t get the challenge/reward part of it just yet.

Nor do I let my sons watch me play video games. My video games are not for them. The Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) has a rating system for a reason and I intend to follow it as best I can. I will not let my kids watch me play a First Person Shooter (FPS) like Call of Duty (CoD) or Black Ops (BO). I will not let them watch me play an excessively violent video game like the God of War (GoW), Darksiders or the Dead Space series. They can watch me play racing games and of course they can watch me play Madden. Go Big Blue! Parents, if you aren’t up on the lingo, rest easy. In my next post I’ll try to keep you up to date on some of the popular jargon.

I do let my oldest use the LeapPad to play games. Usually when we are taking a long trip or I need 30 minutes or so to get something else done. ‘What’s a Leap Pad?” you may ask. Check it out here. It’s a great resource. You can download educational and interactive games, short video clips of some of your kids’ favorite characters and even take videos with it!

Video games are an intrinsic part of our society. Whether you play them or not, whether you let your kids play them or not, video games are here to stay and their role in society will likely continue to grow. For example, did you know that the pilot of your plane most likely learned to fly by playing flight simulators? Check out a flight simulator here. Did you know that some surgeons are training on simulators? See this video of surgery simulator here. And those guys that put the rover Curiosity on Mars, did you know they practiced with space training simulators? Check out their space training here. (Only one of these examples isn’t serious, I’ll let you figure out which one.)

I do believe video games have a place in our homes. They can be used to help get a child ready for school by working on basic reading, writing and arithmetic skills or even help develop problem solving skills. They can inspire your sons and daughters to dream about new and exciting worlds, which may spark their interest in the sciences.

GCP readers, what do you think? Are videos games something that we should embrace as a potential learning tool, or avoided? How do you monitor your child’s video play? If you play videos, do you let your children watch?

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Parenting Lessons from Ellis Marsalis

Last night I had the incredible pleasure of sitting at a friend’s small dinner party for Jazz at Lincoln Center and listening to Wynton Marsalis jam with his quintet in her living room(!). As Wynton introduced their final piece, “Take the A Train”, he mentioned that he had the opportunity to meet Duke Ellington back in 1971, when he was 10. Ellington was in New Orleans performing and Wynton’s father, jazz great Ellis Marsalis, offered to take him to meet the world famous musician and hear him play. “I had the opportunity”, Wynton explained ruefully, “but I decided to stay home instead to watch the Oakland Raiders game on TV.” His father did not pressure Wynton, who at 10 was already an accomplished musician, and went on to hang with Ellington without his son.

While bobbing my head and tapping my feet to the wonderful music, I couldn’t stop thinking about Wynton’s intro. What a great parenting story! Marsalis in all likelihood was surprised and disappointed that his son was choosing to watch a football game over the chance to meet and hear a musical legend. But he didn’t force him to go, or try to make him feel badly about not wanting to go. He allowed Wynton to make the decision and accept the consequences of his actions. A pretty good lesson, since Wynton is still telling the story some 40 years later.

Many parents, myself included, would have cajoled or forced our sons to go, frustrated that we had to do so, but determined that they would not miss this opportunity. But truth be told, wouldn’t that effort be as much for ourselves as for our sons, so that we could feel good about giving them every opportunity we can? Marsalis the father recognized that for Wynton the opportunity would only be valuable if Wynton wanted it. He gave Wynton the freedom to make a decision and resisted the temptation to tell him it was not a great one. Very impressive.

There is another lesson in this story: have patience and faith when your son is not interested in your efforts to help him pursue his passions or when he makes a decision you understand and can accept but don’t agree with. After all, who would have thought that a boy who chose to watch the Oakland Raiders on television over meeting the legendary Duke Ellington and hearing him play would grow up to be a Pulitzer Prize and National Medal of Arts winning, globally heralded and revered jazz musician, composer, bandleader, and our international ambassador of American culture?

Patience and faith. Words to parent and live by!

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Words of Wisdom from a Montessori Mom

Back in August, GCP posted a piece called “Waiting For Superman? Superwoman Was Already Here” in which Daniel Petter-Lipstein extolled the virtues of a Montessori education. As a follow-up to that post, we asked Anne Williams-Isom, mother of three Montessori trained children ages 18, 15 and 9, for her perspective on Daniel’s piece and the Montessori experience. She began her response by noting: “I thought Daniel’s points were exactly right and well made. I also found it fascinating that Daniel’s Jewish heritage was an important part of the equation he used to select a school, because as African-American parents my husband and I carefully considered issues related to race, class and culture when we made our decisions about our childrens’ early education”. The rest of her insightful comments are below.

As my husband and I began the dreaded search for the right Manhattan school for our eldest daughter, we had no idea what was ahead for us. We knew we wanted a school that was academically rigorous but we also wanted one that was diverse from both a socio-economic and racial perspective. It was important for us to ensure that our children would have a strong early childhood educational experience because we knew that they would probably attend another school for middle and high school (most Montessori school are only for preschool and elementary school aged children). We also wanted a school that would support some of the values that we were teaching our children at home; integrity, a sense of empathy for others and a drive to discover and fulfill their purpose (a lot to ask for a three year old, I know, but I am a Manhattan mom).

The more I learned about the Montessori Method, the more I knew that this would be the right fit. I was immediately attracted to the idea that children would be looked at as individuals who learned and developed at their own pace – the teachers’ role being to gently guide them through a series of different activities with carefully assigned materials. From what I understand, much of the lesson plans come from what is developmentally appropriate for the child. But they also are developed from classroom observations and carefully assessed cues taken from the children themselves which signal what each child is ready for next.

The importance of the triangular alliance among child, parent and teacher was also a draw for me and apparent from the beginning. The mixed aged group model cannot really be appreciated until you see a six year old helping a three year old put on his coat or teaching him his numbers. Your heart will skip a beat when you see this mini, yet enthusiastic six year old teacher and his eager three year old student interact on the playground. The sense of pride on the face of the three year old when he confidently waves at the six-year-old in the play ground and knowing that he will get a wave back is priceless. Academics have written pages and pages about the importance of a child’s social/emotional development and Maria Montessori has seemed to have gotten it right with the simple recognition that when children learn from other children there are countless ways for both to shine. The feelings that come along with teaching and learning from other children almost immediately build the deposits in their self-esteem bank.

When you walk into a Montessori classroom you sometimes feel like you have walked into the Twilight Zone – but in a good way. There are usually a lot of kids but not a lot of chaos. You will ask yourself “where is all of the noise?” As you look closer you will probably see one teacher in one corner giving a lesson to a child, another teacher giving a math lesson to a group of children and then a couple of children happily and independently doing their “work” around the classroom. Somehow Maria Montessori understood differential learning long before it became a fancy term. Daniel is right. Maria Montessori was indeed a Superwoman.

I agree that the Montessori Method could have many positive implications for the education of children who grow up in economically disadvantaged families and underserved communities. This is true for all of the reasons listed above. Additionally, as Daniel has described, there are also countless benefits to having a calm and peaceful environment – especially for children who live in stressful situations. For those children who may to be growing up in chaotic circumstances, calm and order can actually have a profound and healing effect. Being able to freely explore without someone telling you to sit down or sit still, and being allowed to be curious while having your good choices supported are all things that all kids need but that children that come from challenging backgrounds need even more.

We all know that too many black boys are receiving “Special Ed” services and are labeled as having “behavior problems”. I have often wondered what Maria Montessori would say about the labels and how she would handle one of these so-called “at risk” boys. My gut says she would hand the young man some materials and calmly ask him to complete a task that she knew he would have success with, to build his confidence at first, and then continue to increase his challenges until the boy was accomplishing things he never imagined was possible. I imagine that soon his desire to achieve would distract him enough from any mischief that he might want to get into and the result would be a child who learns.

I have been really happy with my children’s education thus far and know that my husband and I made the right decision for them. While I am still collecting the data I do have some preliminary results. My kids are bright, compassionate, citizens of the world, and most importantly, I am convinced that they will be lifelong learners with that balance of curiosity and confidence that one needs to solve problems. That is the curiosity that Daniel talked about. Just the other day I was talking to my nine year old daughter about a set of tasks she had to get done in our house before she could go on to the activity she wanted to do. I was amazed at how confidently she organized her thoughts and approached her tasks. I realized that she really does not think there is a problem or an issue that she cannot solve, whether it is a math problem (her favorite), or an issue on the playground. Somehow, she, at nine, intrinsically understands that she has the power to solve any problem she puts her mind to solving. And I see that quality to different degrees in each of my two other children; one that just started her first year at the University of Pennsylvania and is balancing her academics with membership on the track team and adjusting to a whole new social environment, and the other, who just started the 10th grade where he is both a leader on the basketball court and as the 10th grade class president.

As far as I am concerned what we really need in the world are more people who are confident about their abilities yet still curious enough to learn about new people or new things; people who want to solve problems together and know how to do so. That is why this mom thinks Maria Montessori with all of her brilliance and simplicity has a winning formula. Thanks Daniel! I strongly concur!

In addition to being a proud Montessori mom, Anne Williams-Isom is the Chief Operating Officer of The Harlem Children’s Zone. She and her husband are raising their three children in Harlem.

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GCP Interview with Dr. Pedro Noguera, Pt. II: How to Pick the Right Schools For Your Child

In Part II of GCP’s interview with Dr. Pedro Noguera, Professor of Teaching and Learning at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development, GCP asked Dr. Noguera for suggestions to help parents identify the best educational settings for their sons from pre-school to college.

Pre-school

Dr. Noguera noted that parents often look for the most highly structured, regimented pre-school program for their son, because they feel it is critical for their boy to learn to follow rules.  He suggests instead that parents should carefully consider their son’s personality and think about who their child is when deciding where he should start his formal education.  Dr. Noguera firmly believes that an open and less structured early learning environment, like the one found in Montessori classrooms, can benefit a child and  “develop [his] intrinsic motivation to learn”, thus creating a life long learner.  When trying to determine whether an unstructured Montessori environment or a more structured environment would be better for your son, Dr. Noguera noted that, “as a general rule, if the home environment is less structured, more structure is needed in school.” He cautioned that unstructured home environments are found at all socio-economic levels, so it is important to be honest about your home environment.

Elementary School

GCP asked Dr. Noguera his opinion of the push to educate boys of color in single sex schools.  He expressed skepticism that single sex schools are the best solution in all cases.  He noted that “our society has a lot of confusion about masculinity,” which can result in single sex schools focusing on teaching the boys rules to follow to become men.  He believes that the better schools, both single sex and co-ed, “are taking a looser approach [and creating] a space for [boys] to be themselves.”

Middle and High School

When selecting a middle or high school for our boys, Dr. Noguera cautioned parents not to consider schools that did not offer a nurturing environment and a solid support system.  Once these threshold attributes are met, he believes that the most important factor parents should consider is the school’s track record.  Parents should ask where the Black and Latino male students have gone on to school after graduation.  In addition, parents should be sure that the school does not engage in tracking (separating students by perceived ability).  Lastly, parents should make certain that the school has a wide range of extra-curricular activities available.

College Readiness

Dr. Noguera suggested that Black and Latino parents needed to broaden our definition of success when it comes to our children.  He implored parents to help our sons (and daughters) discover their passions, reminding us that the happiest adults are those who can make a living doing what they love.  Dr. Noguera encouraged parents to consider having our sons take a gap year between high school and college, noting that “life is not a race,” and that there are many pathways to success.

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Dr. Pedro Noguera to Parents: Pay Attention, Stay Involved

Dr. Pedro Noguera is the Peter Agnew Professor of Teaching and Learning at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development.  Dr. Noguera is a nationally recognized expert on the best practices to narrow the achievement gap between African American and Latino students and White and Asian students.  He has worked both with high poverty urban schools and integrated suburban schools. In his book, The Trouble With Black Boys: …And Other Reflections on Race, Equity, and the Future of Public Education (2008, Jossey-Bass), Dr. Noguera details how the daunting challenges facing our young men– from low expectations and even suspicion from teachers and other authority figures to negative peer pressure from other Black and Latino boys — can negatively impact their school performance.

GCP recently sat down with Dr. Noguera to gain his insights on how parents can best support our African American and Latino boys.  We began with a key GCP concern:  How should parents should respond if they see their adolescent boys suddenly putting less effort in their school work or adopting risky or self-destructive behavior? According to Dr. Noguera, parents need “to create a home environment that has consistent and clear messages stressing the importance of education. Dr. Noguera observed that there is an unhealthy tension in many families between an emphasis on sports and an emphasis on education.  He cautioned that parents have to work to maintain good relationships with their children as they enter adolescence. “[Parents also need to] give their sons the space to be themselves and to talk about themselves” he noted.  They need to move from a model of “control” to one of “influence.”  Dr. Noguera cautions parents that it is important to be aware and “try to remember what you were like at that age.”  Parents need to “pay attention, stay involved and set limits.”

Our discussion then turned to how parents can help their sons deal with teachers who may judge them unfairly. Dr. Noguera stressed that it is a parent’s responsibility to prepare his or her son for the real world.  He noted that while he frequently sees Black parents trying to shelter their children, it is important to be realistic and not try to protect them from experiencing any adversity at all.  According to Dr. Noguera, “we have to prepare our sons to deal with teachers, police and others that may judge them unfairly.” Moreover, we need to help our sons develop “strong, positive self images and good judgment”.  We also need to recognize that when our sons are one of few people of color in an academic setting they can experience a “heightened sense of difference and heightened scrutiny.”  Parents can counteract this by ensuring that our children spend time in all Black or Latino settings.  We also need to model behavior by letting our children observe us interacting with people from different ethnic and class backgrounds.  Dr. Noguera suggests that we bring our children with us into the workplace on occasion, so that they can see firsthand the “codeswitching” that successful Black and Latino adults engage in during the workday.  Most importantly, we have to stay connected to our sons and encourage them to de-brief and share their experiences with us.

Noting that class differences can lead to tensions between middle class Black boys and boys from less privileged backgrounds, GCP asked Dr. Noguera for suggestions of how to mitigate or resolve these differences.  Dr. Noguera noted that the recent dust-up between Grant Hill and Jalen Rose constituted a missed opportunity to explore the way class shapes perspectives.  Our children need to be aware that despite some obvious and visible successes, many Black Americans suffer from extreme levels of poverty and can harbor resentment of more fortunate Black people.  We need to teach our children that character is more important than material wealth and expose them at an early age to all kinds of people.  Dr. Noguera noted that sports and church offer natural opportunities to interact with Black people across the class spectrum.

A key point that Dr. Noguera returned to several times during our discussion is the importance of parents protecting the emotional health of our boys.  He believes that there is “a global crisis in masculinity” in response to the changing roles of men and women in society.    Our outmoded definition of men as strong, emotionless providers can hurt our boys, as this definition ignores the fact that boys and men have complex emotions, and that it is okay to experience and show them.  Above all, we need to recognize that our sons are individuals, and we must teach them to be sensitive and caring ones.

In Part 2 of our interview with Dr. Pedro Noguera, we’ll share his perspective on how to find the best educational setting for your son.

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