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Dallas Morning News


Like It Or Not, Bill Cosby Is Right

May 07, 2005

By Kay S. Hymowitz

Bill Cosby has been filling auditoriums precisely because he is being judgmental. His blunt talk demanding that poor blacks take personal responsibility for the way they raise their children seems a refreshing tonic to the sense that the standard bromides about the inner city's troubles weren't getting blacks very far.

After endless attempts at school reform, just about everyone realizes—without minimizing the awfulness of ghetto schools—that the problem begins at home and begins early. Yet the assumption among black leaders and poverty experts has long been that you can't expect poor parents to do much about it.

Mr. Cosby is saying that they can. And about that, he is right.Let's start with a difficult truth behind Mr. Cosby's rant: Forty years and trillions of government dollars have not given black and white children equal chances. Put aside the question of the public schools; the problem begins way before children first go through their shabby doors.

Black kids enter school significantly below their white peers in everything from vocabulary to number awareness to self-control. As the liberal Economic Policy Institute puts it, "Disadvantaged [disproportionately black] children start kindergarten with significantly lower cognitive skills than their more advantaged counterparts."

That sentence might have come straight from a government commission, circa 1964—before the War on Poverty had spent a dime.

So why have we been able to make so little headway in improving the life chances of poor black children? One reason towers over all others, and it's the one Mr. Cosby was alluding to, however crudely, in his town-hall meetings: Poor black parents rear their children very differently from the way middle-class parents do, and even by the time the kids are 4 years old, the results are extremely hard to change.

Academics and poverty mavens know this to be the case, though they try to soften its implications. They observe that poor parents mean well, but don't have the money or the time or the training or the psychological well-being to do a lot of the quasi-educational things middle-class parents do with their children.

But these explanations shy away from the one reason that renders others moot: Poor parents raise their kids differently because they see being parents differently. They have their own culture of child rearing, and—not to mince words—that culture is a recipe for more poverty. Without addressing that fact head on, not much will ever change.

Social scientists have long been aware of an immense gap in the way poor parents and middle-class parents, whatever their color, treat their children, including during the earliest years of life. On the most obvious level, middle-class parents read more to their kids and use a larger vocabulary than poor parents do. They have more books and educational materials in the house. That's what you would expect, given that the poor have less money and lower levels of education.

But poor parents differ in ways that are less predictably the consequences of poverty or the lack of high school diplomas. Researchers find that low-income parents are more likely to spank or hit their children. They talk less to their kids and are more likely to give commands or prohibitions when they do talk.

In middle-class families, the child's development—emotional, social and (these days, above all) cognitive—takes center stage. It is the family's reason for being. Just about everything that defines middle-class parenting—talking to a child, asking questions, reasoning rather than spanking—consciously aims at education or child development.

In The Family in the Modern Age, sociologist Brigitte Berger traces how the nuclear family arose in large measure to provide the environment for the "family's great educational mission."

The Mission, as we'll call it, was the answer to a problem newly introduced by modern life: How do you shape children into citizens in a democratic polity and into self-disciplined, self-reliant, skilled workers in a complex economy?

The stubborn truth remains that child-centeredness is the only way parents can raise successful children in our society.

According to Dr. Berger, when working properly, the bourgeois, nuclear family is by its very definition a factory for producing competent, self-reliant and (at its most successful) upwardly mobile children. Close the factory, as in the disappearance of the inner-city two-parent family, and you risk shutting down the product line.

The Mission aims at far more than promoting children's self-reliance or ensuring that they make the soccer team or get into an impressive college. The Mission's deepest ideal is the pursuit of happiness. The Mission aims to pass on to the next generation the rich vision of human possibility inherent in the American project—and to enlist them into passing down that vision to yet another generation.

You don't have to have a Ph.D. to know that many poor parents have not signed up for the Mission, but some academics have added to our understanding of this fact. Sociologist Annette Lareau describes the child-rearing philosophy among the poor and much of the working class as "natural growth."

Natural-growth believers are fatalists; they do not see their role as shaping the environment so that their children will develop their minds and talents because they assume that these will unfold as they will.

You could argue that the Mission simply costs too much for poor parents to enlist. But observers of the inner city have found numerous poor parents who seek out—and find—ways to do a lot of what middle-class parents do. They find community centers or church groups with activities.

More important, they organize the household around school activities and homework. Unlike one of Dr. Lareau's poor subjects, who believes "it is up to the teachers to manage her son's education. That is their job, not hers"—plenty of poor parents not only say that education is important but also actively "manage" their children's educations.

DePaul University professor William A. Sampson sent trained observers into the homes of a number of poor black families in Evanston, Ill.—some with high-achieving children, some with low-achieving. They quickly found that the high achievers had parents who understood the Mission.

These parents, usually married couples, imposed routines that reinforced the message that school came first, before distractions like television, friends or video games. Mothers of low achievers came home from work and either didn't mention homework or quickly became distracted from the subject. Writes Dr. Sampson: "The neighborhood is not responsible for the difference. Neither is race. Neither is income."

No, only the parents.

Being a middle-class—or an upwardly mobile immigrant—mother or father means believing on some intuitive level in the Mission and its larger framework of personal growth and fulfillment. In the case of the poor, that means imagining a better life, if not for you, then for your kids.

It is this inner parent, the human being endowed with aspiration, capable of self-betterment and of reaching toward a better future, that Bill Cosby was trying to awaken in his notorious town-hall meetings. The people pouring into his lectures were not looking for sympathy. They were looking for inspiration, a vision of a better self implicit in Mr. Cosby's chastisements.

Original Source:



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