Parenting a Child of Color

As the mother of four, Marguerite Wright understands the challenges black parents face in rearing children in a largely white society. She also knows that most parenting books fail to address specific ethnic concerns. As an example, she tells of a black fifth-grader who was cruelly teased about her dark skin and called "blackie," even by other African-American students. Another black girl had to endure questions from white classmates who asked, "Why is your hair like that?"

"There are hundreds of parenting books, but very, very few deal with issues of race," says Dr. Wright, a psychologist in Oakland, Calif.

Now she and other authors are determined to fill that void by producing child-rearing books with a cultural bent. Wright has written "I'm Chocolate, You're Vanilla: Raising Healthy Black and Biracial Children in a Race-Conscious World" (Jossey-Bass). It is one of nearly half a dozen such volumes to appear this autumn, creating a small but burgeoning publishing category that reflects the nation's growing diversity.

Topics include discipline, child care, and the importance of spirituality. The authors explain how to teach children about race and prepare them for school. Some even list children's books, toys, and television shows that encourage positive racial attitudes.

"We're becoming more educated in terms of realizing we need help on a different level in everything from relations to parenting to dating," says Fran Harris, author of "In the Black: The African-American Parent's Guide to Raising Financially Responsible Children" (Fireside). Relationships are also the topic of other new books for black and Hispanic couples.

As blacks place renewed emphasis on strong families, publishers see a lucrative market for race-specific parenting books. The nation's 34 million African Americans make up 13 percent of the population. Hispanics number 11 percent of the population.

"It's a celebration of the changes taking place over the past couple years that there is a market for these books," says Tracy Behar, associate publisher at Broadway Books in New York.

Ethnic books also find an audience among white parents. Some want to help their children get along with black classmates. Others are adoptive parents of black children or birth parents in mixed-race families.

"There are a lot of biracial children now," says Susan Payne of Shades of Sienna, an African-American children's bookstore in Oakland. "Many parents don't know how to deal with racism for their own children."

Even within black families, children can pick up negative stereotypes. "This whole issue of light versus dark skin ... still confronts blacks - that light skin is better, or that dark skin is more authentic than light skin," Wright says. "This is very damaging to our children's development, so we really have to confront it."

Ms. Payne, the mother of two daughters, finds that black children face more challenges in dealing with appearance than white children. "Look at TV and magazines and the standard of beauty they portray," she says. "It's basically white. The majority of models are Anglo. For girls it's difficult."

Payne and Anita Alexander have written "Gingersnaps: Daily Affirmations for African-American Children and Families" (Hyperion). One affirmation reads: "I look in the mirror. I see my textured hair, my full lips, my dark skin. These are the beautiful gifts of my ancestors." Payne encourages parents to give children "a lot of reasons why they're special. They're not inferior."

Feelings of inferiority can also be conveyed through improper discipline. In reprimanding children, Wright explains, some parents will say, "Get your black behind over here." Children may make negative associations between misbehavior and being black.

As a pediatrician in Boston, Anne Beal, author of the forthcoming "The Black Parenting Guide" (Broadway Books), receives many questions about discipline. Traditionally, blacks tend to be more strict, she says. "It's considered poor parenting if your child is thought of as unruly or is acting up. Yet we recognize that children need to explore and run around and be children."

Wright also regards excessive strictness as a problem. She comes down "very squarely against corporal punishment and harsh verbal controls for children. I especially think it is very detrimental for black children, given the consciousness that still survives from the slavery era that blacks should be whipped."

Attitudes about money also differ from culture to culture. As a group, Ms. Harris says, African Americans rank among the highest in debt-to-income ratio and credit-card debt.

In a recent seminar she conducted for black parents and children in California, participants talked about mismanaging money. "Everything related to status. It was about exterior, about outwardly appearing successful. When you're caught up in that mind-set, imagine what that does to you financially." African-American parents, Harris says, must change that mind-set.

Advertisers, she adds, know "any group that's not a member of the majority is constantly trying to catch up. They go for our kids. So many African-American kids have Tommy Hilfiger in their closet [to show they've arrived]."

Harris urges parents to talk to children about how advertising affects buying habits. Payne emphasizes the need for parents to play a stronger role in every area, not assuming that schools will educate their children.

"Expose them as much as possible to people of other races," Wright says, "so they don't grow up with negative stereotypes. Expose them to different books. Really struggle to remain open-minded, fair-minded."

Despite the challenges, Wright is gratified by the "enormous reservoir of good will among people of all races. Blacks have to know that whites want to learn. A lot of us shouldn't assume that they have negative intentions."

Her optimism also extends to African-Americans. "If black children are brought up in nurturing families, schools, and communities, they are just as healthy as whites," Wright says. "When they go out into the world, it's less welcoming to black children, so it's very important that a strong foundation of nurturing is provided."

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