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Commentary: For African-American Tiger Moms

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 29, 2011 - The Tiger Mom approach to child rearing recently received lots of attention. Could one envision the Tiger Mom approach having an impact on the educational achievement of African-American children?

In the book "The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom," Amy Chua describes her role, stance, approach and strategy to raising successful children based on her Chinese cultural values. Though there has been an enormous amount of debate about her practices and methodology of parenting, what is evident is that her daughters seem balanced and are successful. It goes without saying that she and her husband reared two brilliant and phenomenal daughters -- a scholar and musician of whom any parent would be proud. The questions are, do we understand what it takes for all children to be this successful, and are we all willing to do what it takes?

Much of the debate about her methods has been viewed through Americanized majority cultural lenses instead of appreciating and respecting the values and norms of another's culture.

African-American parenting is often viewed through the majority lens as well. Many academic scholars and educators fail to fully understand the impact of race and racism, critical race theory or the post-traumatic symptoms of slavery and their roles in the education system. These historical experiences have not only shaped individual behaviors within the African-American community, they have shaped the role of the African-American parent.

Today, much of the rhetoric around the "achievement gap" indicts African-American parenting rather than the institution of education's responsibility. Beth Harry discusses the role of African-American parenting in the special education arena where there is an over-representation of students of color.

"The literature on parent participation in special education shows that this group of parents exhibits a pattern of relatively low participation and that teachers often interpret this pattern to mean that such parents are uninterested in their children's educational careers (Lynch & Stein, 1987; Marion, 1981; Sullivan, 1980). However, despite the potentially undermining influence of poverty and detrimental urban environments on traditional values, the belief that many parents do not care what happens to their children in school runs contrary to what is known about African-American family life and the values placed on education (Billingsley, 1968; Harry, Allen, & McLaughlin, 1992; Hill, 1971; Marion, 1981)."

What I can appreciate here is the truth. Of course, African-American parents want their children to succeed in school. Unlike Amy Chua, however, some African-American and brown parents have not developed a successful strategy to help students overcome the adversity they will face in a racially hostile school environment.

"The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom" clearly outlines the discipline it takes to create an environment of academic success. It is possible for parents of African-American and Latino children to adopt this playbook. Although they will encounter racism in schools in a different way than the "model minority," if supported, children can overcome and liberate themselves within the system of education. It requires that parents of children of color arm their children with the tools to combat racism at school.

What would life look like if children of color read an hour more everyday? What would education look like for these children if they were two grades ahead in mathematics? What would it take to get these children to that place? Some of us believe black and brown first- and second-graders are lost causes. We must be brave enough to step up to the plate and strategize to make academic success a priority for children, parents and their teachers so that no child is labeled lost.

Chua mentions in her book that in the Chinese culture things are done differently than in Western culture. This is true for the African-American and Latino cultures as well. Chua does not distance herself from her cultural heritage, nor is she ashamed of her traditions. She was deliberate in her strategy and methods of rearing her children and had established an agreement with her husband for supporting her methodology.

African-American or Latino children should be knowledgeable and proud of their heritage as well. However, more often than not, their cultures are not recognized or appreciated in schooling and have negative connotations attached to them.

Success in education is intricately tied to culture. Tara Yasso, from the University of California, offers a view that communities of color have cultural wealth that can be translated and used as gifts, resources and opportunities to set high expectations for children of color and recognize the benefits of a mutli-acculturated educational system.

Amy Hunter is director of Racial Justice for YWCA Metro St. Louis, which is "dedicated to eliminating racism, empowering women and promoting peace, justice, freedom and dignity for all."