Magazine Feature

Reaching All Children

Alvin Poussaint speaks out on schools and families.

Dr. Alvin Poussaint is professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and Director of the Media Center for Children at the Judge Baker Children's Center in Boston. The Media Center promotes responsibility in children's television and movies by providing resources on such issues as children and violence, child abuse, parenting education and interracial families.

During the 1980s, Poussaint served as script consultant for the highly popular "Cosby Show." His books include Why Blacks Kill Blacks (1972) and Raising Black Children (1992), the latter co-authored with James Comer.

Teaching Tolerance Senior Writer Jim Carnes spoke with Poussaint in Newton, Mass., in May 1995.


What led you to your work with children and the media?

My interest in working with children began with my experiences during the civil rights movement. After I finished my psychiatric training at UCLA in 1965, I went to Jackson, Miss., to provide medical care for civil rights workers and to try to get health facilities desegregated all around the South. I was involved with one of the first Head Start centers, providing physical examinations for the children.

Later, as a parent and as a practicing psychiatrist, I became concerned with the relationship between violence in the media and the culture of violence in our society. I remember taking my son, who is now 16, to movies that were advertised for children and finding them so violent he would ask me to take him home.

I worked with Peggy Charren of Action for Children's Television when she first got started. I would be called in from time to time by Children's Television Workshop to talk with the writers about children's issues. I served as a consultant for a number of programs, including "Nova" and another PBS program called "Childhood." But it was my work with "The Cosby Show" that crystallized my professional interest in children and the media.

That was a wonderful opportunity to use television to project decent, fundamental values such as nurturing and love in a family while also making a program that was both educational and entertaining. At first I approached the scripts a bit gingerly. When I had questions or didn't think something was quite right developmentally in terms of the kids, I held back because I felt I was interfering with the humor of the story. Bill detected this, and he said, "You give me the reality. Let me worry about the humor."


Many teachers of young children find that violent TV images dominate their students' conversations, artwork and free play. How is TV best used and what are the dangers of its misuse?

If you can't lick 'em, join 'em! One approach is for the teacher to actually direct some of their TV viewing. You can take one of the more positive shows and make it an assignment, so at least you may be pulling them away from being focused on "Power Rangers." You could have them draw the character they liked best on the assigned program and then use that as a take-off point for classroom teaching.

You can also challenge their thinking about the violent programs they like. People will say, "Oh, all kids love 'Power Rangers,'" but it never works that way with children. You may have someone in that classroom who doesn't like "Power Rangers," who then speaks up: "I don't like that. They jump and shoot and all that. It makes me feel jumpy when I watch it." You then can elicit a range of other responses to the program. I think schools should be more out-front about suggesting to parents that they limit children's TV viewing -- preferably to one hour a night -- and that they supervise and participate as much as possible in the viewing that is done.

Also, children should be encouraged to do other things like play games and interact with each other and the family away from the television. The kids don't know how to play marbles, don't know how to spin a top, don't know how to play checkers -- the kind of activities that are very important for social development.

The schools are going to have to help some parents with this, because you have a generation of parents now who were raised on television themselves. They don't know how to play games with their children. Early childhood teachers are better situated than any other group for laying the groundwork of civility.


How can teachers involve parents in their children's education?

You have to think about the best strategies for a particular community. What kinds of things would these parents come to? Frequently the parents are asked to come in for some kind of discussion. Maybe that's not the best approach at first. Maybe they need to come in for a picnic, something that's more social and attractive. Or maybe a movie, something that will ease the feeling that this is going to be an academic situation where they're not sure of themselves.

Also, try to get parents to volunteer as much as possible at the school. Sometimes you need monitors in the classroom, sometimes you need an assistant in the library. The more parents get involved, the more they're going to feel connected with the school.

One problem is that many parents are working all the time. There's a school in New York that puts on evening activities specifically for parents: game nights, physical fitness programs, that kind of thing. In the best of worlds, the local school would be a comprehensive family learning center for the community, where there were activities for parents as well as children.

At some schools, the parents come in for the students to teach them about the computer. The parents are learning from the kids, keeping up with new technology, even though they may not have computers at home. The more parents understand what their children are going through in the schools, what the curriculum is, the less frightened and more comfortable they're going to feel.


How does the historic treatment of African Americans influence black parents' expectations of their children?

Historically, African Americans have gotten a very heavy dose of messages that we're inferior. Through slavery and after, black parents had to focus on getting their children to fit into a society that offered limited opportunity and where they were at risk just to survive. Black males, particularly, were at risk if they were disobedient, if they weren't compliant or docile. The first job of any parent is to protect their child, so black parents had to be rather strong and authoritarian in relation to their children.

Early childhood teachers are better situated than any other group for laying the groundwork of civility.

In the Jim Crow period, many black parents felt that education was very important and that it was important to use the segregated institutions that were available. At the same time, many had a hard time convincing the young people that opportunities really existed. That's still true today, especially for poor black youth. When they look around them, they don't see anything pretty or hopeful. They don't have enough images of black people who are successful and achieving.

One thing I've noted is that a lot of black parents who aren't well-educated but do have aspirations for their children to achieve don't know how to support that. They may not have the tools to give their children the early educational grounding that they need at home. So already by kindergarten you're seeing a huge gap between the children based on what their parents were able to provide for them before age 5.


Studies have shown that the 3rd and 4th grades are a critical period for African American males, when many become disaffected and even hostile toward school. What are your thoughts on this problem?

If 3rd grade becomes the point where they fall off, then we have to look at what's been happening before 3rd grade. The "3rd or 4th grade syndrome" may just be a culmination of problems that were there from the beginning. Also, in our society, adolescence has been pushed down to a younger and younger age. The boys may be emerging into some preadolescent behavior by age 8 or 9. Being "one of the boys" may involve rejecting school. All of this may combine, particularly if these boys become more aggressive, to make the teachers not respond to them, or respond more positively to the girls.

The other issue is that we know that girls in general, white or black or whatever, tend to be a little ahead of boys cognitively. They pick up language and other skills more easily. This may lead to an ongoing preference in those environments for the girls to do more and attract more of the teacher's positive attention. If the boys are tougher, more difficult in a disciplinary way, they may cause teachers to pull back.


Doesn't that contradict the widely held belief that our educational system is unfair toward girls?

I don't think that you would get many black social scientists to say that the school system in the inner city anywhere indulges or prefers black males. I think you'd get more who feel that the system works better for black girls. This is borne out by the rate of black female success through the system.

That's why it's important to look at subpopulations. Because, first of all, black females have a different psychology than white females and have had for a long time. The expectations for them right through slavery and after were very different. Black women were always out working, sharing responsibility because they could get the jobs, even if it was as domestics. And there's always been a strong encouragement for [black] girls to get an education, not to be dependent, not to think they're going to have a man to take care of them. I think that's still true.

In a lot of school systems, it's anecdotally reported over and over again that schoolteachers are afraid of young black males, afraid of their aggression, and have stereotypes about them. These factors don't carry over in the same way to black females.


A few cities have experimented with schools for African American boys only. What assumptions do these programs represent?

Their assumptions are that regular schools support the educational needs of non-black children and black girls better than those of black boys and that separate schools for black boys could address their needs more appropriately -- in style, in structure and in curriculum.

For instance, suppose the ordinary school has one recess a day, and let's say black boys or boys in general are more energetic. Maybe you should have three recesses a day, to satisfy this physical need. Black boys may have a lot of issues around what it is to be a male. Many of them come from homes where adult males are absent and females run everything. The school system is largely female at the elementary level. The all-boys schools try to provide more male teachers.

Remember that same-sex schools have been very successful for boys and girls for a long time. The rush toward coeducation didn't have to do with educational academic needs; it had to do with social needs. It wasn't done because the girls' schools were no good or the boys' schools were not doing well, but to let boys and girls grow up knowing each other. Today, maybe we have a different set of social needs.


The percentage of minority students in our nation's schools exceeds that of minority teachers by a 3-to-1 ratio. How does this discrepancy affect the minority child's education, and what can white teachers do to connect with children of other races?

One concern is the lack of real representation of blacks as teachers and principals in the school system -- direct role models that black children can get to know.

I think the bigger problem might be white teachers who do not have anything in their educational background to prepare them to deal with children from a different ethnic group. Very little of that kind of education takes place. There are white teachers who would describe themselves as very liberal who feel guilty all the time. They let the children run wild because they have difficulty being firm with kids who are so troubled.

And then you get other teachers who use their own strategies for reaching a kid and sometimes do very silly things. I'm thinking of one teacher who tried to relate better to the kids by talking "more black." It just bombed. White teachers do need to know something about black English, but not to speak it themselves. Rather, [they need] to have a greater understanding of how the kids communicate with each other.

Schoolteachers -- white or black, once they're schoolteachers -- are middle-class people and share certain values. They may not be able to deal with the vulgar language the children use, or be able to put it in a moral context, to see that it's part of a long-standing cultural style. So they'll take it personally and reject the kids, instead of sticking with them despite the differences and trying to reach them. Early childhood teachers are better situated than any other group for laying the groundwork of civility.