Sunday, August 19, 2012

Teaching our Children & Youth to Survive & Thrive


Success is the process of learning and growing. It requires that the individual step out of line, away from the pack, and march to the beat of a different, sometimes distant, drummer.
~Dr. Dennis Kimbro, motivational speaker and author
(This post is a modified excerpt from my book: 'Bright, Talented & Black: A guide for Families of African American gifted learners' )
Every day, our children are bombarded with messages about what it means to be successful in contemporary society. The media usually displays success from a financial viewpoint, showing off the lives of wealthy, high-profile athletes, musicians, actors, and politicians. These people live in enormous houses, drive expensive cars, and only wear the latest fashions. Legitimately, many of these individuals have worked hard to accomplish their level of fame and accomplishment, and some of them regularly share their financial success with others through foundations, special schools, and other programs that they have developed.
Monetary wealth, however, is not necessarily the only definition of success that we want to pass on to our children & youth. Certainly, there is a satisfaction that comes from economic stability and monetary wealth, but there are other meanings of success that are perhaps more important. Dr. Dennis Kimbro, motivational speaker and author, defines success as follows:
      Success is born by the pursuit of a goal or an ideal which will benefit others as easily as the dreamer.
      Success can only be earned through individual initiative.
      Succeeding means risk taking, courage, faith, and commitment.
       Success demands the use of whatever abilities and talents are available.

                        Perhaps the great Frederick Douglass said it best- success is born of struggle. As a parent, you must help your child define success in ways that will be socially, emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually beneficial to him. You want to challenge your child to develop a “success mentality” that will enable him to make the most of the experiences that he will have as he works toward a successful life in a career that holds meaning for him, as well as one that allows him to use his exceptional abilities for the benefit of others. Fortunately, gifted children have a strong ability to see success on a broader scale—how it can be attained in many different ways and then used to contribute to the greater good.
Talk to your child about her unique strengths and how focusing on those strengths can assist in the development of her plans for the future. You can also help your child develop a broader framework for success by exposing her to stories of individuals who are like her, who have the same kinds of interests, and who have been successful across many different fields. As a parent of a gifted student, you will witness your child moving through many different life stages and events which will challenge him in one way or another. Whether your child will emerge from these experiences successfully will depend not only on how he responds to them, but also on the type of support he has from family and friends.

Navigating through Multiple Worlds
In their quest to be successful, sometimes gifted minorities do what others may call “sacrificing their race,” becoming more like the dominant race in order to succeed. Some African Americans (and other minorities) who want to succeed in a predominately White society feel that they must learn how to “talk White,” “act White,” and use White social customs rather than their own. There are plenty of biographical accounts, dating back well over a century, of successful African Americans who have struggled with the challenge of “living between two races.”
Many African American gifted students report similar feelings today when they participate in gifted programs in which they are a minority—sometimes so much so that may be the only Black student identified as gifted within their class or program. The notion of “acting White” in order to succeed in their academic and intellectual endeavors is difficult for some high-achieving Black students to swallow, and they may underachieve to avoid these kinds of accusations from their peers. Not all high achieving Black students share this sentiment. Many Black gifted students enjoy success in their gifted programs, despite allegations that they may be 'acting white' and in spite of the fact that they may be only one of a few African Americans in the class or program.
“Acting White” is a concept that derogatorily refers to Blacks who use proper English when speaking, dress in a way that is different from what is currently popular in the youth culture of the day,  do well in school and attain high grades, and demonstrate other characteristics that some people attribute solely to academically-oriented White students. In a revealing study, Dr. Signithia Fordham and Dr. John Ogbu found that Black students who were given high-level coursework or placed in programs for bright students expressed fear of harassment for “not being Black enough” from others in their communities, especially from other students their age.
Although these kinds of negative stereotypes are sometimes associated with African American students who perform well in school, not all high-achieving Black students dislike being “the smart one.” As a matter of fact, many take pride in their academic achievements, describing how schoolmates and community members admire them and support them in their intellectual and academic efforts.  More recent studies share comments from black students who indicate a ‘scholar mentality’ and who are proud of their achievements. Despite how students may feel, whether negatively or positively about their achievements, the reality is that in the larger culture, high achieving Black students still face discrimination and bias at a higher rate than other students.
A sad commentary on the wider culture’s lack of acceptance of scholarly black students is read in the testimonials of graduates of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who give evidence of having to ‘change their names’, disassociate from black fraternities, and even change their voices on the phone during the job hunting process. These young black men are bright, talented and black  (BTB) have graduated from one of the nation’s premier institutions, yet are still forced to disown a significant part of who they are- their names, their fraternities and even the tone of their voice. This is still America. Navigating multiple worlds is a reality for BTB students one that our society has not yet eradicated. Conversations and support from parents, extended family members, mentors, and caring educators are crucial for many students to attain careers that they are fully qualified for yet may suffer bias in the career hunting process.
Yet, we survive and thrive…
            Black students can still survive and thrive in America when they are ‘shored up’ by a strong circle of support made up of parents, extended family members, religious leaders who understand their exceptional capacities, intense emotions, perfectionistic tendencies and need for academically challenging schooling. These students can also survive when they have opportunities to engage in conversations and problem solving with their intellectual peers. Thriving is also enhanced when they are accepted and valued for being the exceptional individual they are without fear of bias and discrimination exacted towards them just because of the color of their skin.        
            Bright, Talented and Black students have a better chance of thriving when we advocate for them and encourage them to be the exceptional individuals they are. Our history as a people in this country provides countless biographical accounts of exemplary African Americans, male and female, who have made great contributions to their communities, this nation and the world. Most of these individuals came from very humble beginnings and faced unbelievable odds and yet, accomplished their goals – thus, they survived and thrived. They beat the odds, they dispelled the myths, and disproved the stereotypes. In a study of achieving high school students, one student responded to a question her environment by saying this: ‘When people see my home and the surroundings, they’d expect me to be of low education or incapable of educational success, because let’s face it, that’s the unavoidable stereotype. Therefore, for me to be doing so well in school is an extreme achievement. My environment encourages me to be successful in school in order to prove the stereotypes wrong’.
            Our children have within them everything they need to be successful, be satisfied with their accomplishments, and contribute to society in unique and meaningful ways. They have the gifts and talents that will enable them to achieve great things. They are depending on us to support them, listen to their needs, accept them, and help them become the exceptional individuals they were born to be. They are counting on us to advocate for them by ensuring that all resources that should be made available are where they need them, when they need them. They believe in us and expect us to believe in them. Surviving and thriving in American society is what they have the potential to do—together we can make sure that happens for each of them.
Joy Lawson Davis, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. For permission to reprint, please contact me: profjoy1022@gmail.com
For further reading:
Grantham, T.C., Ford, D.Y., Henfield, M.S., Scott, M.T., Harmon, D.A., Porcher, S., & Price, C. (Eds.) (2011). Gifted and Advanced Black Students in School: An Anthology of Critical Works. Waco, TX: Prufrock Press.

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