“Father knows best” — a saying so popular that a midcentury television sitcom was named for it — means something different today. Dads in this day and age tackle child rearing, domestic experiences and tough conversations with their children more than ever before.
But there are some issues that many dads know a lot about from firsthand experience and are hesitant to address. In many families, race and discrimination are at the top of the list.
African American parents, like all other parents, want to protect their children from harm and to help them thrive. They want to protect the innocence of their sons and daughters for as long as possible, too, and many have concerns that saying too much about race and discrimination too soon would set back their children.
But these same parents face an extra burden. The reality is that they and their children, even from a young age, live day to day in unfair and even toxic environments. A study in 2014 found that African American boys are perceived as less innocent and child-like than white children their age by the time they turn 10.
Last year, another study found that African American girls are perceived as less innocent and more deserving of punishment than white girls — and that this perception begins by 5 years old. And news reports regularly feature unfair treatment of black youths by police, store employees and strangers.
For many African American parents, these studies and reports confirm what they already know. They have to help their children navigate dealing with unfair treatment because of the color of their skin at an early age.
But how? New research finds that when parents talk to children about race the right way, it can help them not only with experiences of discrimination, but in other ways, too. Children who have these conversations with dad (and with mom) do well academically and psychologically, especially when parents share the positive aspects of race and prepare children for potential discrimination.
My colleagues and I examined the experiences of nearly 1,400 African American youths and discovered parents have many different ways of being involved in or giving messages about race to their children, from positive to negative to unengaged.
Conversations that stay positive — including how to handle potential discrimination — helps teens. The young people who were doing the best reported that their parents were involved, knew their whereabouts, and worked with them to solve problems — the everyday stuff of parenting. They also shared positive messages about their race, how to deal with discrimination, and the equality of people beyond race. Teens with parents like these showed more psychological well-being and had higher academic expectations for themselves, and they were less likely to give up when they faced academic challenges.
Parents should also take their own advice: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” Although adolescents who received positive messages on race did much better academically and psychologically than adolescents who received few or no racial messages, it’s worth noting that the teenagers with unengaged parents did better academically than teenagers whose parents sometimes succumbed to negative messages about race. Even when stereotypically negative messages were balanced by some positive messages, the experience of hearing those negative messages had an impact.
And finally, our messages and involvement still matter for boys and older adolescents. Parents, especially dads, may think that boys and older adolescents are strong and can handle more negativity than their little sisters or younger teens. In fact, some negative comments about race seem to affect boys more than girls. Boys’ sense of well-being suffered more when a parent who is less involved in their child’s life commented negatively on race.
The messages young people hear matters, and so does dad’s involvement with their children. This Father’s Day, we should remember that creating an environment where adolescents feel comfortable talking about race, values, or any other issues is one of the most important things a father can do.
Fatima Varner is an assistant professor of human development and family science at The University of Texas at Austin.
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