Promises Kept

Raising Black Boys to Succeed in School and in Life

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As seen on PBS’s POV

An unprecedented guide to helping black boys achieve success at every stage of their lives—at home, at school, and in the world
Regardless of how wealthy or poor their parents are, all black boys must confront and surmount the “achievement gap”: a divide that shows up not only in our sons’ test scores, but in their social and emotional development, their physical well-being, and their outlook on life. As children, they score as high on cognitive tests as their peers, but at some point, the gap emerges. Why?
This is the question Joe Brewster, M.D., and Michèle Stephenson asked when their own son, Idris, began struggling in a new school. As they filmed his experiences for their award-winning documentary American Promise, they met an array of researchers who had not only identified the reasons for the gap, but had come up with practical, innovative solutions to close it. In Promises Kept, they explain
• how to influence your son’s brain before he’s even born
• how to tell the difference between authoritarian and authoritative discipline—and why it matters
• how to create an educational program for your son that matches his needs
• how to prepare him for explicit and implicit racism in school and in the wider world
• how to help your child develop resilience, self-discipline, emotional intelligence, and a positive outlook that will last a lifetime
Filled with innovative research, practical strategies, and the voices of parents and children who are grappling with these issues firsthand, Promises Kept will challenge your assumptions and inspire you to make sure your child isn’t lost in the gap.

Praise for Promises Kept
“The authors offer a plethora of information and advice geared toward the specific developmental needs of black boys. . . . Thorough and detailed, this guidebook is also a call to action. As Brewster sees it, when people of color remain complacent, they not only break a tacit promise to future generations to achieve social equity, they also imperil the futures of both the nation and the planet. A practical and impassioned parenting guide.”Kirkus Reviews
“A penetrating look at the standard practices, at school and at home, that contribute to the achievement gap between the races and the sexes that seems to put black boys at a disadvantage. [Brewster and Stephenson] debunk myths and offer ten parenting and education strategies to improve the prospects for black boys to help them overcome racial stereotypes and low expectations. . . . This is a practical and insightful look at the particular challenges of raising black males.”Booklist

Under the Cover

An excerpt from Promises Kept

How to Make the Right Choices for Your Son— Before He’s Even Born
It was an accident, but understanding how things work, maybe it wasn’t really an accident. I could have been more careful. I took a “morning after” test but was torn about my desire to become a mom. I already had one abortion back in my twenties. I’m thirty- five now; I want to get married and have a family. But my biological clock is ticking, and I haven’t met the right man. I can work on myself, but I can’t manufacture a partner.
Some of my friends who are my age and a little bit older are starting to have problems conceiving and are starting in vitro fertilization. One of my girlfriends is forty- three and just devastated about her inability to conceive. That scares the crap out of me. I don’t want to be that woman. When my boyfriend and I didn’t use a condom a couple of times, I figured we both knew what could happen. Even though I have to admit I didn’t think I would really get pregnant because my doctor had told me some things during my twenties that made me doubt if I was even fertile. When I found out that I was actually pregnant, I panicked.
When I told my boyfriend, he basically told me that I was on my own; he didn’t want me to have his baby. We weren’t exactly in a committed relationship, and he already has a child. That’s what happens to a lot of my girlfriends— they get pregnant and the guy gets scared because he has kids or doesn’t have enough money or doesn’t want the commitment. Dudes run. That’s what they do. I’m choosing not to judge or blame myself or demonize him. There wasn’t any animosity between us before I told him I was pregnant. Maybe he’ll change his mind sometime in the future. In the meantime I’m having the baby. My family has already told me that they’ll support me.
— Janelle, age 35
We know that for many couples— women, in particular— pregnancy is a time of great anticipation but also of fear. No one can protect the unborn fetus from every risk factor, but there are choices that both expectant mothers and fathers can make to reduce some of the biggest risks.
In this chapter we will share information that will help black mothers-and fathers- to- be make lifestyle choices before conception and during pregnancy that lay the foundation for a strong and stable brain:
• We’ll talk about the important role that mom and dad’s health play in determining the quality of egg and sperm.
• You’ll learn how nutrition builds a fetus’s brain and learn about foods that support brain development.
• We’ll also talk about the important role men play before, during, and after pregnancy in determining the strength of a baby’s brain.
• We also hope to shine a light on some challenging topics in the hopes of sparking fresh dialogue— kitchen table conversations in which partners, family members, babysitters, childcare providers, caregivers, and others can roll up our sleeves and work together to create new solutions that help our sons get a head start on the achievement gap before it gets ahead of them.
He loves to play peek- a- boo, pull himself up in front of the entertainment center, and jabber with you as though he’s making a point. Although nine- month- old children can’t yet tell us what’s on their mind, if you test their cognitive abilities— which at that age include their ability to explore, make sounds, gesture, and solve problems— children of all races and backgrounds tend to perform pretty similarly.
“Around the age of one, there aren’t many differences,” says Ronald Ferguson, head of the Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education
But when child development experts test their skills at age two, developmental differences begin to clearly emerge. Smaller percentages of black, Hispanic, and Native American children than white and Asian children are proficient in communicating, understanding what they’re told, discriminating between different objects, and knowing their counting words and quantities. So even before black boys have been potty- trained, we see early indications of an achievement gap.
Surprisingly, these differences span the socioeconomic spectrum.
“It doesn’t matter whether they’re high- income or low- income,” said applied developmental psychologist Iheoma Iruka, of the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Center at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, while speaking at a conference on black boys and the achievement gap convened by ETS.
The gap widens by preschool, when experts can test early language, literacy, math, and numeracy (the ability to understand and work with numbers) skills. By the time black boys are between ages three and five, they lag behind white children by “about half a grade,” said Dr. Iruka.
“By age two, the differences start to become apparent, and we think it has to do with early- childhood parenting and early-childhood experiences more generally,” Dr. Ferguson says.
The experts are quick to admit that they don’t have all the answers, and the answers that they do have don’t apply to every child— although, as you’ll learn, these statistics apply to more children than you might think. What they do know is that a child’s experience as a fetus and during his fi rst months as a newborn, when his brain is developing at an explosive rate, sets the stage for his physical health, ability to think and learn, and emotional well- being for the rest of his life.
Of course, our brains all begin in the same truly wondrous way. During the first hours following conception— long before women have any idea they’re pregnant— their baby’s brain and spinal cord have already started growing, and an intricately choreographed dance of cells forming, neurons fi ring, and structures forming has started to unfold.
During the first few weeks after conception takes place, the neural tube— the precursor to the brain and spinal cord— begins to form. Shortly after it closes, at the four- week mark, immature brain cells begin to proliferate. At this point the mother may still not know that she’s pregnant.
Next, a phase of rapid cell migration occurs as immature cells differentiate themselves and travel to their designated locations, where they take on their preprogrammed roles.
“Think of it as cells taking the subway to a stop,” says Charles Nelson III, chair of pediatric developmental medicine research at Boston Children’s Hospital and professor of pediatrics and neuroscience at Harvard Medical School. Once a cell reaches its destination, “then the cell matures, which means it starts to be capable of forming connections with other cells— synapses,” he adds.
The cortex— the wrinkly outer covering— of a baby’s brain begins to form between the sixth and twenty- fourth weeks. The first synapses begin to appear a little after week twenty. And if a fetus survives to the twenty- fourth week, it reaches what’s called the age of viability. If a fetus survives for this long, the chances are good he will live. At this point most doctors will intervene to save a fetus’s life if something goes awry
The next phase of brain development occurs during weeks twenty five through forty (the third trimester), as synapses proliferate and myelination, the process of coating certain neurons (nerve cells that send and receive messages) with an electrically insulating substance, takes place.
Synapses continue to form, and myelination occurs even after a baby is born and into late adolescence.
“When you insulate these circuits, the efficiency gain is a factor of one hundred,” says David Grissmer, research professor at the Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning at the University of Virginia. “But if you don’t build the circuits and get them myelinated, they’re inefficient when you use them later.”
The cerebral cortex and cerebellum explode during the final twelve to sixteen weeks. The cerebral cortex is responsible for thinking, feeling, conscious experiences, voluntary actions, and memory. The cerebellum processes movement, balance, posture, coordination, muscle tone, and some cognitive functions. Both are vital to our ability to learn, think, process, talk, and apply information to things we’ve already learned— or our cognitive abilities.

Just between the end of the second trimester and full term, a baby’s brain weight triples, from about 100 grams to about 300 grams. Eventually it will reach approximately 1,500 grams, or about 3.3 pounds.
These mind- boggling processes almost always go right. As a result most U.S. babies (including black babies) arrive healthy, with brains perfectly positioned for sensing, learning, and carrying them through life. A child’s brain doesn’t fi nish developing until he’s well into his twenties. Yet most of his brain’s foundational architecture is in place at the time he is born. The challenge of this extremely rapid development process is that the brain remains extraordinarily impressionable. Anything that impacts an immature brain— whether a fetus’s or a young child’s— will have a disproportionate effect on the rest of his life, for better or worse.
Joe Brewster, M.D., and Michèle Stephenson are the directors of the award-winning documentary American Promise. Brewster is an attending psychiatrist at Harlem Hospital in New York and an assistant clinical professor at Columbia University. He was raised in Los Angeles and studied medicine at Harvard University. Stephenson has worked as an international human rights lawyer and a film producer. She is a graduate of Columbia Law School.

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Hilary Beard is the co-author of several books, including the New York Times bestsellers 21 Pounds in 21 Days: The Martha’s Vineyard Diet Detox and Venus & Serena: Serving from the Hip.

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Promises Kept

Raising Black Boys to Succeed in School and in Life


Promises Kept

— Published by Spiegel & Grau —