African American Children: Socialization and Development in Families
Publication Year: 1999
In the context of growing diversity, Shirley A. Hill examines the work parents do in raising their children. Based on interviews and survey data, African American Children includes blacks of various social classes as well as a comparative sample of whites. It covers major areas of child socialization: teaching values, discipline strategies, gender socialization, racial socialization, extended families -- showing how both race and class make a difference, and emphasizing patterns that challenge existing research that views black families as a monolithic group.
- Front Matter
- Back Matter
- Subject Index
- Chapter 1: Childhood in Transition
- Childhood in Colonial America
- Childhood in Modern America
- The Postindustrial Family Transition
- Black Children: A Diversity of Experiences
- Poverty and Parenthood: Single Mothers, Absent Fathers
- Chapter 2: Caste, Class, and Culture
- Caste Analysis
- Class Analyses: The Social Deficit Model
- Class Analyses: Contemporary Perspectives
- Cultural Analyses
- Culture as Pathology
- Culture as Strength
- Child Socialization in Cultural Context
- The Underclass Controversy: A Reemergence of Culture as Pathology
- Chapter 3: Parenting Work
- The Social Capital Perspective
- Current Value Priorities
- Education: Obstacles and Opportunities
- Future Hopes of Parents
- The Parenting Role
- Discipline Strategies
- Spanking and Child Abuse
- Sexual Socialization
- Reasons for Teen Sexuality
- Sex Education and Birth Control
- Intergenerational Changes
- Chapter 4: Racial Socialization
- Parental Perceptions of Racial Barriers
- Education and Racial Integration
- Challenging Definitions of Blackness
- Racial Socialization Messages
- Redefining Physical Attractiveness
- Self-Esteem Revisited
- Chapter 5: Gender Socialization
- Theorizing about Gender
- The Social Construction of Gender among Blacks
- Current Priorities and Future Hopes
- Parenting Roles and Discipline
- The Role of Gender in Child Rearing
- The Organization of Gender in the Family
- The Gender Dilemma of African Americans
- Chapter 6: Beyond the Nuclear Family
- The Community
- Extended Families
- Do Children Benefit from Extended Family Participation?
- The Demise of the Grandmother's Role
- Religious Resources
- Public Policy
- Chapter 7: Continuity and Change
- Black Parenthood in Historical Perspective
- Black Parenthood in Contemporary Perspective
- Future Directions
Understanding Families[Page ii]
Series Editors: Bert N. Adams, University of Wisconsin David M. Klein, University of Notre Dame
This book series examines a wide range of subjects relevant to studying families. Topics include, but are not limited to, theory and conceptual design, research methods on the family, racial/ethnic families, mate selection, marriage, family power dynamics, parenthood, divorce and remarriage, custody issues, and aging families.
The series is aimed primarily at scholars working in family studies, sociology, psychology, social work, ethnic studies, gender studies, cultural studies, and related fields as they focus on the family. Volumes will also be useful for graduate and undergraduate courses in sociology of the family, family relations, family and consumer sciences, social work and the family, family psychology, family history, cultural perspectives on the family, and others.
Books appearing in Understanding Families are either single- or multiple-authored volumes or concisely edited books of original chapters on focused topics within the broad interdisciplinary field of marriage and family.
The books are reports of significant research, innovations in methodology, treatises on family theory, syntheses of current knowledge in a family subfield, or advanced textbooks. Each volume meets the highest academic standards and makes a substantial contribution to our understanding of marriages and families.
Multiracial Couples: Black and White Voices
Paul C. Rosenblatt, Terri A. Karis, and Richard D. Powell
Understanding Latino Families: Scholarship, Policy, and Practice
Edited by Ruth E. Zambrana
Current Widowhood: Myths & Realities
Helena Znaniecka Lopata
Family Theories: An Introduction
David M. Klein and James M. White
Understanding Differences Between Divorced and Intact Families
Ronald L. Simons and Associates
Adolescents, Work, and Family: An Intergenerational Developmental Analysis
Jeylan T, Mortimer and Michael D. Finch
Families and Time: Keeping Pace in a Hurried Culture
Kerry J. Daly
No More Kin: Exploring Race, Class, and Gender in Family Networks
Anne R. Roschelle
Contemporary Parenting: Challenges and Issues
Edited by Terry Arendell
Families Making Sense of Death
Janice Winchester Nadeau
Black Families in Corporate America
Susan D. Toliver
Reshaping Fatherhood: The Social Construction of Shared Parenting
Problem Solving in Families: Research and Practice
African American Children: Socialization and Development in Families
Shirley A. Hill
Black Men and Divorce
Erma Jean Lawson and Aaron Thompson
Romancing the Honeymoon: Consummating Marriage in Modern Society
Kris Bulcroft, Linda Smeins, and Richard Bulcroft
The Changing Transition to Adulthood: Leaving and Returning Home
Frances Goldscheider and Calvin Goldscheider
Families and Communes: An Examination of Nontraditional Lifestyles
William L. Smith
Copyright © 1999 by Sage Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or utilized in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Hill, Shirley A. (Shirley Ann), 1947-
African American children: Socialization and development in families / Shirley A. Hill.
p. cm.—(Understanding families; v. 14)
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 0-7619-0433-6 (cloth: acid-free paper)
ISBN 0-7619-0434-4 (pbk.: acid-free paper)
1. Afro-American children. 2. Socialization—United States. 3. Afro-American families. 4. Parenting—United States. I. Title. II. Series.
This book is printed on acid-free paper.
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Preface: Children: Our Raison d'être[Page ix]
In terms of organizational purpose of the Black family, the family's reason for being can be considered childcenteredness. By this is meant that the purpose of the Black family focused on, if not required, the presence of children. The family unit exists for the growth and development of children, rather than for the self-actualization of the adult members of the unit.
African American family scholarship uniformly attests to the immense importance and centrality of children in black families (Anderson, 1991; Billingsley, 1968/1988, 1992; Burton, 1990; Collins, 1987; Hale, 1986; Nobles, 1985; Staples & Johnson, 1993). Yet, despite a proliferation of black family studies since the 1960s, very little research has been devoted to a systematic study of childhood socialization processes or the work that parents do in raising their children. Studies that emphasize the strengths of black families rarely examine the strengths and successes of parents, nor do they explore the child-rearing beliefs and strategies of black parents. Most research on child socialization and parent-child relations includes either no or very small numbers of African Americans, and, as Peters (1997) points out, studies that do include black parents, children, or both usually limit their analyses to problem populations and concentrate on interventions rather than on normal family socialization processes.[Page x]
The growing socioeconomic diversity of African Americans makes the inordinate research emphasis on poor and low-income populations even more problematic, as the results generated by such studies fail to capture the life experiences of most blacks by presenting them as a monolithic group. The child-rearing practices of low-income black parents are then evaluated on the basis of white, middle-class norms and deemed defective. Popular theories of child development, many of them articulated in the early 1900s on the basis of a value system that emerged among affluent whites during industrialization, also unwittingly denigrate the cultural experiences of racial minority children (Taylor, 1994). For example, the emphasis on the importance of separation and individuation as crucial aspects of child development may not reflect the cultural experiences of black children, as they are often taught to value cooperation and interdependency. Child-rearing practices, values, and norms are best viewed in economic and cultural context, as these factors most frequently shape the risks, opportunities, and challenges of parenthood.
The paucity of research on child socialization in African American families, the focus on poor and/or problem populations, and the failure to acknowledge the incongruence between the class and cultural backgrounds of white and black Americans, all foster the notion that black parents are incapable of raising successful, well-adjusted children. The current social-political discourse on black families, which increasingly downplays the realities of racism and economic inequality, reinforces the notion that poor child socialization outcomes are attributable to incompetent, indifferent, or irresponsible parents. Black parents are stereotyped as poor and pathological, as more interested in governmental handouts than employment, and as failing to teach their children the value of hard work.
The culture versus structure controversy, which has raged for decades and has now been expanded to include the underclass concept, derives its energy from the persistent myth that African American families are generally defective, defined as welfare-dependent, fatherless, and female-headed. Under the rubric of individual responsibility, the cultural patterns of the poor are now rarely understood as adaptive responses to social structural forces but are seen as freely chosen lifestyles guided by a value system that promotes illegitimacy, poverty, and family instability. This resurgence of victim-blaming ideologies belies nearly three decades of family scholarship that has challenged depictions of black families as abnormal and dysfunctional (Allen, 1978, 1981; Billingsley, 1968/1988, 1992; Gutman, 1976; Staples & Johnson, 1993). The current debate over the declining status of African American families and its impact on children also highlights the importance of better understanding of child socialization processes.[Page xi]Evolution of the Study
As a family sociology teacher at a large, predominantly white university, I have always been aware of the scarcity of research on the normal socialization of African American children and believed that major child development theories were less applicable to their experiences. I became more acutely aware of this a few years ago, however, as I was conducting research on family caregiving for children with sickle cell disease (Hill, 1994). In my interviews, I found a gendered pattern of caregiving whereby mothers of sons saw their children as more fragile and helpless than did mothers of daughters, and devoted more time, energy, and effort to caring for chronically ill sons (Hill & Zimmerman, 1995). Given the focus on gender studies in the past few decades, especially the vast literature on the differential socialization of boys and girls, I began to search for studies that would shed some light on how gender affected child rearing in black families. I found that few, if any, empirical studies had examined this issue, despite the immense popularity of gender studies.
My awareness of the void in research on the work parents do in socializing their children was also heightened as I prepared to teach a weekend seminar on the black family. There was a wealth of information available on African American families in general, but very little of it had explored child-rearing or socialization processes. Studies that did include or focus on black children most often addressed issues such as teenage pregnancy, substance abuse, or juvenile delinquency rather than normal patterns of child rearing. Moreover, researchers tended to address problem issues of black children in ways that omitted the voices, activities, and efforts of their parents. While I believe in the importance of social structural forces (e.g., race, class, family structure, schools, public policy) in shaping socialization patterns and the overall quality of family life, it seemed that too few scholars had considered the importance of human agency, or the energy, work, and social capital (Coleman, 1988) parents invest in their children. These are some of the central issues I hoped to address as I embarked upon a study of child socialization in African American families.
In 1992, I contacted the principal of a large, midwestern, predominantly black elementary school and gained permission to send letters home to the parents of fourth and fifth graders explaining my interest in child rearing and requesting an interview (see Appendix A for more details on the research methodology). I developed an interview guide based on an analysis of central issues identified in child-rearing and black family literature, and revised and expanded it as a result of my initial interviews (Appendix B). I then constructed a survey (Appendix C) of these relevant issues to be [Page xii]self-administered to a larger, more diverse group of parents. I had initially targeted the parents of fourth and fifth graders but later distributed the surveys more widely. Either parent (or primary caregiver) was free to complete the survey sent home with the child, but more than 80% of the surveys were completed by mothers. I continued to interview parents who responded to the interview request, and they sometimes referred me to other parents, creating a snowball sample. Over a three-year period, I interviewed a nonrandom sample of 35 African American parents (Table P.1) and collected surveys from 729 parents: 525 black parents and 204 white parents. Although this book focuses mostly on black parents, these data allowed me to examine the racial differences between blacks and whites in their child-rearing work as well as differences among blacks based on social class.
The black and white parents who completed the surveys were similar in most of their characteristics (Table P.2). The average age for both black and white parents was the midthirties. Black parents were more likely than white parents to have attended college (46% versus 33%), but fewer than 20% of blacks or whites had a four-year college education or more. This racial gap in education is probably due to the fact that these parents lived in predominantly black neighborhoods, and educated blacks are more likely than educated whites to remain in such neighborhoods. The majority of respondents were employed (61% of whites and 70% of blacks) with family incomes of less than $30,000 per year. In answering the surveys, parents were asked to identify and focus on just one child. Table P.2 profiles those children. Their ages ranged from 1 to 18 years for black parents and from 1 to 15 years for white parents, with an overall average age of 9 1/2 years old. The average grade level is about the fourth grade. To these survey and interview data I added some of my own family experiences and the experiences of other black Americans gained through reading their biographical works.Objective of the Book
My objective in writing this book is to provide a relatively comprehensive overview of parenting and child socialization in African American families. Previous studies have provided some insights into specific areas of socialization, but no one work has examined the broad array of parenting challenges, issues, and strategies in black families. This study also differs from other research in that it focuses on the everyday work that parents do in raising their children (e.g., the values they try to teach their children, their views of the parenting role, their gender and racial socialization[Page xiii][Page xiv]Table P.1 Characteristics of Parents Interviewed[Page xv]
ideologies, their discipline strategies, and the support they receive from their extended families and the broader community) rather than focusing exclusively on the problems they experience. In examining the everyday work parents invest in socializing their children, I try to avoid the common tendencies to portray black families either as devastated victims of poverty and racism or as uniformly strong, successful, and effective. Instead, I acknowledge the impact of poverty and inequality and attempt to capture at least some of the tremendous diversity that exists among African Americans. The parents surveyed and interviewed for this study illustrate the social class diversity that exists among black people.
Although focusing primarily on contemporary black families, I contextualize my findings with an examination of both the cultural and the historical factors that have shaped African American parenting strategies, from their West African cultural origins to the modern postindustrial economy. [Page xvi]To achieve this, I have consolidated and critically analyzed the sparse and scattered existing research on various aspects of child rearing and socialization in black families. I make no claim of being able to describe all black parents based on a few hundred surveys and a handful of personal interviews. Rather, I strengthen and analyze my findings by couching them in the context of extant research, biographies, and my own experiential knowledge.
Thus, this book provides a historical and contemporary overview of parenting and child socialization in African American families by drawing together what we already know and expanding on and updating that knowledge. It encompasses class, cultural, and structural approaches to understanding child rearing by acknowledging the interactive nature of these factors rather than debating the relative merits of each approach. African American scholars of the civil rights era, emphasizing the much neglected strengths and successes of black families, effectively revised the pathological view of black families produced by researchers during the early twentieth century. Their revisionist work has been invaluable in broadening our understanding of African American families, yet the strengths perspective they advanced often fails to capture the current realities and diversity of the black experience.
A few scholars have begun to “revise the revisionists” by rethinking assumptions about black families that emerged during the civil rights era—such as the strength of intergenerational ties, the nature of the black community, the impact of single-parenthood—within the context of current socioeconomic realities, changing expectations, and new research findings. This study builds on that emerging revisionist literature in several ways. First, it illustrates the interplay between structure and culture, and shows that culture is an evolving rather than a static force, that is it differentiated and class-based in black America, and that the existence and validity of black cultural patterns are subject to continual revision. Second, this study facilitates a discussion of black people as active agents in their own lives rather than as passive victims of external forces. I see African Americans as continually engaged in the process of creating and assigning meaning to life events, and it is these meanings that shape their child-rearing work.A Social Constructionist View of Childhood
The theoretical framework of this study is social constructionism, an approach that synthesizes the microanalysis of symbolic interactionism with a more structural analysis of social life (Brown, 1996). The basic assumption of symbolic interactionism is that reality is socially defined as [Page xvii]people use their own reflective processes to make sense of the world around them. The ability to subjectively define reality is rooted in the unique capacities of human consciousness and the mind (Mead, 1962); still, those definitions must be sustained and validated by others, and are constantly subject to change. As Denzin (1978) has pointed out, social reality is emergent and negotiated, as definitions are “ever-changing [and] subject to redefinitions, relocations, and realignments” (p. 7). New social definitions often emerge with changes in social structural forces, such as economies, polities, and laws. Given the tremendous diversity in notions about children, it seems apparent that child-rearing strategies and developmental theories are linked to specific structural factors, which in turn shape cultural values and ideologies. The social constructionist framework validates the importance of structure in shaping life options yet also sees people as active agents in their own lives, continually creating social meanings and behaving in accordance with those meanings.
Family scholars studying the history of childhood have shown that child-rearing approaches have varied both cross-culturally and historically. Research on the history of parents and children did not become popular until the 1960s (French, 1995) and initially indicated that parents in Western societies neither identified with their children nor saw childhood as a special, significant stage in the life cycle. Support for this view was based not only on the dearth of information about and depictions of children prior to the seventeenth century (Aries, 1962) but also on considerable evidence that parents have historically sacrificed their children to the gods, maimed them to serve as beggars, or merely abandoned them to a life of starvation and early death. Examining this maltreatment of children from antiquity through the Middle Ages, deMause (1974) concluded that “the further back in history one goes, the lower the level of child care, and the more likely children are to be killed, abandoned, beaten, terrorized, and sexually abused” (p. 504).
More recently, however, this view has been refuted by research documenting immense variability in the historical treatment of children. In her historical account of parenting, Valerie French (1995) has shown that in many early societies, children were highly valued and seen as having unique characteristics and needs. Children were quite visible and important in ancient Egypt, where all births were systematically recorded and families were determined to rear children properly. That childhood outcomes were important and linked to social environmental forces was also apparent among the early Greeks, among whom children were seen as “plastic, shapeable, unformed, [and] impressionable” (French, 1995, p. 271)—quite distinct from adults and in need of proper socialization.
The sociology of childhood is a relatively new and underdeveloped field of study (Zelizer, 1985) and thus far has not produced a definitive understanding [Page xviii]of the general nature of childhood and parenting in early societies. The recent debate over the historical treatment of children and the nature of childhood highlights the fact that societies have varied widely in their ideas about children and child rearing. More important, it demonstrates that a society's ideas and beliefs about the nature and needs of children are socially created and defined. Although practically all societies give families the primary responsibility for socializing children, the meaning of childhood and the values and ideologies that shape parenting strategies are historically and culturally variant. To a large extent, the social construction of childhood emerges as a result of social structural forces, such as economic needs, technologies, and religious ideologies. Within varying social contexts, societies try to create a balance between the labor required to create and sustain families and the labor necessary to ensure economic survival, as both are vital for the maintenance of societies.
But even within a single society, the nature of childhood and parenting work can vary based on the social status and resources of individual families. In the United States, race and class have been major factors in shaping differential access to status and resources and child-rearing ideals. Notions about children and child rearing have been constructed primarily by the dominant racial group—white, middle-class Americans—and variously appropriated to and embraced by subordinate racial groups. In this book, I examine parenthood in black America in both historical and contemporary perspective, often in parallel with parenthood in white American families.Overview of the Book
In Chapter 1, I examine the social construction of childhood in America during three major economic periods: the agricultural economy established in the 1600s, the industrial economy that developed during the mid-1800s, and the postindustrial economy that began to evolve as early as the late 1960s. Each economic period has influenced patterns of family life, and each period has embodied its own distinctive ideas about children and child rearing—such as what children are like, how they are best socialized, and what risks they face. In this chapter, I essentially argue that African American and white families have unique cultural heritages and value systems, and that this was reinforced and perpetuated in early American society as they were exposed to a very different set of structural constraints and opportunities.
The family life, gender roles, and parent-child relationships of black families in early American society were shaped primarily by slavery, which frequently gave parents little control over their own children. Even after [Page xix]the abolition of slavery, the majority of black people continued to live in the South, mostly as sharecroppers in the agricultural economy. As a result, their ability to conform to the family changes wrought by industrialization was limited. Similarly, the postindustrial economic transition of the 1970s has disproportionately affected black people, many of whom were just securing well-paid jobs in the manufacturing sector of the economy. Unemployment, job loss, and lower salaries are now correlated with high rates of nonmarriage, delayed marriage, divorce, and single-mother families. Although this transition has affected many American families, its impact is more evident among blacks, especially young males.
There is much debate over the causes of and solutions to these problems. Many social scientists and welfare rights advocates suggest that the problems lie in the social and economic structure of society, which provides few opportunities for jobs, marriage, and family stability among blacks. Others, however, feel that curtailing welfare benefits and promoting traditional families will lead to decreases in single-mother families and poverty. Chapter 2 of this book deals with that controversy. I begin by discussing how caste, class, and culture affect child socialization in African American families, starting with child rearing during slavery, when the racial caste system was firmly intact in the United States, and then proceeding to discuss the evolution of family studies in the 1930s and 1940s. These studies typically focused on lower-class black families, as has most recent research, and they produced the social deficit perspective.
I argue that contemporary class analyses have reached similar conclusions about the structure of poor families but have managed to avoid the evaluative tone of earlier work. A similar trend emerged in the study of culture, with the notion of the black culture as rife with pathology gradually giving way to a more positive Afrocentric view. This cultural perspective highlights the fact that all black children, to a greater or lesser extent, undergo a process of dual socialization that involves learning to survive in both the black and the dominant culture. I conclude with a discussion of the underclass concept.
Chapter 3 employs a social capital view to focus on the actual work parents do in rearing their children. I examine a broad array of child socialization issues, such as the values parents are trying to teach their children, their views of the parenting role, their discipline strategies, and their future hopes and aspirations for their children. I also discuss early sexuality and pregnancy among black teenagers, issues that are often seen as the outcome of poverty, ineffective parenting, or both, and as one of the major obstacles to socioeconomic success. Parents shared about the sexual standards they have and try to teach their children as well as on some of the difficulties they face in their efforts. I also devote considerable attention to educational gains and obstacles. Education has always been of central importance [Page xx]among blacks, as it is seen as the route to economic mobility and as a way to elevate the status of all African Americans. I conclude with parents' views on intergenerational changes.
Chapter 4 looks at the racial socialization of black children, or what parents think and teach their children about being black in a predominantly white society. Racial socialization dates back to slavery, when black children had to learn to be subordinate to whites, as their lives often depended on it. Yet parents sought to give their children a sense of self-worth. Here I explore the racial socialization messages and strategies of parents as they cope with the denigration of blackness in the dominant culture and the need to instill in their children a positive self-concept. I also consider the issue of self-esteem, and how it has changed among blacks, and hypothesize that such changes may be due racial socialization messages.
Chapter 5 focuses on the gender socialization of children. Social science interest in the gender roles of blacks accelerated in 1965, when Moynihan asserted a connection between what he saw as gender role confusion and black people's lack of socioeconomic progress. Since then, literature on the nature, origins, and organization of gender and blacks has skyrocketed, yet rarely has this literature been based on systematic research. Moreover, the evidence of unconventional gender roles rests almost solely on the experiences of black women, with much less said about black males. Using survey data collected on parents' values, aspirations for their children, types of discipline, and views of the parenting role, I examine the extent of gender socialization in black families. My findings suggest that black parents make few direct gender distinctions in socializing their children as a group, although some gender distinctions do seem to emerge among more affluent black parents. I also examine less direct socialization mechanisms, such as the organization of gender in the family, and conclude with a discussion of the gender dilemma among blacks.
Chapter 6 investigates the extent to which parents receive assistance from the community, extended family, church, and state in rearing their children. Many African Americans who grew up in the pre-civil rights era and were highly supportive of racial integration now reflect on the loss of the community they once shared. Although their creation and maintenance was fostered by racial segregation and poverty, black communities were often places where residents knew and trusted each other and were collectively involved in caring for and supervising children. Many of these community resources have waned in recent years, and drugs and violence have reached epidemic proportions in some areas. I also consider changes in the extended family and critically analyze both its strengths and its weaknesses. Grandmothers, once the backbone of black extended families, are younger now than in previous generations; they have a broader array of competing activities and are often more reluctant to become involved in child-rearing [Page xxi]work. However, while extended family ties among low-income blacks are often based on necessity, the ideological commitment to the importance of the family is strong. Religion is also a strong cultural value and, as discussed here, often forms the basis for what parents teach their children. I conclude with a look at public policy, especially historical and contemporary views about Aid to Families With Dependent Children, commonly known as “welfare.”
The conclusions are discussed in Chapter 7, along with the implications of this study and suggestions for future research.[Page xxii]
I would like to thank the University of Kansas for providing two summer research grants that helped me complete this book, and would also like to thank Robert Coplan for his financial assistance. Bert Adams and David Klein deserve a special thanks for giving me the opportunity to write this book and for their patience and kind reviews of earlier manuscripts. My friend and colleague Joey Sprague and I used a portion of the quantitative data from this study to coauthor a paper titled Constructing Gender in Black and White Families: The Interaction of Gender With Race and Class, which was presented at the American Sociological Association meeting in Toronto in August, 1997. I owe her a debt of gratitude for helping to shape some of the ideas in Chapter 5 on gender socialization and for the panel design of the tables, which was her inspiration. Edwin, my husband, has also provided me with tremendous support and assistance during this project. I would like to thank him for all of his help, encouragement, and patience, and for carefully reading each chapter and giving me feedback and ideas. Finally, a special thanks to all the parents who completed surveys and participated in interviews, as this book clearly could not have been written without their cooperation. I am honored to be able to share with others their child socialization stories.[Page xxiv]
Appendix A: Research Methodology[Page 163]
This book on child socialization in African American families grew out of an interest in understanding how gender roles and ideologies are constructed in families and conveyed to children. As I began to explore this issue a few years ago, I found that two fairly distinct literatures existed, both primarily produced in the past 15 years. One burgeoning literature focused on black women and explained how their unique historical experiences led them to escape narrow conceptions of femininity and contributed to a legacy of strength, independence, and nontraditional roles among women. The other literature focused on black men and revolved around the “vanishing species” theme, suggesting that men, especially those who are young, were seriously impaired as a result of their failure to embrace the traditional gender roles accorded men, especially that of breadwinner. Very little research explained gender in the context of explicit child socialization, and reflective and autobiographical accounts abounded almost to the exclusion of systematic research.
In 1992 I acquired a small internal grant from my university to study gender socialization in black families. My initial plan was to rely solely on in-depth interviews with black parents as I not only have a great deal of experience conducting interviews but am convinced of their efficacy when examining relatively new issues. I did not want to limit my research to hypothesis testing or variable analysis but wanted to capture the nuances available in interview narratives. The use of qualitative data is also consistent with the long tradition of symbolic interactionism and the social constructionist perspective in sociology, which underlies this research study. This perspective sees social reality as socially created and defined, and sees actions as guided by reflective processes of the human mind (Blumer, 1969).
Social class and race are especially likely to shape the construction of reality, and racial-ethnic minorities often have different experiences and perceptions than do the majority group. In this study, I attempted to examine reality from the standpoint and lives of black parents. I see the interview process as allowing traditionally subordinated populations to share their experiences using their own voices and as a strategy for creating at least some symmetry between interviewer and respondent (Mishler, 1986). I believe that research should provide some benefits for the participants and that there are essentially two ways in which that happens. One is by allowing respondents to be a part of the research process. This means that they know what is being studied, why, and by whom, and that they have the opportunity to articulate their own experiences in a process that is often quite empowering. The second way is to conduct social research that has policy implications.
Early in the research process, it became clear to me that it would be difficult to study gender socialization without exploring the broader issue of general child socialization. Expanding the study was exciting to me, especially in light of the absence of research in this vital area. I spent several months reading, searching, and [Page 164]analyzing existing literature on childhood socialization and assessing its implications for African American children. In doing so, ideas for my own study began to crystallize, and I outlined an interview guide of the major questions I wanted to explore with parents. I decided to solicit respondents for the research through the Kansas City school districts (which span two states) and, based on my preparatory research, to focus on children between the ages of 10 and 12, or fourth and fifth graders. My plan was to mail letters directly to parents, explaining the study and soliciting their participation in the research through volunteering to be interviewed. I contacted the central office of one school district for permission to obtain a list of parents' names and addresses. I explained the study to several administrators, emphasizing the voluntary participation of parents and that the study had been approved by the university's committee on human experimentation. The process turned into a difficult one: There seemed to a consensus that the parents' names and addresses were in the public domain, yet no one seemed able to determine exactly who had to give permission to release the information. I finally decided that I would simply contact the principals of various schools directly to solicit their participation, and I did so by mail. I followed up with a phone call and found most principals receptive to the idea. Of those who refused, the most common reason was that they had already involved parents in too many studies or, similarly, that they were in the process of doing their own research study. One principal declined because the response rate of parents in her school to materials sent home was very low, and she feared a poor response.
Once I gained permission to contact parents, I sent letters home with elementary school children, explaining the study and asking those who were interested to return the enclosed form with their names and telephone numbers. The response rate from the first school was under 10% (130 letters sent, 12 returned), and some of those who returned the letters gave their names but did not have a telephone, making it impossible for me to contact them. Nonetheless, I interviewed those parents who volunteered and solicited from them the names of other parents who might be interested (see Appendix B). Most of the parents were interviewed in their own homes; one was interviewed at the day care center she owned and operated. Interviews generally lasted about 90 minutes or longer and were tape-recorded. They were later transcribed verbatim. Most parents seemed to enjoy talking about their children, although a few were concerned about having the “right” answers to the questions. A few were especially enthusiastic, both about sharing their views and about being a part of a book written about black families. Upon thanking one mother for the interview, she promptly said, “Hey, if a black PhD is writing a book, I want to be one of the people who helps her get it done!” Similarly, I enjoyed talking to parents, being a good supportive listener, and validating their life experiences.
The questions on my interview guide were quite broad, and I made some minor revisions after almost every interview. I continued, however, to ask a core set of questions that revolved around values, race, gender, and extended families. I eventually interviewed 35 parents, although more had volunteered to be interviewed. In analyzing interview data, I spent considerable time listening to tapes, reading the [Page 165]interviews, categorizing data, and identifying patterns and issues. I did some color coding of specific topics in the interview and made lots of margin notes and comments.
To reach a larger sample, I developed a survey to be sent home with children, completed by their parents, and returned to the school (see Appendix C). After collecting surveys from several schools, I revised the initial survey by adding more questions and creating a subsample (smaller group) of parents responding to some questions. At the end of the survey, parents were asked to give their names and telephone numbers if they were interested in doing an interview. I initially distributed surveys to parents of fourth and fifth graders but later sent them to all parents in the school. Parents were asked to complete only one survey and to focus on the oldest child who is age 12 or under and living with them. Some did and some did not, but the vast majority did chose a single child upon whom to focus. Parents were also invited to call me if they had any questions about the survey, and several of them did. Typically, they wanted to know more about who I was, whether I had children, and even how I felt about a specific question on the survey. One mother, for example, called to talk about the question on sexuality. In the process, she explained that she had been told little about sexuality growing up and had a baby at age 13. She was now the 29-year-old mother of a 16-year-old, wondering how parents really can teach their children abstinence. The response rate for surveys ranged between about 20% and 50%, with about 5% of those returning surveys agreeing to be interviewed. I collected nearly 800 surveys but did not use the ones from respondents who indicated that their race was Hispanic, Asian American, or Native American, as their numbers were too small. I entered what turned out to be 58 variables in an SPSS program and ran simple descriptive statistics, which I have tried to integrate with interview data to provide a broader picture of African American parenting attitudes. I used basic descriptive statistics (chi-square) in analyzing my findings.
These data were collected over a three-year period from 12 urban schools in two school districts in the greater Kansas City area. Although it is nearly impossible to determine the extent to which my nonrandom, sometimes snowball, sample matches the populations from which it was drawn, some information about each school district is useful. The two school districts are located in the two adjoining cities of Kansas City, Kansas, and Kansas City, Missouri. In each city, the black population is about 30%; however, the schools are predominantly black. The white residents living in these areas are often older and/or childless; they have fewer children and are more likely to send them to private schools.
Of the 13 school districts in the greater Kansas City area, the two included in this study have the largest enrollments. They also have the most black students, the highest rates of poverty, and the lowest median family incomes. There are nearly 29,000 school age children in the Kansas City, Kansas, area, and most attend school in the district. The median income for those living in Kansas City, Kansas, where School District 1 is located, is about $28,000, but the median family income for those with children attending school in that district is $22,000. School District 2 in this study had a 1995 enrollment of 37,151, which was 80% of all the school-age [Page 166]children in the district, according to the district's coordinator of research. Nearly 65% of the students participate in the subsidized lunch program, another indicator that children attending the public school in the area are poorer than people in the larger community. This reveals some general similarities between the sample included in this study and the overall populations in the area.
There are several important methodological issues to be kept in mind when examining the findings of this study. Central among them is that the parents in this study were not randomly selected and are not particularly representative of all African American parents. A major shortcoming is that they are from a limited geographic area. There is also some selection bias in operation, especially considering the fact that most parents did not return the surveys. The survey questions were drawn from the issues commonly discussed in research on black families, and some questions were formatted based on the child-rearing studies of Melvin Kohn. Still, errors were made in the construction of the survey. A call from a parent brought an obvious error to my attention. This black mother called to discuss the difficulties she was having raising her white stepdaughter—drawing my attention to the fact that I had only asked for the race of the parent and assumed that it was also the race of the child. This clearly was not always the case.
In some cases, parents either misunderstood or resisted answering questions on the survey. For example, instead of ranking items such as current values on a scale from 1 to 3, with 1 being the most important, a few parents either ranked only one value or indicated that all values ranked number one in priority. This was especially the case for both low-income and less educated parents, who may have been less likely to understand the survey. Given these difficulties, my confidence in the findings of this research reside not only in the responses of parents but also in my own experiential knowledge of the field and the work of numerous other African American family scholars.
Appendix B: Interview Guide[Page 167]
- DESCRIPTION OF FOCUS CHILD: In this interview I want to focus on your oldest child who is age 12 or under…. Could you describe this child for me [self-concept, friendships, school progress]? How would you describe your relationship with this child?
- CHILD-REARING STRATEGIES: What are the most important things that you do as a parent to socialize and train this child? Are there others who are involved in raising this child? If yes, describe their involvement.
- VALUES: At this stage in your child's life, what are the most important values that you are trying to teach him or her? How do you teach these values?
- RESPONSIBILITIES: What are some of the things you expect this child to do all by him- or herself?
- DISCIPLINE: How do you discipline this child? How often does that happen? How effective is this discipline?
- RACIAL SOCIALIZATION: What do you teach this child about being black? Has this child encountered unfair treatment based on his or her race? How racially aware is the child? About how often do you talk about race with this child? Are you satisfied with what this child's school is teaching about race, such as black history? How do you think being black will affect his or her future?
- GENDER: People have different ideas on whether girls and boys should be treated differently and whether parents should have different expectations of sons and daughters…. What is your opinion on this issue? Explain.
- SEXUALITY: Some people say that parents and children have much more liberal sexual views today than in the past…. What is your opinion on this issue? Explain. What is your view of sex before marriage? What is your view of having children before marriage?
- FUTURE: How do you see your child's future? What are your most important hopes for his or her future?
- INTERGENERATIONAL: How different are your parenting values from those of your own parents? Are different issues emphasized more?
Appendix C: Parenting Survey[Page 168]
How many children do you have? _____
What are the ages of your children? _____
What is the age, grade level, and sex of YOUR OLDEST CHILD WHO IS AGE 12 OR UNDER AND LIVING WITH YOU?
Age_____ Grade level_____ Girl_____ or Boy_____
Thinking about the child you have described above, which of the following words describe this child? Check ALL the words that do a GOOD JOB of describing this child.
_____Aggressive _____Emotionally mature _____Helpful at home _____Caring/Sensitive _____Athletic _____Responsible _____Strong-willed _____Hardworking _____Obedient
How are you related to the child you have described above?
_____Mother _____Father _____Grandmother
_____Other (Describe how you are related)_____
Answer all questions focusing on your oldest child who is age 12 or under and living with you. PLEASE FEEL FREE TO MAKE ADDITIONAL COMMENTS ON THE SURVEY.
If you had to choose JUST ONE of the VALUES listed below as the most important thing you are trying to teach this child, which one would it be? Write a “1” beside the ONE most important value.
_____Doing well in school
_____Being happy and feeling good about him- or herself
_____Being obedient and respectful
** Look back at the list above, and write a “2” beside the VALUE above that is second most important.
Which ONE of the following would you most like to see this child have as she or he grows up? Write a “1” beside the ONE most important thing.
_____A strong, loving family
_____A good education and a good job
_____A kind and compassionate personality
Write a “2” beside the FUTURE HOPE above that is second most important.[Page 169]
Which ONE of the following PARENTAL ROLES is most important to you? Write a “1” beside the ONE most important parental role.
_____Being a teacher and guide
_____Being a disciplinarian
_____Being a good provider
Write a “2” beside the PARENTING ROLE that is second in importance.
Which ONE DISCIPLINE STRATEGY do you use most often with this child? Write a “1” beside the ONE strategy you use the most.
_____Loss of privileges
Write a “2” beside the DISCIPLINE STRATEGY that is the second most used.
In general, how satisfied are you with this child's OVERALL DEVELOPMENT—that is, his or her level of maturity, attitudes, and behaviors? (CHECK ONE)
_____Not very satisfied
How well is this child doing in SCHOOL? (CHECK ONE)
How involved is this child in RELIGIOUS WORSHIP or training? (CHECK ONE)
_____Not very involved
How involved is this child's EXTENDED FAMILY, that is, his grandparents, uncles, aunts, and other relatives, in helping to raise him or her? (CHECK ONE)
_____Not very involved
Who does most of the WORK involved in taking care of this child—like cooking meals, meeting with teachers, teaching and training, discipline? (CHECK ONE)
_____Father _____Both parents equally _____Mother _____Other (please explain)[Page 170]
How do you think this child's SEX (being a girl or a boy) will affect his or her ability to get a good education and a good job? (CHECK ONE)
_____This child's sex will make it easier.
_____This child's sex will make it more difficult.
_____This child's sex will have no effect.
Has this child ever experienced unfair treatment from adults or other children because of his or her RACE?
How do you think this child's RACE will affect his or her ability to get a good education and a good job? (CHECK ONE)
_____This child's race will make it easier.
_____This child's race will make it more difficult.
_____This child's race will have little or no impact.
Do you expect this child to attend COLLEGE?
How important is it to you for this child to attend college? (CHECK ONE)
_____Not very important
Have you discussed possible careers/jobs with this child?
Does this child have a specific job/career interest?
If yes, what? ___________________________________
Have you discussed sex/sexuality with this child?
At what age do you think parents should have a discussion with their children about sex?
_____5–8 years old _____9–12 years old _____13–17 years old
Are you teaching (or will you teach) this child that it is important to get married before having sex?
Are you teaching (or will you teach) this child that it is important to get married before having children?
_____Yes _____No[Page 171]
Would you like for the school to teach this child more about sexuality?
Do you “Agree” or “Disagree” with the following statements? (CIRCLE ONE)
When possible, it is better for everyone if the man earns the main living and the woman takes care of home and family.
If a husband and wife both work full-time, they should share equally in housework and taking care of the children.
It is equally important for girls and boys to attend college.
Being a woman makes it more difficult to get a good education and a good job.
Being a racial minority makes it more difficult to get a good education and a good job.
Generally speaking, children are better off being taught by teachers who are of the same race as the child.
Which of the following do you believe is MOST responsible for the problems families are facing today—such as teenage pregnancy, single parenthood, divorce, and poverty? (CHECK ONE).
_____Discrimination and/or the lack of good opportunities
_____The personal decisions, choices, and lifestyles of individuals
Now, could you please give me some information about yourself?
What is your marital status?
_____Single, never married
How old are you? _____[Page 172]
What is your race?
What is your employment status?
If employed, what is your occupation? _____
What is the highest level of education that you completed?
_____Grade school or less
_____Junior high school
_____4-year college degree
_____More than a 4-year college degree
What is your family's yearly income?
_____Less than $15,000 per year
_____$15,001–$30,000 per year
_____$30,001–$50,000 per year
_____More than $50,000 per year
How important is religion in your life?
_____Not very important at all
Please write additional comments below or on the back of this survey, or feel free to call me at home (375–1727) or school (913-864-4111) with your comments.
You may also contact me by mail:
Shirley A. Hill, PhD
University of Kansas
722 Fraser Hall
Lawrence, Kansas 66045
Thanks so much for your help!
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