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Online learning, racial tensions and ‘the talk’: Black parents raising children amid multiple crises

Parents say their Black children have had to grow up faster, especially in the post-Trump era, facing issues most white children don't confront until they’re adults, if at all.
Illustration of a Black father hugging his daughter next to a broken down window with a sun shining behind it.
Chelsea Stahl / NBC News; Getty Images

This year has been full of stress, chaos and uncertainty for all parents — whether it’s adjusting to the impact of the pandemic on jobs and children’s school schedules or trying to protect them while they were ineligible for vaccines.

Black parents say 2021 has come with additional challenges, as they’ve also had to confront issues of race, whether it’s helping children explain to their peers why they support the Black Lives Matter movement, or having “the talk” about why Black people are often judged differently than whites and how to act when stopped by police.

In other words: Parents say their Black children have had to grow up faster, especially in the post-Trump era, facing issues most white children confront as adults, if at all.

“As Black parents, we have to constantly advocate for our children,” said Candace Gomez-Broughton, a northern Virginia-based scientist and mother of a 12-year-old daughter and a 10-year-old son. “We’ve had to say, ‘You don’t have the privilege of making mistakes. You have to overcome the biases out there.’ It’s heart-breaking because it shouldn’t make any sense to anyone, but it’s the reality of the situation.”

‘Uniquely hard to navigate’

As for all parents, Covid-19’s impact on schooling and child care has taken a heavy toll. Lisa Henry, a Chicago mother of two, said her 19-year-old son had difficulty adjusting to virtual learning and the other restrictions of the pandemic. A high school senior when the pandemic started, he missed his graduation ceremony, playing in his last baseball season — and his freshman year at Morehouse College in Atlanta. It was only this year, after vaccines became available, that he was able to move in to the campus.

“I think he was really sad and down, but didn’t show it,” said Henry, a senior information technology manager for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois. “My biggest concern through this was their mental health. I knew that social interaction was important to both of them.”

Henry and her son aren’t alone. Earlier this month, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued an advisory about youth mental health, saying, “The challenges today’s generation of young people face are unprecedented and uniquely hard to navigate. And the effect these challenges have had on their mental health is devastating.”

The pandemic has hurt some Black families in other ways. According to a survey by the ESPN-owned website The Undefeated and the Kaiser Family Foundation, about half of Black women with children have struggled to pay for basic necessities during the pandemic, and two-thirds of Black parents said someone in their household was laid off, furloughed or lost income since February 2020.

But for some families, the academic changes the pandemic spurred have led to positive outcomes. Alex, a Black father of three biracial boys — 11-year-old twins and a 6-year-old — said that when school administrators in their town about 20 miles outside Atlanta debated whether to go virtual or in-person, he and the boys’ mother opted instead for home schooling, an increasingly common choice for many Black families amid the pandemic.

In the spring of 2020, about 3 percent of Black parents were home-schooling their children, and by the fall, this number had risen to more than 16 percent, according to the census.

Eventually Alex’s twin sons enrolled in a virtual academy offered by the public school, which includes two days of in-person instruction.

Alex, who asked that his last name not be used because of concerns for his children’s safety, said he noticed his sons are thriving without the microaggressions and bullying they experienced at their old school.

“They don’t look worn after a day at school,” he said, adding that the boys don’t slump their shoulders anymore. “They look curious and confident.”

At their old school, he said, one of his sons regularly complained that a teacher would never call on him when he raised his hand. He was also not happy with how the school initially responded to one of his sons being bullied.

One pre-pandemic tradition Alex is happy to return to is spending part of Saturdays at a Starbucks location, where he and his sons would review Black history flashcards and play chess. He’s also had to have more serious talks with his sons, about identity and the dangers they face. He said he tells them, “As Black people in general, I am constantly hunted. You are actively hunted and that’s how you have to live your life. Yes, you can live your life and have fun, but also know you can be shot at any time.”

“Though the world may see you as Black first, you are neither white or Black. You are both, so you have more empathy for both,” he tells his sons.

‘It forced our children to grow up faster’

In addition to the pandemic, many Black parents are also contending with the violence their children too often face, whether it’s in their schools or at the hands of the police.

Danielle Banks, a Charlotte, North Carolina, mother of 9-year-old twins and a 13-year-old, said school shootings are on her mind. She’s instructed her daughter to keep her phone on silent mode so she can text her their “safe word” if violence occurs.

“In the wake of everything that happened, it forced our children to grow up faster on topics we didn’t have to address until we were in high school or college,” she said.

Quinae Horsley is a mother of four also from Charlotte, where the public school system recently spent nearly a half million dollars on clear backpacks for students as a solution to prevent guns from being brought into the schools. Yet, she said, she’s more fearful of the public’s perception of her Black teenagers than the fact that another student fired a gun during a fight at her son’s West Charlotte High School. Since the start of this school year, 23 firearms and at least 195 weapons have been found on Charlotte school campuses.

“It’s a very small number of students who are violent, yet the kids at the school are labeled thugs and drug users,” said Horsley, a customer service agent for a textile company, whose husband is a FedEx driver.

Black students suffer disproportionately from school gun violence. Nationwide, while 70 percent of shooters in mass school shootings and attempted mass shootings are white males, according to a 2019 CNN report, Black students, who make up 15 percent of the country’s student body, account for one-third of the students who experience a school shooting.

Horsley was with her son and a group of other teenagers as they voluntarily cleaned up litter from a neighborhood street when an older man jumped out his car to scold them about getting in trouble.

“The kids looked at me, puzzled. This man assumed because they were Black that they were [convicted] juveniles doing community service,” she said.

It also pains her that the athletic teams at the school, which is predominantly Black and one of the poorest in the city, do not receive the community and business support that white schools receive.

At the same time, the number of police shootings has prompted Horsley and her husband to repeat “the talk,” especially with her son.

“My sister is a police officer in Raleigh-Durham and she called my son to say, ‘If you get stopped, you call me first.’ We have told him, ‘Don’t panic. Don’t run. Be respectful.’”

Remind kids they’re ‘deeply loved and never alone’ 

These conversations are critical to helping children navigate these difficult times, experts said. Erlanger “Earl” Turner, a licensed psychologist in Los Angeles and founder of Therapy for Black Kids, a platform dedicated to the emotional health of Black youth, said communicating with Black children about racism has been of the utmost importance in 2021, when the pandemic has already isolated young people.

“Having that conversation is really important because it does make them not internalize these messages about not being good because of their skin color,” he said. He added that parents should send their children the message, “It’s not me, it’s them, so I am not going to feel bad because of someone else’s negative view.”

These conversations can be delivered in a way that empowers children, Turner said.

“You have to talk to kids about how to advocate for change, to have critical consciousness. You can encourage children so that they can go to protests, speak up on this issue and write to Congress.”

Laura B. Morse, an Atlanta-based psychotherapist and the mother of two college students, said during these times it’s especially important for parents to “allow space for their children’s self-expression and to help them learn to identify and manage feelings.”

She suggests all parents curate a peaceful environment at home.

“Home should feel like a respite from the outside world that is comprised of racism, violence, dangerous health alerts and even unknown challenges,” Morse said.

“Children are very intuitive and often absorb heightened anxiety, anger and fear they are exposed to. I felt my best days as a parent in 2021 centered around reminding my college-age children that they were deeply loved and never alone, and that we would get through — one day at a time.”