Five years ago, Nick and I traded in our home in a lovely, comfortably upper middle class neighborhood in New Jersey for a house in an equally beautiful neighborhood in Georgia that just happens to be a stone’s throw away from a town full of working class/blue collar Georgians who have, shall we say, some interesting child-rearing tactics.
They cuss around and at their kids in the middle of the cereal aisle.
They fight with their significant others in public, in front of their kids, and slap the little ones when they get out of pocket, especially if there’s an audience to witness their discipline.
They let their kids roam the streets until somebody else’s mother tells the kid to go home.
They ride around in their cars with the windows rolled up, chain smoking while their babies bounce around in the back seat, sans seatbelts and boosters—their little lungs taking in a lifetime of carcinogens, their little bodies one sharp brake from flying through the back window.
When it comes to showing up for parent/teacher conferences, or sending in donations for a teacher gift, or chipping in at the PTA-sponsored events, they’re nowhere to be found.
This is bad parenting—messy, sickening, wrong. Now, close your eyes and conjure up an image of the mothers and fathers who go all in on their kids like this—who exhibit the worst kind of parenting acumen. Who do you see?
Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell would have you believe that these are characteristics of “ghetto parenting,” a phrase she coined in a recent column about a trio of black brothers whose lives were turned upside down when, Mitchell writes, their drug-addicted mom’s bad parenting led to the tragic death of her 5-year-old son and last week’s murder conviction of her 23-year-old son. Mitchell’s claims the boys are victims of “ghetto parenting,” and, in her column, "Ghetto Parenting Dooms Kids," she goes on to explain exactly what that is:
Ghetto parenting is cursing around, and at, a child.
Ghetto parenting is brawling with your man or your woman in front of your child.
Ghetto parenting is letting your child roam the streets until somebody else's mother has to tell the child to go home.
Ghetto parenting is putting your child off on friends and relatives because you want to hang out in the street.
Ghetto parenting is getting so hooked on substances that the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services has to remove your children and place them with strangers.
Now, where I come from, “ghetto parenting” would be considered code for poor, urban black and Latino moms and dads who are real good at making kids but who suck at raising them, leading to a never-ending cycle of poverty, abuse, crime and broken lives. The word “ghetto” falls right in line with the clever and really subversive evil game people play with adjectives to describe black people in the harshest, most stereotypical ways.
So in the course of a 700-word column, Mitchell racialized bad parenting, essentially intimating that falling down on the job as a mom or dad is “ghetto”—i.e. negative and black.
I assure you black moms and Dads—impoverished black folks in particular—don’t have a lock on bad parenting. Indeed, the incidents I described at the beginning of this post were all meted out in and around my predominately white neighborhood here in Georgia by white parents. The first time I saw a white mom draw her hand back at her baby, and drop the “F” bomb in front of her little ones—and mine!—in the middle of Wal-Mart, and let her kids wander in my yard to play without any knowledge of where her kids were, I got real clear on this one simple truth: A bad parent knows no color, no economic level, no background, no class. And sometimes, what we consider a hot ghetto mess is actually just a mess, and not indicative of anybody’s ghetto (where, by the way, for every bad parent who clogs up the system, there are 20 good ones doing right by and their best for their babies, despite the statistics, despite the odds).
In other words, Mitchell needs to go back to the drawing board on that “ghetto parenting” phrase. It ain’t working. And it’s insulting as all hell. It’s hard enough trying to escape the stereotypes and labels and boxes society hangs on black moms—I’ve written passionately about those stereotypes in my posts “Black Moms Are Different and That’s Okay” and “Can You Name One Positive Portrayal of Black Moms in Hollywood?”—without a fellow journalist—an African American one, to boot—hanging her hat on stereotypes of a whole group/class/color of black moms.
Bad parenting is simply bad parenting.
What’s being ghetto—and black—got to do with it?