Preschool expulsions? It's not a joke. It's a tragedy. Dr. Alvin Poussaint, the Harvard psychiatrist and adviser to "The Cosby Show," drew audible gasps from his audience when he brought up the topic at a recent Washington forum on the state of young African-American males.
Poussaint wondered why African-American kids are expelled from preschool at a much higher rate than other racial or ethnic groups.
Nationally, preschool programs expel children at more than three times the rate that K-through-12 programs do, according to a first-of-its-kind study at Yale University.
African-American children were twice as likely to be expelled from preschool programs as white or Latino children, and five times as likely to be expelled as Asian-American children, the study found.
"Now, what's going on there?," Poussaint, a black man, asked the mostly black crowd at "Paths to Success: A Forum on Young African American Men."
"Is racial profiling starting at age 3 or 4?" Poussaint asked.
If you thought he was about to point fingers in knee-jerk fashion at white racism, you'd be wrong. Instead, he said we all should be asking where that early anger is coming from. Then he zeroed in on abnormally high levels of child abuse and neglect, particularly in low-income black families.
"There's an overuse of beating kids — corporal punishment," Poussaint said. "So that you have 80 percent of black parents believing you should beat them — beat the devil out of them. And research shows the more you beat them, the angrier they get."
Abuse does not have to be physical, he said.
As a parent who grew up with more than a few "whuppings" from loving parents, I have since learned that other forms of discipline like "time outs" work better than physical or verbal abuse. Of course, they take more patience than some parents feel able to muster. When physical punishment goes overboard, the result can be outright abuse, injury and disaster.
Single parents, usually young moms, easily can be overwhelmed by the special challenges involved in raising children — especially boys. In the worst cases, they take out their frustrations on their children, passing their anger down from one generation to another.
And what happens to all that repressed anger? It may very well erupt in unruly school behavior and violence. Abused, injured, humiliated and unloved at home or in school, kids will shop for appreciation out on the street.
Spare the rod and save the child? Like a good academic, Poussaint seemed to be more comfortable with raising questions and calling for more study than with making recommendations.
What can be done? The Yale study found that preschools that had psychologists and other support for their teachers had a lower expulsion rate. Back at home, communities may need to provide more resources, whether through volunteers or through local social service agencies, to help frustrated parents cope. Bit by bit, we're learning what works best in raising children. We need to help more parents learn about it — before their problems become our problems.
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