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.
In particular, 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 that Poussaint cited by Yale University's Edward Zigler Center for Child Development and Social Policy.
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," sponsored by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Washington Post.
"Is racial profiling starting at age three or four?" Poussaint asked. "Or is there something going on before preschool that relates to the family and the community that already is making some of these young black males unable to adapt, unable to fit, on a preschool level?"
But, 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. His principal target was what the forum's featured speaker Bill Cosby has called in his own famously blunt terms, "parents who are not parenting."
"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. It is not good discipline."
Abuse does not have to be physical, he said. Heads in his audience nodded agreement as he described black parents cursing, shaking or slapping their pre-K kids in public or demeaning them with statements like, "You're no good, just like your father."
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 moms young enough to still be "trying to get their party on," as another panelist put it, 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 social isolation, unruly school behavior and violence. Abused, injured, humiliated and unloved at home or in school, kids will shop for appreciation out on the street.
And, once they turn to criminal activity, as panelist Marcellus "Bishop" Allen told the forum, "None of you can stop nothing we want to do."
Allen knows. Now the president of Saving Our Selves (S.O.S.), a Newark organization to stop gang violence, he joined the notorious Bloods street gang at age 9.
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. "I never recommend," a psychotherapist once told me. "I only try to help my patients find what will work better for them than what they're doing now."
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.