Lessons From My Mother

By Christina Christian

My mother use to say “You must do better than I did.” As I reflect on my mother’s use of this expression, it was evident that the pain and struggle of her own experience was one that she did not want her children to know. It was a consistent, motivational message that was generally spoken during challenging financial or emotional times.

When revisited within this specific context, it seems evident that “‘do better’” meant: Make better decisions so that you do not experience the pain and difficulties that I am experiencing. Despite this seemingly common parental desire, research shows that [African American] parent-professionals who have done better fail to teach their children the basic principles of business education designed to ensure the continued upward economic mobility of the family.

According to a 2012 report published by Pew Charitable Trust, 84 percent of all Americans surpass their parents’ financial status. Details of the report show that while 56 percent of white Americans surpass their parent’s financial status, only 23 percent of African Americans are able to do the same. Erin Currier, director of the project, explained:  “It is the case that African American families manage to get to the middle class and they have some sense of economic security, but their ability to pass that on to their kids is not as high as the white families.” While this research provides evidence of a single generation’s ability to transcend personal difficulties to reach economic heights unknown to past generations, it clearly shows that there is an inability to prepare the next generation to maintain and ultimately surpass one’s own accomplishments. Interestingly, the presumed and primary cause of this issue was introduced to us exactly 50 years ago when then Secretary of Labor Patrick Moynihan asserted that: “… growing up in homes without a male breadwinner reduced black children’s chances of climbing out of poverty, and…the spread of such families would make it hard for blacks to take advantage of the legal and institutional changes flowing from the civil rights revolution.”

As one of four children raised by a divorced mother, I am evidence that growing up in a home without a father reduces but does not prevent upward mobility. However, it is important to mention that my mother was not your ordinary mother. She used her mistakes, and her good and bad days, as lessons to spur us on to the “better” that she desired. Her expectations for our behavior, dress, the words we spoke and the friends we chose were [at times] higher than heaven itself. Because she did not hold any degrees, the lessons my mother taught never represented subject matter gleaned from years of classroom lectures or derived from books highlighting the rules of a professional life, business and banking. Instead, her soliloquies were often prompted by the local news, family issues and the misconduct of friends. While my mother was unable to pass on to us business acumen, she did develop within each of us a degree of common sense and self-discipline necessary to acquire our own business sense.

Christina Christian has worked as an educator for 20 years. She is the author of “Re-Engaging the Village: The Essence of Parenting.”