Tough Questions For The World's Toughest Job : Code Switch Mother's Day is coming up, so we're taking on your most difficult questions around parenting. We'll talk about choosing a school, raising bilingual children, modeling gender identity, and what to do if your kid's afraid of black people.
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Tough Questions For The World's Toughest Job

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Tough Questions For The World's Toughest Job

Tough Questions For The World's Toughest Job

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Babies. They're so cute, aren't they?


My biological clock is about to explode.

DEMBY: That's a little - that's a lot of information for our audience.

MERAJI: (Laughter).

DEMBY: But yes. I love hanging out with kids. My little niece, Ryan (ph)...

MERAJI: She's so cute.

DEMBY: Isn't she? Isn't she?

MERAJI: Oh, my gosh. She's so cute.

DEMBY: She's 4 years old. I love her so much.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: My son says he's afraid of black people.


DEMBY: (Laughter) Wait.

MERAJI: Your...

DEMBY: What?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: My husband is adamant that our daughter will not go to public school.


DEMBY: What - I'm sorry.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: His biological family was very upset by this and claimed we were going against his culture by allowing him to paint his nails.

MERAJI: Hold on.

DEMBY: What?


MERAJI: I'm rethinking this whole wanting to be a parent thing right now. My biological clock is completely in check (laughter) - no longer exploding. So much struggle - oh, no. Make that baby stop crying.

DEMBY: America always got to be America.


MERAJI: Welcome to CODE SWITCH. I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

DEMBY: And I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: And in honor of Mother's Day, we're going to talk about the hardest job in the world - being a parent.

DEMBY: Yes. We got a lot of questions from our listeners. But without fail, the trickiest ones are always about how to raise kids.

MERAJI: Not that Gene and I know anything about this because we don't have kids yet. But don't worry. We brought in experts. And on the agenda this week, we're talking fear, fluency, fingernails and the first day of school.

DEMBY: I love alliteration. But wait, wait, wait - fingernails?

MERAJI: Let's get some dirt under them (laughter).

DEMBY: (Laughter).

MERAJI: All right. Here we go. Our first question is from a white mother in Philadelphia who says her 12-year-old son, who's also white, is afraid of black people.

DEMBY: Here we go.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: He has brown and black coaches, though, karate instructors, teammates, classmates, teachers, et cetera. But neither of us has friends of color that we see regularly. So it's often when he's on the playground near our house and sees a certain group of kids who are loud, gregarious, sometimes swearing, talking loudly that he becomes frightened and then attributes it to black people in general. When we go to new parts of town, he asks if it's a black neighborhood. When we went to a new pool in Camden, he was afraid because most of the kids were black, even though he ended up having a lot of fun.

He goes to a great school that has spent a lot of time discussing events in the news around race and social injustice. So the conversations are definitely happening around him, and I don't let his observations go unchallenged. But he's 12. So the more I talk, the less he listens. Is this just the process of learning and growing for him? I know I'm going to keep the conversation going as he matures. But I'm wondering how I can help him connect the rational information he learns to the emotional situations he experiences.


DEMBY: To help us out with this very tricky question, we're bringing in our teammate Karen Grigsby Bates. She's also the only mother on the CODE SWITCH team. Welcome, KGB.


MERAJI: Hey, Karen. All right. So what do you think? What would you do if your 12-year-old was afraid of black people?

BATES: Well, my 12-year-old...

MERAJI: (Laughter).

BATES: ...Back then was black. Still is. And (laughter) he's 26 now. So if he were afraid of black people, I would (laughter) be really worried.

DEMBY: (Laughter).

BATES: But for this 12-year-old, I called an expert.


CASSANDRA HAREWOOD: My name is Cassandra Harewood. I specialize in child and adolescent psychiatry.

BATES: And Dr. Harewood is not surprised that this 12-year-old is anxious. She says the current climate makes a lot of people anxious, no matter what their age is, including her. What's important here, she says, is that when this boy starts to articulate his anxiety to his mom - you know, I'm scared to go there, are there going to be a lot of black kids there - mom needs to probe a little deeper.

HAREWOOD: I would encourage her to explore that a little bit more. So it's full of black kids, and what? What about that is bothersome to you? What about that concerns you? What about that worries you? And it's OK if she doesn't necessarily have the answers for him. It's having that dialogue. It's having that discussion and not ignoring it and not pushing it down and out.

MERAJI: Karen, did she talk about the media and exposure to certain images or any of that as part of the problem?

BATES: Oh (laughter), yeah. She did. Popular culture is full of scary images of black people and men in particular. From TV to movies to videogames, black men are often shown as violent and predatory and aggressive. And Dr. Harewood says if there are no real-life examples in this kid's life as counterbalances - like, we don't have a Gene Demby to bring over to his house to have dinner with him so he can see...

DEMBY: I don't know how I feel about that.

BATES: ...Reasonable - (laughter).

MERAJI: (Laughter) She did mention in the question that she doesn't have any friends of color that they see regularly.

BATES: Right. She did. Which means that mom is part of the problem. But it also means she could be part of the solution. Here's Dr. Harewood again.

HAREWOOD: Some of the onus does lie on the parents to help create those experiences. Children don't necessarily do that on their own.

BATES: So Dr. Harewood says the parents need to get out of their comfort zone and consciously broaden their social circle, which will help the child even if they're not comfortable with it. She says, you're thinking, I'm going to do this for the good of my child.

DEMBY: Yeah. I can remember the last time we did an episode where we got reader questions. And one of the experts we spoke to said something like, you know, if your kid is taking all these ideas from you - right? - of, like, who you love and who you trust and who you think is important to be in your house, and all those people are white, then those are also very subtle signals about who is valuable - right? - like, who can be trusted that you're passing on to your child.

BATES: Sure. I - we had a funny conversation at the end of this because I said to her, you know, for a long time I was the only black kid in all of my classes and in lots of venues where, you know, you were just sort of doing that I'm-integrating-it thing.

DEMBY: (Laughter).

BATES: And I don't remember being afraid of white people. And she said, well, it's harder for white people because they're in the majority. And so they think this is how the world should work all the time anyway. And when it's - when the shoe's on the other foot, it takes them a minute to readjust. But the parents are going to have to readjust if they want their child to be able to move out into the world as it becomes increasingly diverse.

MERAJI: Thanks, Karen.

DEMBY: Thank you, KGB.

BATES: You're welcome, I think.


DEMBY: OK, Shereen. This next question comes from a parent in Aurora, Colo. And this is what she writes. My husband, who is white and works in education policy, is adamant that our daughter, who looks exactly like me - I'm black and Asian - will not go to public school in our local district. It is admittedly low-performing, with painfully low numbers of kids proceeding to college. He says, we aren't using her to make a political point.

I'm inclined to agree. He is literally the expert here. But I'm guilty and torn. I believe that public schools can only get better if we middle class all stay in them. If you plan to have kids, what would you do for their education? How would you resolve this in your household?

MERAJI: All right, Gene.

DEMBY: Yeah.

MERAJI: Are we supposed to be answering this from our own personal standpoint too?

DEMBY: Let's punt on that a little (laughter).

MERAJI: OK (laughter).

DEMBY: So I looked at the Aurora school system. It's mostly POC. It's mostly Latinx kids. It's 55 percent Latinx, 19 percent black. But yeah, this is a discussion that's tricky as hell. So I tagged in an expert.

AMY STUART WELLS: My name is Amy Stuart Wells, and I am a professor at Teachers College at Columbia University.

DEMBY: So Amy is an expert in race and education. And she said that she was curious about how much information this letter-writer and her husband have about their local schools beyond what they see online - if they've ever visited the schools, talked to their principals, stuff like that - because she said that the numbers, they often belie the range of performance in the school, let alone a whole school system. But Amy also just took issue with their premise because she said that school performance tends to be evaluated by test scores. And a school's test scores tells us much less about aptitude than they do about race and class.

WELLS: We tend to make assumptions about schools based on the race and class of the students, and then we use the test-score data to - you know, to validate that without actually going and seeing what's happening. And the single highest predictor of your child's test scores, even though we all want to think some kids are really super gifted, is the parents' education level.

DEMBY: And Amy says that, you know, test scores, they can't really tell you about what the learning environment in a school is actually like.

WELLS: When we're only looking at performance and as measured by test scores, which is usually the way we measure it, we're missing a whole lot of things that are really powerful and important. So if this is their neighborhood public school, I would at least encourage them to go and spend some time there and talk to the principal and understand more about the curriculum and the teaching in the school and then to think what is important for their daughter.

Not all schools are the same. Not all schools provide the same curriculum and teaching. And not all kids do well on standardized tests, even when they're very talented and gifted.

DEMBY: Amy said that, you know - so every school is different. But generally speaking, sending a middle-class kid to a school that is, quote, "low-performing" like the ones here, that doesn't really have much impact on the middle-class kid's performance. Their scores don't go down. They don't decrease. The opposite, though - the opposite is true. The more middle-class kids there are in the school, the better the test performance will be for the kids from the lower-income families.

And Amy says, like, look, if you go to your local school, and you talk to the principal and examine their curriculum and the philosophy of how they teach there. And you've done your homework. And you've done your due diligence. And you decide that the school near you is just not the right sort of like pedagogical, like, fit for the way your child learns, then that's a different equation. But you at least sort of owe it to both your child and to like your community to do the legwork and give your local public school a chance. Everybody is incentivized to think about their own kids. But if everybody's making that same choice - like, oh, these schools are bad - then you end up having these super-segregated schools with mostly black kids and mostly Latino kids.

MERAJI: And your husband might be the education policy expert, but you are definitely the expert when it comes to what it's like growing up as a kid of color.


MERAJI: So you're an expert too, right? And if you decide to send your child to a mostly white private school that has better test scores, et cetera, et cetera, you should know that we also get tons of emails and tweets and questions from now grownup people of color about the downsides of that experience for them being the only one.


MERAJI: I was one of the only ones in my neighborhood, and I can say it was - I did not enjoy it. I wish I had a different experience. But then again, I turned out all right, so.

DEMBY: You did.


DEMBY: Thank you for writing us.

MERAJI: Write us again. Tell us what you did.


MERAJI: Well, if you thought those questions were hard, you're right. They were. And we've got more where that came from after the break.


MERAJI: Shereen.

DEMBY: Gene.

MERAJI: CODE SWITCH. And we're back. And we've got two more parenting questions for you. To help us answer this next one, we're bringing in our teammate, Leah Gershenfeld Donnella. Welcome to the show, Leah.


DEMBY: All right, Leah, what's this next question about?

DONNELLA: OK. So this next one comes from a couple in Raleigh, and they're white. And right now, they're foster parents to a 6-year-old black boy. But recently, they had a big issue come up when they let their foster son paint his nails.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: His biological family was very upset by this and claimed we were going against his culture by allowing him to paint his nails. Additionally, there are several other typical gender socialization issues that our family does not adhere to that appear to be very important to his biological family. For example, things such as boys having to be tough and not showing emotion or not being able to like the movie "Frozen" because it's just for girls. The bottom line, are we damaging our 6-year-old or somehow ill preparing him for the hyper-masculine culture he may return to one day by allowing him to paint his nails, sing "Let It Go" and cry when he's sad? Is this really a racial cultural gender issue that we should be in tune with?


DONNELLA: Yeah. So...

MERAJI: Something about that question.

DEMBY: Just a lot about that question, just a lot of things about that question.

DONNELLA: Yeah. Our question has everything in it. I think the first part is, how are race and gender and gender expression all connected, and how is that playing out in this situation? I spoke to a couple of experts. And everyone I spoke to was pretty adamant to say that letting a little boy paint his nails or sing "Let It Go" or cry is certainly not going against black culture.

JENN JACKSON: Black people show up in all sorts of different shapes, sizes, forms, gender, sex, sexualities and expressions. Blackness is full.

DONNELLA: So that was John Jackson. And she is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Chicago. And she studies blackness and gender.

JACKSON: And so I do not think it's a racial cultural phenomenon, but I do think that what his biological family is likely contending with is this structural contention of, how will this young man be situated when he, you know, grows up?

DONNELLA: It's also important to remember that policing expressions of gender identity is pretty common in white families, Asian families, Latino families.

MERAJI: All cultures, yes.

DONNELLA: So that particular parent getting upset does not represent black culture as a whole. Mark Anthony Neal, the other expert I spoke to, he's the chair of the African-American Studies department at Duke University. I wanted to emphasize the fact that there are different pressures around black people and black families to conform. So here's what Mark Anthony Neal had to say about black masculinity.

MARK ANTHONY NEAL: In many ways, you know, African-American people - African-American parents - are very much invested in very normative gender standards because of the way that blackness has been treated as an abnormality. So one of the ways that black folks have historically fit in line with the larger society is to perform very conservative and rigid gender performances so that they're not looked at as strange and unusual within that context. When you attach that also to a larger history of the idea that white racism - white supremacy - has very specifically attempted to be de-masculate (ph) or emasculate black men and boys, you get these added pressures of this idea that black men and boys have to even counter these efforts to emasculate them with a hyper performance of masculinity.

DONNELLA: Some of the history he's talking about is that history of lynching and castration of black men that goes way back to the beginning of our country.

DEMBY: So one of the things that, I guess, jumps out to me here, though, is, like, the idea that black men are hyper masculine seems - I just want to push back on it a little bit. The way that black people doing the same thing that white people are doing at any a given time seems, like, salient in a different way, right? It's like, oh, look at them doing this thing. And of course, like, if there are all these black men on TV who are athletes or, whatever, whatever - there's a way in which that gets, like, magnified.

DONNELLA: So I asked Mark about that. And one of the things he said is that that's true - that we see in our culture black men are noticed more. The people who kind of rise to the top are treated like they're different in some way, like they're superhuman. He pointed to "Super Fly," that iconic 1972 film.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) This dude is bad, and he ain't just fly. He's super fly. Yeah, super fly. When it comes to women, they come to him. But it's still not enough.

DONNELLA: Or he said they've also been kind of treated as, like, animals. And so when you - he talked about LeBron James, for example, and how LeBron James - people don't talk about him as just, like, a man who works hard. They talk about him as, like, almost like a beast, like - just, like, a different kind of physical specimen where his masculinity is kind of, like, put forward in a way that you don't see with white athletes or white entertainers.

MERAJI: But what about this point that he made, which - I mean, it definitely resonated with me, which is that African-American parents are invested in normative gender standards because of the way blackness has been treated as an abnormality. I mean, I think the same can be said for Latino parents - that, you know, you want to be very rigidly whatever you're supposed to be in society so that people don't look at you like you're different or treat you like you're different or discriminate against you. You know, I think there's something to be said for that.

DONNELLA: I think that kind of gets into a point he made about respectability politics and sort of, like, dressing in a way and performing sort of social roles in a way that's very conservative. So one of the examples he talked about was - at Morehouse, there are...

DEMBY: Do you want to do an explanatory comment here about Morehouse? Morehouse is this very old and very bourgie (ph) historically black college that's all men. Martin Luther King went there. A bunch of very famous black people went there. Anyway, sorry. That's it.

DONNELLA: Right. So there is a history and kind of, like, a pedigree that goes with Morehouse.

DEMBY: The Morehouse man. Yep.

DONNELLA: And I think respectability politics has often been kind of associated with Morehouse. But what he was saying is that, historically speaking, black men at Morehouse get kind of policed in two directions. So there's, like, rules against wearing sagging pants and doing the whole, like, low hat, grills, which he described as sort of the what looks like the ultra-masculine kind of expressions of gender.

MERAJI: And to Gene's point, that's a racially coded expression of masculinity.

DEMBY: In a different way than a suit and tie.

DONNELLA: Right. Exactly. But then on the other side of that, there's also - people have gotten in trouble for...

MERAJI: You can't be feminine.

DONNELLA: Right, for wearing high heels...

MERAJI: Right.

DONNELLA: ...Or for kind of any sort of public expression of queerness.

DEMBY: So there's, like, a class thing here and a gender thing here.

DONNELLA: Exactly.

MERAJI: We haven't really answered the question. I mean, we've complicated things here. What should this foster parent do - let his kid paint his nails knowing all this, or say, no, we're not going to do that from here on out?

DONNELLA: Well, I think kind of broadly, the advice for these parents is sort of the same advice we would give to any parents raising kids from a different kind of racial or cultural background, which is that...

DEMBY: Meet more brown people.

DONNELLA: Right. You need to surround this kid with black people who can show different gender expressions. And then in addition to the people around you, it's also a matter of the media that you're consuming. So there's nothing wrong with having him paint his nails and watching "Frozen," but "Frozen" is also a movie with very few black people in it - zero black characters.

MERAJI: That was the first thing I thought. Yeah.

DONNELLA: Right. So...

MERAJI: Not because it's a girls' movie.

DEMBY: Right.

DONNELLA: Exactly. So maybe it's - and this is - again, it's a hard thing to do because there aren't as many movies with black characters and a wide expression of black characters. But it's about finding age-appropriate black media to expose this kid to and have him kind of grow up with.

DEMBY: Can I ask for a call-out from our listeners here? Like, if there is age-appropriate black media that shows like - or POC media that shows like a broad expression of gender performance and gender identity, send us a shout at

DONNELLA: Yeah, definitely. That would be helpful.

DEMBY: Thank you, Leah.

DONNELLA: Thanks, guys.


DEMBY: So Shereen took on this last question.


DEMBY: All right. Fill me in. What's it about?

MERAJI: All right. This one is near and dear to my heart, a subject that I love. It's from a mother in New Mexico. Her name is Jannette (ph). She wants her daughter to speak both Spanish and English fluently.

DEMBY: OK. Wait. Real quick. Which languages do you speak, Shereen?

MERAJI: I speak Spanish and English, but I'm a receptive bilingual, which you're going to learn what that means.

DEMBY: OK. I was about to ask. OK. All right.

MERAJI: Because I asked an expert to help me out with this question. Her name is Gigliana Melzi. And she researches language development amongst Latinx kids in the U.S. And she's raising her own daughter to be bilingual. She's originally from Peru, and she lives in New York City.


GIGLIANA MELZI: I am a faculty member at New York University. I'm an associate professor of applied psychology.

MERAJI: All right. I'm going to read you the question. Here we go. It's from Jannette.

(Reading) My husband and I are trying to raise our daughter in a bilingual environment. I speak primarily Spanish to her while we're in the home, which my husband supports and encourages. However...

JANNETTE: ...When we are around people who don't understand Spanish, my husband thinks it's not polite to speak in a language which they don't understand. My worry is that if our child only hears Spanish in the home, she may think it's something to be ashamed about. She might think it's not a good as English. How...

MERAJI: ...Can we encourage her language development and preserve her heritage while also balancing social norms?

Big question.

MELZI: Good question.

MERAJI: First thing that I was curious about was this idea of raising a child in a bilingual environment. What does that mean to you?

MELZI: For me, it means that you are supporting the development of both languages so that ultimately, the child will be able to communicate and function in two languages. But I think you're also tapping a little bit on the connection between language and culture. So raising a child in a bilingual environment also means developing their biculturalism.

MERAJI: And how do you do that in a country where the dominant language is English?

MELZI: Yes. And I think also we have to take a broader perspective because it's not only that the main language is English but English is a very cool language worldwide. And so it has higher status than Spanish. And children are very attuned to that. When children see that certain languages have a lower status, they have less motivation to learn that language and to continue using that language.

MERAJI: And when does that happen, when they go to school?

MELZI: I would venture to say that very early on. A true anecdote - my daughter, when she started school - and we are raising our daughter bilingually as well - when she started kindergarten, she went through a phase of not wanting to use Spanish when we got into the elevator and there were other people there who she guessed did not speak Spanish. And she was 5.

MERAJI: So how did you push back on that with your own daughter?

MELZI: So I continued speaking Spanish. And it so happened that around that time, she started her fascination with Shakira.


MELZI: It was supported by the home environment. I started playing a lot of Shakira (laughter). She'd resonated with Shakira a lot, and I encouraged that. And so she outgrew it.

MERAJI: Oh, that's fantastic. So Shakira actually made Spanish cool for her?


MERAJI: Gave it that cool factor that you were talking about.


MERAJI: So to answer this woman's question, she says here that her husband thinks it's not polite to speak in Spanish out in public when there are people around who don't understand Spanish. How would you respond to her husband?

MELZI: I think that he's being socially aware, and I support that. I will tell you what I do, and I think that it works for us. So if we are outside in the street walking, we speak Spanish to our daughter only. If we go into a space where we are having a group gathering and there are people there that speak only English, let's imagine, and I want to say something to my daughter for her to do - so bring me the plate that's on the table - I would say that in Spanish.

But if I want to communicate with a larger group of people, then I would use the common language, and that common language is English in that particular context. If you have been raising your child to identify you with a language, the moment that you start speaking in that other language - which is English - the child won't have the same need to communicate with you in the home language. And so then eventually, the child will turn to what receptive bilingual. She will understand the language but she won't use it.

MERAJI: That's me. That's how I was raised.

MELZI: It's very common.

MERAJI: Completely.

MELZI: It's very common. The research actually shows that, around preschool, what is most predictive of children's bilingual abilities is going to be how much they use a language. So creating opportunities for the child to be able to use that home language with peers, building playgroups is critical.

MERAJI: So it's not just about speaking to your child in the home or even speaking to your child one-on-one in public. It's about also encouraging your child to speak to other people that maybe they're not related to in the, quote, unquote, "home language."

MELZI: Language is contextual, right? So certain vocabulary words are going to appear in certain contexts more than others. So in order for the child to develop linguistic skills - strong, well-developed linguistic skills - they need to be able to see the language in diverse contexts. Only speaking the language in the home, it's good, and I applaud that, but it's not going to be sufficient.

MERAJI: And what does it mean to be truly bilingual?

MELZI: That's the $1 million question. You know, I think that what - I can tell you what bilingual is not.

MERAJI: OK. Yes. Tell me that.

MELZI: So a bilingual is not two monolinguals put together, right? I think that when we talk about bilingual children, we have this idealized idea that you're going to be able to function exactly the same in both languages.

MERAJI: Right. Right.

MELZI: And that's not - that doesn't exist, I mean, not really.

MERAJI: Well, that makes me feel better.


MELZI: We have this idealized picture of what a bilingual is. And I think we try to meet that ideal, and it doesn't exist. If you're functional in two languages, you're bilingual.

MERAJI: Big thanks to Gigliana Melzi, an expert in bilingualism and an associate professor of applied psychology at NYU. Queue Shakira.


SHAKIRA: (Singing in Spanish).

MERAJI: Gene, do you know that song?

DEMBY: I do not know that song.

MERAJI: It's called "Pies Descalzos, Suenos Blancos."

DEMBY: What does that mean, Shereen?

MERAJI: (Laughter) Bare feet, white dreams. I really don't know what the white dreams part is about, but the song is about, you know, like societal pressures and all these obligations that we have and how, you know, we originally came into this world free and, you know, barefoot. And now we're like stuck in shoes and having to get married before we're 30.

DEMBY: Yeah. She wants to be free and walk around barefoot like white people. Yeah.

MERAJI: (Laughter) That's our show. But before we go, don't forget to sign up for our newsletter. It's new and we need more people to sign up because it's fantastic. You're going to learn things. You're going to laugh.

DEMBY: Please follow us on Twitter. We're @nprcodeswitch. We want to hear from you. Our email is You can always send your burning questions about race with the subject line Ask CODE SWITCH. Subscribe to the podcast - this one - wherever fine podcasts can be found or streamed. And again, holla (ph) at our newsletter at

MERAJI: Newsletter, newsletter, newsletter, newsletter. And just in case you were wondering what that fabulous classical tune that we started the episode with is, it's "Morning Mood" by Edvard Grieg. Leah Donnella, Kumari Devarajan and I produced this Ask CODE SWITCH parenting episode. It was edited by Sami Yenigun.

DEMBY: A shout...

MERAJI: And a shoutout - I'm so sorry, Gene. Go ahead (laughter).

DEMBY: No, no, no. It's your world. I'm just renting space.

MERAJI: No, no. You go. You go.

DEMBY: And a shoutout to the rest of the CODE SWITCH team - Walter Ray Watson, Karen Grigsby Bates, Adrian Florido - who's in Puerto Rico - Steve Drummond, Maria Paz Gutierrez and Kat Chow. I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: And I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

DEMBY: Be easy. How do you say be easy in Spanish?

MERAJI: (Speaking Spanish).

DEMBY: Sure, let's go with that.

MERAJI: OK. Happy Mother's Day.


SHAKIRA: (Singing in Spanish).

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