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Why Won’t Society Let Black Girls Be Children?

Adultification means teachers, parents and law enforcement are less protective and more punitive with certain kids.

By A. Rochaun Meadows-Fernandez

This story was originally published on Jan. 28, 2020 in NYT Parenting.

Punishment was a hallmark of my educational experience.

It started when my preschool teacher labeled me as manipulative and intentionally disruptive. She even tried to film me to prove to my mother I was a problem — she never got that footage, and accused me of pretending to behave at the sight of the camera.

Although I was only 3 years old, she was convinced that my insistent hand raising and refusal to sit still were signs that I was malicious instead of simply understimulated. As soon as I was old enough to understand what happened, my mom didn’t hesitate to tell me the story each time I expressed self-doubt. She wanted me to understand I wasn’t a problem, I was simply an engaged learner. In a world where falling in line was more important than shining, my strengths were a threat.

That experience set the tone for the rest of my schooling. “Disruptive,” “talkative,” and “distraction” were used almost as often as my name. It meant being paddled a lot, calls home to my mother and isolation from other students as punishment.

By high school, I stopped participating almost completely; it was easier to focus on boys than be misunderstood in the classroom.

At the time, I didn’t know that my experiences weren’t uncommon. I was experiencing what academics call “adultification,” in which teachers, law enforcement officials and even parents view black girls as less innocent and more adult-like than their white peers. This perspective often categorizes black girls as disruptive and malicious for age-appropriate behaviors.

Adultification means black girls are punished more frequently, even when they’re under 6. According to a report from the Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection, from 2013-2014, only 20 percent of female preschoolers were black, but black girls made up 54 percent of female preschool children with one or more suspensions.

Now that I’m a grown woman raising a black girl, I’m at a crossroads. How can I preserve my daughter’s childhood while preparing her for a world that may judge her prematurely?

Jamilia Blake, Ph.D., a psychologist and associate professor at Texas A&M University who co-authored the 2019 report “Listening to Black Women and Girls: Lived Experiences of Adultification Bias” and its precursor, the 2017 study “Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood,” said adultification impacts black girls early in life. To read more click here.

Credit: New York Times

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