Exclusive: Michelle Obama Says It’s Up to Parents to Protect Black Children’s Light

The former First Lady, whose book ‘The Light We Carry’ comes out November 15, shares parenting lessons for Black families in these challenging times.

By Celeste Little

We aren’t hunkering down in quarantine any more. We’re back at work and school. Many of us have stripped off our masks to face it all because, the reality is, COVID-19 is here to stay. Life has to go on.

Still, its aftermath is apparent all around us. Our families are more mentally illmore unhealthypoorer, and less educated than at any other time in recent history. The pandemic ripped the shutters off of all our lives—and so much inside was already awry.

For the multigenerational Black households whose trauma has been compounded even further in the last several years, picking up the pieces can feel particularly daunting. More of our children are dying by suicide and at the hands of police. More Black families are grappling with the effects of inflation, at home and at grocery stores. More are toeing the line between extreme poverty and survival. And in the largest educational decline since the ’90s, fewer Black children are meeting basic standards for math and reading proficiency than before the pandemic.

It wasn’t so long ago that possibilities felt endless. Black families have framed photographs, apparel, and songs that memorialize the 8-year stretch when the future seemed promising.

In an exclusive interview with Parents and Kindred by Parents, former First Lady Michelle Obama talked about facing painful post-pandemic realities as Black parents. Her new book, The Light We Carry: Overcoming in Uncertain Times, which is filled with lessons from her own life, is an answer.

“My parents didn’t have a lot of money. They didn’t have an education. They didn’t have networks. They didn’t have a legacy of wealth to give me,” says Obama. “My father was a Black man raised in segregated Chicago with a severe limp. Anybody could look at my parents and say, “Well, what?” Or they could look at themselves and say, “What could I give my kids? What in these times?” 

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But Obama says her parents knew there were intangible gifts they could give her—indestructible values that have weathered generations.

 “They saw my light. They were there for me. There was consistency. There was accountability. They taught me independence,” says Obama. “So if I’m talking to parents, I’d say don’t get so overwhelmed by all that is not there on the outside. So much of what kids need can come right from you. And you don’t have to have a lot, but you have to be there.”

She’s right. A report by the National Assessment of Educational Progress found that socio-emotional education—lessons about self-worth and self-management— contributed to a marked improvement in academic learning. The Collaborative for Social and Emotional Learning found that 27% more children could improve their academic performance with social and emotional education.

Obama says she instilled messages of competency, character, and worth in Malia and Sasha through what she preached and what they practiced. In fifth grade, the pair were encouraged to advocate for themselves, manage their own homework and assignments, and wake themselves up for school.

“I am like my mother—trying to work myself out of a job…because I knew what was waiting for them. I knew as Black women, as young Black women, there were going to be a lot of messages that they would have to work through on their own,” says Obama.

She says they needed the tools to survive the world without her. It was difficult to watch her daughters make mistakes but, as she wrote in The Light We Carry, when parents “interfere too soon [they] rob kids of the confidence they need to feel the competence.”

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For Obama, good parenting is a barricade against a blustery world outside. It is the way we protect our kids.

“You have to be an active and engaged parent, particularly in these times when our kids are getting the messages, and they aren’t getting the investments. The question is, are you seeing the light in your child?” says Obama. ”We can’t give up on that small thing that we can control because the rest of the system is broken. We can’t wait for it to be fixed. We have to save ourselves. We have to save our kids. And everyone has the tools right in their power to do it right now.”

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