Youth Justice


Beloved educator, entertainer, and author Dr. Bill Cosby is a man on a mission: turning the Black community around. It’s the key theme of his new book, Come On People: On the Path from Victims to Victors, co-authored with Harvard psychiatrist Dr. Alvin F. Poussaint. It was also the theme of his message when he spoke at the national summit on the Cradle to Prison Pipeline® Crisis convened by the Children’s Defense Fund at Howard University in September. Dr. Cosby, sometimes called “America’s Dad,” had some sound advice for Black parents and adults. As he put it, “Our children—not those, not your, our children—are trying to tell us something, and we are not listening.”

First, Bill said, parents should do all they can to bring their children up with love and respect, because when children have those two things for their parents they think twice before choosing behavior that’s going to make their parents embarrassed or angry. He outlined some practical steps parents can take to help keep their children out of trouble, beginning with staying involved in their schoolwork. Many of us had at least one caring adult in our lives nag us about our homework: “You know how you hated them and told them how you hated them, [but] every time you graduated from something, they sat there and watched you walk across the stage—and yes, many of you have a mother who said, ‘I’m going across with you this time!’ You are what you are because of what was in your house.” He reminded us that parents need to find the time to go over their children’s assignments, meet with their teachers, and find out what their children need to succeed in school, no matter how busy they are: “If you’re working two jobs and you don’t have time. . . well, you’re going to have to find time if he commits a crime. So take time now.”

Parents need to be sure to keep up with where their children are going, who their friends are, and what they’re doing behind closed doors. He made the audience laugh when he expressed his amazement that some parents allow their children to make them knock before the parents can enter the children’s rooms, and remembered the one time he tried locking his door as a teenager: “My father knew there was going to be no locked door, and he knocked with his foot. And the door came apart.” Laughter aside, his very serious point was that the time for parents to be involved and know what their children are up to is before they get into trouble. He said our children may say they need “privacy” but they surely won’t get it if they end up in a jail cell.

He also encouraged parents and community members to return to discipline—what his own elders used to call “character correction”—and teaching children the basics of right from wrong but cautioned parents not to go to harmful extremes: “How many of you in this audience have been at the bus stop and heard a mother cursing the child? How many of you have been in the supermarket and heard ‘stupid blankety-blank…’ and felt sorry for the child? This is not where we want to be going.” Too many parents hurt their children this way, “and that’s why so many of them go to prison for hurting other people and couldn’t care less…. Too many of us don’t put love in the child.” Love is the key need.

Our children desperately need us to give them love, encouragement and a sense of confidence, and the best place to start is at home. “We have to keep working on them, and saying ‘You are a genius, you can do it’…. Those four corners of their world, which happen to be your home—this is where you have to deliver that confidence. They can’t leave there [without it].” It’s all the more important that our children can count on this at home because so many of them face so much stress and so many negative messages out in the world. So many of our children have very real fears about whether they will make it home after school, or whether there will be a bullet out there today with their name on it. So when they do come in the door, they are practically crying out to us: “‘Give me some love, give me some hugs, make me feel safe, tell me I’m beautiful, tell me I can do it—please, I need this!'”

Are we listening, adults?

For more information about the Children’s Defense Fund’s America’s Cradle to Prison PipelineSM report, go to