When Eleanor Holmes Norton, former government official and current Georgetown law professor, was about 6 years old, she remembers, her grandmother sent her to the corner market to purchase three lamb chops.
The two-or three-block trek went smoothly enough (with Grandma watching from the porch as far as she could). "When I got to the store, the man asked me if I wanted those chops over there, and I told him, no, I didn't like the way those looked. 'I'll take these,' I told him.
"When I got home, I told my grandmother about it, and then something marvelous happened. For weeks and weeks after that, she would tell the story to relatives and family friends. 'You know, I sent Eleanor to the store for some lamb chops, and when the man tried to sell her some shriveled- up little chops, she looked him right in the eye and told him, "No I don't want those. I'll take these, thank you."
"The way she'd tell the story would make me feel like the smartest, most self-assertive little girl in town. She had an instinct for doing that sort of thing, and I'm certain it is one of the reasons for my self-confidence today."
It reminded me, I told her, of my own mother's notion that, since she knew the world would try to tear us down, her role was to build us up.
Our story-swapping was part of a recent conversation (as most of my "interviews" with her quickly become) on the problems of parenting. It is her belief that too many of us -- blacks in particular -- have lost the instinct for parenting that many members of her grandmother's generation had. And it is her urgent warning that we had better do something to recapture and improve on it.
Something like this? I shared with her a recent letter from a reader, a convert to Judaism, who said she had been struck by the amount of time and energy Jewish parents devote to conversations with their children.
"Every question is seen as an opportunity to convey knowledge," the letter said. "I think back to my own upbringing in a rather lower-class white society where my mother thought children were to be seen and not heard. Questions were viewed as intrusions into the adult world. As a public health nurse several years back, I can recall that same attitude existed with my black patients. Time and time again, black parents missed the opportunity to take their children's questions seriously.
"Even now, I get anxious and can never seem to articulate well enough in a large group to get my point across. My family loved me, but they weren't much interested in what I had to say. Those early experiences seem to stick. My (teen-age) children are better than I was, but I didn't start soon enough."
"Brilliant insight!" said Norton, who would like to see some effort on the part of blacks to institutionalize -- in public-school classes and elsewhere -- such successful child-rearing techniques. "And the wonderful thing is that, as your story and mine indicate, it's nothing that has to be reinvented. We simply need to draw more on the things that are already in our culture."
The former chair of the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, never content to keep a good idea to herself, already is looking for ways to "get people talking" about pooling ideas, devising programs and finding ways to resurrect the folk wisdom that many parents used to have.
Not that we need to copy everything they did. "Even now, you watch black children in the supermarket doing the things that children naturally do, and their parents will often threaten to hit them if they don't stop. I understand that there was a time when such childish behavior could have gotten both the child and the parent in trouble. But the point is that by being too careful we can kill their natural curiosity.
"Still, the old folk, uneducated as they often were, did a lot of things that were right. They understood what we have to make our young mothers in particular understand: that love is not enough.