World-renowned brain surgeon Dr. Ben Carson is a candidate for the presidency. But this physician, author and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient whose medical genius has made international headlines, grew up miserably poor in inner-city Detroit, mocked for his stupidity and even nicknamed “Dummy” by his schoolmates. And he had a really mean mom, at least according to the neighbors.
His mother Sonya had only a third-grade education and raised her two sons by herself, mostly in a Detroit tenement neighborhood infested with drug dealers and gangs. She had divorced her husband after discovering the man she married at age 13 was a bigamist who had another family.
Unsurprisingly, like many kids raised in such depressing settings, young Ben was angry. He admits to having a scary temper, getting into fights, and being a terrible student, a pattern still seen today in so many youths trapped in our nation’s inner-city poverty class.
What changed the doomed trajectory of this youngster’s life? Carson says when his mother saw her boys going wrong, she prayed to God for wisdom and direction. “And you know what, God gave her the wisdom…at least in her opinion. My brother and I didn’t think it was that wise.” Though her neighbors said her boys would grow up to hate her, Sonya turned off the TV, allowing only two or three programs during the week, and requiring each of them to read two library books weekly. The boys had to write book reports for their Mom, never guessing that she couldn’t even read them.
Sonya worked on developing her young sons’ self- confidence as well as their minds. Carson says his mother believed in him, which was everything to the youngster. And she believed in taking responsibility for oneself, working two or three domestic jobs instead of going on welfare. “She would never allow herself to be a victim no matter what happened…never made excuses, and never accepted an excuse from us,” he recalls. When her boys came up with excuses, Sonya would say, “Do you have a brain?” and if the answer was yes, she retorted, “Then you could have thought your way out of it.”
To his amazement, young Ben began to enjoy reading as the stories gripped his imagination, taking him on a fantasy trip away from his troubled life to a place where he could go anywhere and be anybody. He read about important people, people of great achievement and realized “the person who has the most to do with what happens to you in life is you. You make decisions. You decide how much energy you want to put behind that decision.” Once he came to understand that he could control his own destiny, he started to see his poverty was only temporary. He could change it. And that changed everything.
Within a year, he was at the top of his class. He especially loved science books that allowed him to imagine standing beside ground-breaking scientists exploring microscopic worlds or the immensity of galaxies. The science teachers in his mostly-white high school recognized his abilities and encouraged them. Graduating with honors and a scholarship to Yale University, Carson worked at summer jobs and after graduating from the university in 1973, he enrolled in the School of Medicine at the University of Michigan.
His 26-year connection with Baltimore began when he became a resident in neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1977, and was later named director of pediatric neurosurgery at age 33. In 1994, Carson and wife Candy started the Carson Scholarship Fund, promoting reading and giving financial aid to thousands of students. Carson retired in 2013 and began bringing the can-do message he learned from his mom to America.
Sonya Carson eventually earned her own college degree. As I write, this extraordinary woman is in a Texas hospital, critically ill. But here are some valuable lessons she can teach all of us moms:
- Tell your children they can achieve anything they set their minds to. This is not the “everybody gets a trophy” style of esteem-building. Instead, praise your child for his or her good qualities and be ever watchful for opportunities to tell him about them. If your child tends to think ahead and finish schoolwork before deadlines, praise that quality; if kind to animals, admire that kindness. Every child has good qualities that an alert parent can spot. Our words, be they praise or poisonous, have far more influence over our children than we can ever know, often for their lifetimes.
- At the same time, don’t be afraid to discipline – take away that toy or phone or cut other privileges if your child misbehaves... Set rules and limits and don’t overlook infractions in an effort to be your kid’s pal – it never works and will only result in your getting played by a spoiled, misbehaving brat. When they scream they hate you, just know this means you’ll be getting great Mother’s Day presents a few years from now.
- Impress your child with the need to read. Reading is the most important predictor of success in school, not only for the young Ben Carson but for every child. Limit TV, movies, gaming, and texting/talking on the phone time. Perhaps require reading a book or two a week and writing book reports. If there’s just not enough time in the day, think about cutting down on sports or other activities. The more new worlds they explore through books, the better their chances of finding a subject that fascinates them, one which can become their passionate purpose and career direction. Like Ben Carson did.
- Accept no excuses. Cultivate an attitude and a habit of self-reliance in your child both by talking about it, and by living it yourself. Realizing that we are the captains of our lives is far more productive than casting blame on others for our mistakes or our poor circumstances. Teach your child that setbacks are temporary, dogged persistence leads to success, and victimhood is not an option.
n Follow Sonya Carson’s example to pray, and teach your child to pray, for God’s guidance. Wisdom and guidance are often discussed in Proverbs, and make great family reading, for example: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths.” Proverbs 3: 5, 6