How to Raise a Smart Black Woman

Michelle Obama’s parents followed this formula. Here’s why you should too.

Published in
9 min readJun 13, 2019


Photo: Paras Griffin/Getty Images

BBefore Michelle Obama reached kindergarten, she could read. At age 7, she skipped second grade. She would also eventually graduate from Princeton and Harvard Law. Although she married a man who’d make her the First Lady of the United States, she was already exceptional — in intelligence, drive, and purpose.

When we see people like Michelle, Oprah Winfrey, Ava Duvernay, and Kamala Harris, Black women who have defied all odds and reached extraordinary power and success, we can’t help but cheer them on, but also wonder: What transformed their God-given talents into outstanding abilities? Was it nature? Was it luck? Or could it possibly be something else?

Could that something else be parenting? Two Princeton graduates were raised in Michelle’s working-class childhood home on the South Side of Chicago. Her parents, Fraser and Marian Robinson, were not rich; they were not college educated, they were not tiger or helicopter parents, nor overly strict. But they were the real secret link to Michelle and her brother Craig’s academic achievements.

Is it possible that her parents, and parents of other extraordinary people like Michelle, had unknowingly been following a universal blueprint for youthful success? The answer is a resounding yes. After interviewing the families of hundreds of extremely high-achieving young adults and some of their parents over a 15-year period, my co-author, Harvard economist Ron F. Ferguson, and I traced the roots of these individual successes to one common origin: strategic parenting.

Regardless of race or socioeconomics, “master parents” as we call these intentional caregivers like Michelle’s, are following a similar parenting recipe. How do they figure out what to do? Master parents are driven by their own backstory, a “burn” to launch and keep their children on a successful path, and they are guided by a set of practical principles, a pattern that when put together leads them to raise children with the qualities they admire: intelligence, purpose, and a strong sense of agency. We named this pattern: The Formula.

AtAt the center of The Formula are eight roles which parents must navigate in the…