When it comes to black parenting, there's a cultural belief that tough love is always the way to go when it comes to disciplining children and that fostering open dialogue between parent and child is somehow "soft" or "white folks' shit."
For most of us in the black community, we grew up at least sparingly hearing old church sayings like, "spare the rod and spoil the child," and we've all heard every comedian who has graced the stage of any “Comic View” episode, “Def Comedy Jam” episode, “Kings & Queens of Comedy” Special or Tyler Perry production joke about their fond memories of getting yelled at and beat by their parents as a child. We’ve also heard that black parents don't need to explain their thoughts, feelings or their actions to their children because “it's not a child's place to know such things.” Seriously, who hasn't heard explanations like, "because I said so gotdamnit!" or" it's none of your damn business!"?
So many of the traditional cornerstones of the black community support the idea of aggressive disciplining and a lack of open communication when it comes to parenting and throughout generations of black parents and children that thought has gone mostly unchallenged. For most of our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and beyond, it was all they ever knew of what it meant to be a parent and to take care of and show a child love. And it was also what they both consciously and unconsciously tried to pass on to us, the younger generation of black people.
Recently, I sat in on a conversation between my father and my older cousins and aunts, all of whom are 60 and up, and one of my cousins spoke of his relationship with his father and explained how his dad had provided him all of the material things that a working-class black man in the '50s and '60s could – which, to be fair, was a hard task considering the racial and socio-economic issues surrounding black people back then, all of which made it all the more difficult for black parents to keep their kids sheltered, fed and alive. But while my cousin's tangible needs were taken care of, his father didn't always succeed in catering to his son's emotional needs, such as saying simple things like "I love you" to his son.
When my cousin became an adult, he confronted his dad about that lack of an emotional connection and accused his father of never loving him. Shocked and appalled, his father argued that he never would've worked as hard to provide for him had he not loved him.
However, my cousin then explained to us that, in his older years, he eventually sided with his father's logic, and our other cousins all mentioned how that was a prime example of how today's kids are too soft and whiny. My own father even referenced a joke that his friend often makes about their generation having raised a bunch of weak "white kids" who are too soft to have made it in their day.
After silently listening in, I thought to myself, "Why was it so wrong for a young person to want to hear his or her parents be vocal about their love and their emotions? Why is it NOT a black thing for black parents to foster an open channel of communication and really listen to thoughts and feelings of their children?" I believe that my cousin's father loved him immensely and that he did a great job in providing the tangible essentials for him. That’s something to be applauded. But I believe it can also be true that my cousin genuinely felt a lack of an emotional connection with his father.
It’s always said that actions speak louder than words but for both adults and children language is a crucial aspect of life. When adults speak of their relationships with other adults, one of the key requirements of those relationships is communication and the need to hear their loved ones speak words of acceptance, understanding and love. Nobody wants to have their thoughts and feelings invalidated and no one wants to be brutally punished for simply opening their mouths to share how they really feel. So it stands to good reason that kids want and need the same kind of communication, respect and approbation that adults seek for themselves. They need parents to do more than just keep them alive, they need to hear that their life and their interests matter as well. It’s evident that language has the power to make a world of difference, but it seems that many black parents grew up without learning to communicate their feelings well...or they only learned to communicate their feelings only when they were angered or frustrated with other people, especially their kids.
When it comes to disciplining children, I was never the biggest fan of the aggressive methods. Whoopings were a rare occurrence for me, but I saw how it would keep myself, my siblings and my cousins in line and a part of me always wanted to have the option of talking to my parents instead of having them yell at me or beat me breathless. However, I still figured that aggressive punishment was okay because it was almost all I everr saw and, in my family, it never seemed to cross the line from whoopings and beefed-up threats every once in a while to what I considered to be abuse.
But as I've gotten older and seen more examples of parenting, both in real life and in the media, I've come to realize that disciplining children is not something that all parents handle with love and care in their hearts and that many children end up suffering mental and physical abuse under what some would consider tough black love.
Recently, I came across a young black couple, both in their 30s, with two kids and after spending some time with them, I was hurt and shocked to hear some of the things that they would say to their children when they were upset with them. When the parents became frustrated, whether over behavior that would upset any parent, like lying or fighting, or small acts like bugging their parents for attention or an extra snack, they would regularly ignore their kids or curse and yell at them or hurl painful insults at them like "idiot," "dumbass," "ugly" or "fat ass."
Granted, I never witnessed any physical abuse, but the feeling I felt when I heard them fire off those belligerent words from their mouths shook me to my core. Suddenly, words that I've heard many black parents say, like “stop that crying before I really give you something to cry about" or "I put you in this world and I'll take yo ass out of it," took on a darker meaning than I'd ever known. They were no longer just jokes or phrases of tough love; they were words of mental and verbal abuse. And if I felt that disturbed and uncomfortable hearing it, I can only imagine how awful it felt for their children to be demeaned and berated with those kinds of hostile words.
As a child, I remember the sting I felt whenever my own parents would make the rare mistake of calling me out of my own name. As I recall, the first time it happened was when I was a small child and my father calmly scolded me about something that I did wrong. I thought all was well until I walked to the door of our den later that night and overheard him telling his friends about the incident and how stupid I was for doing it. After he said it, he looked up and found my face staring back at his and I remember feeling hurt, embarrassed and ashamed because my father thought so little of me. Evidently, that pain read on my face because my father immediately dropped what he was doing, came and scooped me up, and told me how smart I was and how he was always happy with me and proud of me.
Although it seemed small at the time, that moment has stuck with me since then, as did the times when my mother also claimed I was being stupid or unconsciously said something negative about my looks (joking about a kid's puberty pimples is NOT a good idea).
Recently, my father and I spoke with each other about the verbal and emotional abuse I saw those kids endure and he explained how it's important for parents to understand the power of their words because "kids internalize everything." According to him, if you recklessly talk down to your kids at home and call them names then, "you're killing 'em before they even get a chance to really live."
What my father and I both agreed upon is that parents ultimately pass on to their kids whatever they have inside. If it's love, concern and wisdom, then that's what a parent will give to their child through both actions and words. If, like most parents, it’s a balance of good and bad, then that is what will be passed on. But if all you know is aggression, chaos, shame and dysfunction, then that is what you will imprint onto them and their spirit and they will ultimately pass that on to their kids as well when they have some of their own. Whatever we give to our kids creates a cycle, a pattern of behavior that is passed on from generation to generation to generation.
But, as Keenan, Marlon and their famous Wayans siblings explained while chatting with Oprah Winfrey about parenting, none of us have to be bound to the trauma and teachings of our past, even those that have been passed down from our parents. In fact, we have the power to change ourselves and every generation coming behind us just by making a choice to change the way we see ourselves and communicate to our children.
I know that parenting is no easy task and that it’s something that does not come with a perfect instruction manual and I applaud all the parents who really tried to be the best they could be to love their kids in a healthy and functional manner. But as a young man who is seeing the patterns of parental dysfunction in both his own family and the families of others, I can’t help but to think that the old ways of parenting, which put little value on compassion, transparency and communication, left indelible scars on all of us that have marred the way we as black people communicate with ourselves, the people around us and, in this specific case, our kids.
Perhaps it’s time to let go of the idea of sticking to traditional stereotypes of hyper-aggressive, take-no-shit blackness when it comes to parenting – and really life in general – and open our minds and hearts to parenting with a healthier balance of compassion, communication and regulation.