Can We Stop Calling Toxic Parenting “Black Parenting”?
Just because we’ve all gone through it doesn’t make it normal — or okay.
I was 8 years old and was supposed to be cleaning my room.
Instead, I was playing with my new Totally Hair Barbie. Her brown, ankle-length, crimped hair and blue psychedelic mini-dress are still vivid in my mind to this day. After a while, when my mom came to check on my progress and saw that my room was still a clutter of toys and clothes and other detritus, she became livid. She snatched my beloved Barbie from my hands and hit me with it several times as she scolded me. When she left the room I solemnly got back to work. I picked up the doll and noticed that one of her arms was missing. Ignoring my own stinging arm, I attempted to re-attach it only to realize that the force from my mom’s blows had snapped it in a way that made the damage irreparable. Presumably out of guilt, my mom eventually bought me a new one and all was right in the world.
On the outside of my mother’s right upper arm just below her shoulder is a scar, the size of a nickel, round and indented.
Years ago, when I asked her about it one day, she told me a story that she recalls with light-hearted humor and nostalgia. One night, my teenage mom and my two aunts, her older and younger sister, made up their minds to go to a party my grandmother told them they couldn’t go to. When they returned, the house was dark, including the porch light, indicating that my grandma would be asleep. Or so they thought. They quietly snuck back into the house confident that they were in the clear.
As soon as they stepped inside my mom says the only thing she remembers is the sharp sting of a flailing extension cord. In trying to defend herself against my grandma’s virulent swings my mom sustained an injury that would leave her with a small scar over thirty years later. We both laughed when she told me this story. I was amazed that my grandma would be sitting in the dark waiting for her teenage daughters to come home so she could wail on them for their disobedience. In the back of my mind though, I wondered if my mom was affected by this. If my grandma had at all felt guilty for inflicting that kind of pain on her own child. In the Deep South, where my mom grew up, this kind of punishment was so commonplace I doubt she may have realized how an outsider could perceive the incident as plain abuse.
But this is how we are raised. This is discipline.
When Selah Marley, the daughter of Lauryn Hill, went into detail on Instagram back in August about the harsh parenting style of her mother and how it affected her emotionally, many if not most of the commentators pretty much dismissed her. So many black people including some POC’s, could not only relate, but attributed their ability to stay out of trouble and become successful because of such strong-handed parenting techniques. Getting hit with belts, extension cords, house shoes or other random objects was a common thread shared among generations of Black Americans.
There were also people one-upping each other and comments like, “You think that was bad? My momma/daddy used to insert emotional/physical abusive behavior here” were widespread. There was also a host of comments shaming the shamers. Points were being made about how just because something is normalized doesn’t make it okay. Many of us suffer from anxiety and depression and other mental health issues not realizing that a toxic approach to parenting may be to blame. Dysfunction in black families is so commonplace that people have just come to accept it as part of black parenting.
My children’s father has accused me of parenting “white”. I’m not perfect by any means. I yell at my kids more often than I would like to admit, but none of my children has ever gotten the kind of discipline I grew up with. Getting hit or cussed out for minor infractions or challenges to my authority is something my kids rarely, if ever experience. Aside from a pop on the hand or butt every once in a while, my normal approach is a stern warning and time-outs, giving my kids space to calm down. Their father, however, associates this approach with white, suburban mom-types and he’s not the first. This is not only ignorant, but dangerous.
There’s this persistent stereotype of the permissive and passive white mother who lets her children walk all over her. In the grocery store, it’s the white child who’s going bezerk over a box of Gushers, or having a meltdown and screaming at his mother in the toy store because his request for more Legos has been denied. It’s the Black mom who keeps her kids in check, who wishes her child would do something crazy like cry over a toy or some candy. For the black mother, control is usually exerted in a physically aggressive way. Like the time when I was in a store with my mom as a kid and I didn’t heed her warnings to stop asking for whatever it was I wanted. She took my index finger and bit down, hard. Tears welled up my eyes, but I held back from crying so as not to incur more of her wrath. I was effectively silenced. But what are the long term consequences of this?
So many of us grow up with residual trauma from this kind of upbringing without realizing it. I remember watching a documentary several years ago called Humans. In it, a black man who was serving a life sentence for killing his wife, soberly recalled how the regular beatings he received as a child had been interpreted as love. Consequently, this distorted message led him to physically abuse his spouse for years, eventually killing her. Some of us may have been able to overcome any of the ill-effects of such severe discipline, even attributing their success to it. But how true is this? Are we really as well adjusted as we think? I believe what many of us grow up with is a childlike fear of our parents in lieu of genuine respect and a desire to not disappoint.
I’m tired of the idea that speaking to your kids and treating them like human beings or being positive when it comes to correcting them is somehow inherently “white”. In fact, according to this article, corporal punishment was a concept passed down to colonized people from white Europeans. Sadly, many African Americans tend to take credit for this toxic form of parenting and are convinced that this is the way we’ve always done things. However, according to Stacy Patton, PhD. “whupping” your kids “is not an intrinsic cultural tradition”.
She states how the practice of beating children was inherited from white slave masters and that, pre-colonization, most indigenous peoples had reverence for children and similar spiritual beliefs regarding a child’s connection to the afterlife. As a result of the brutality suffered by colonizers, child-rearing grew harsher. This was also made possible by the steady erasure of African culture. There was an effort for slaves to prepare their offspring for the severe difficulties they would eventually face and we cling to this sentiment to this day.
There is a prevailing assumption that physical punishment is the anecdote to keeping black boys and girls from going down the wrong path and staying out of jail. Read any child-rearing or child psychology book and there is little to no evidence to support the idea that regularly hitting children leads to positive psychological outcomes. In fact, this kind of upbringing is more likely to lead to anxiety and depression and maladaptive behaviors as adults. Also, as Patton notes, the fact is that black children are more likely to be severely harmed and even killed by their own family members than by the police.
Another layer to the problem is economic disfranchisement. Since a large percentage of Black Americans deal with the stresses of poverty and living in often dangerous and depressed conditions, there is a pervasive inability to properly deal with the emotions that result from having to function in this environment. The outcome, Patton says, is:
“…when you belong to a group of people who are in constant fear of their lives and those of their children, then it is understandable how that trauma can cause parents to interpret cruelty as love, protection and responsible parenting even when proven counterintuitive.”
This can apply to any race or group of people, not just blacks.
We need to let go of this narrative that black parenting is inherently harsh when it is in fact, a symptom borne out of trauma and disadvantage. We as a people need to do better and educate ourselves on how to best prepare our children for adulthood and what discipline actually is. The word comes from disciple which means student. As parents, we are our child’s first teacher.
I’m not a pushover when it comes to my children and I set clear boundaries and expectations. Though they may not always follow, they are always enforced and I try my best to do this in a way that is loving and honors them as individual human beings, not as my property. Which in reality, doesn’t make me a “white” parent.