After Charlottesville: We need to start ‘spoiling’ our black children
My son is a year and a half old, and I have those normal parent fears. Will he fall and hurt himself? When he gets older will children bully him? Am I doing all that I can to provide him the best life possible? But in addition to these typical parent fears, I also have fears that only parents of children of color experience. Will my son be unfairly targeted for severe punishment in school? How will he make it to adulthood without being a victim of police brutality?
This past weekend, we witnessed the fruits of the divisive rhetoric as Charlottesville streets filled with torches that didn’t burn nearly as bright as the sense of white entitlement that led us to this point.
There are those who blame this escalation of events on our president. But those of us who inhabit black and brown bodies are well aware that this hate-based sentiment is nothing new and, in many ways, is as American as the flag itself. White nationalists believe they own exclusive rights to America and everyone else is renting a spot.
Black parents are undergoing immense stress and often find ourselves unsure of what to do. Recent research validates our fears by showing black boys and girls are often robbed of the innocence associated with childhood. We know they will always be viewed as more menacing and punished more unfairly.
In order to combat the realities of racism, black parents historically adopted a strict authoritarian style of parenting. Parents don’t want their children to be victimized. They fear the chance that someone will see their child as less innocent than a white counterpart. And so a strict approach to parenting is a way of life. This way of parenting is often scrutinized by outsiders with little understanding of the stress that comes with a constant fear for your child’s life. From slavery to Jim Crow to current times, we altered our love in a way we believed saved our children.
To cope with life along the margins, we adopted a model of tough love and did our best to prepare our children for the inevitability of mistreatment. Loving your children too hard, providing for them too much, and even holding them too long, was labeled spoiling. We were taught to strategically withhold love to prepare them for the future, and we’re told to make sure we don’t come to the rescue too early when they cry. In the past, this tactic held merit and served as the vehicle to take us through life. But now, I’m making a move for change.
I have to be honest: In the wake of the madness, although I eat, sleep and breathe resistance, I don’t know what to do. As a black mother, I don’t know how to fully prepare my son for a world that attributes any positive thing he accomplishes to affirmative action.
And so I’ve decided that I will do the only thing that I really can. I will love my son abundantly and in excess.
Out of concern for the mental and physical health of our future, I am calling for the spoiling of black youth. As it turns out, research supports me on this one.
A study by the Washington University School of Medicine found that children who received highly nurturing interaction from parents in preschool years showed distinct brain activity in areas related to learning, memory and regulating emotions. The findings suggested that nurturing children during the early years provides a foundation that yields lifelong benefits.
Parenting styles heavy in nurturing had the ability to buffer long-term effects of poverty such as depression, challenges with learning and ineffective coping mechanisms, a different study found. While not all children of color are born with economic disadvantages, black children are significantly more likely than white children to be born into poverty because of historical discrimination and systemic issues such as wage gaps.
The researchers found that the multitude of stressors that parents in poverty frequently deal with can limit their ability to provide nurturing support to their children. The origin of the stress that affects brain development varies, but it was clear that a nurturing parenting style did wonders for combating the resulting issues.
By not limiting my son’s access to unconditional love, I am preparing him to be more self-sufficient later in life.
Erlanger Turner, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Houston-Downtown, specializes in research into the mental health of the black community. He believes our “tough love” methods may cause more harm than we realize.
“There is substantial research on tough love parenting and its impacts on children. A study published in 2015 in the journal of Child Psychiatry and Human Development … to examine what effects parenting has on adolescent outcomes over a year … found that authoritarian (negative) parenting was associated with higher anxiety, depression, aggression, and lower self-esteem,” he wrote in an email. On the other hand, he said, “The research on authoritative parenting (firm limits, mutual respects, and supportive) is fairly strong with respect to positive outcomes for youth.”
The tough-love methods of the past served their purpose to a point, but often left black youths with an undermined sense of value and unanswered questions. It could be argued that tough love had the same effects as the real world by robbing them of childhood and innocence. As a result, we raised children who were prepared to survive but lacked the emotional availability required to thrive in an oppressive society.
In a recent piece in Psychology Today, Turner discussed the importance of developing healthy socialization. It benefits how children see themselves and interact with others. I can ensure that my son has a healthy sense of values by teaching him that his race is not a deficiency; it’s one of the many things that make him who he is.
As much as I would like to, I cannot protect my son from the turmoil of the world around him. I can provide him with the coping tools necessary to protect his cognitive and emotional health amid all the stressors.
Our parents’ method was one of sacrifice. It was a very noble goal but it left much to be desired. We have learned through the decades that we can’t protect our children from the hate of the world by acclimating them to high levels of discipline. This is because their actions are not the cause for their mistreatment. We owe it to ourselves and our children to hold them as tight as we can. We may be the only ones to ever do so.
It’s my hope that the love I show my son will inspire a revolution. Black parents’ capacity to love their children has been limited since slavery. Let’s not adjust our love any longer. And maybe for the first generation yet, we will empower our children in ways previous generations of black youths have never known.
A. Rochaun Meadows-Fernandez is a diversity content specialist who produces materials relating to mental and physical health, sociology, and parenting. Check her out on Facebook and Twitter @amrothom.