What Old-School Black Moms Get Right About Parenting
Words: Anthonia Akitunde
Author Ylonda Gault Caviness speaks candidly about what old-school moms got right about parenting.
It was the op-ed heard round the mommyverse.
“I feel sorry for the others,” the piece began. “You know those mothers: the highly informed, professionally accomplished—usually white—women who, judging by the mommy blog fodder, daytime TV, and new parenting guides lining store shelves, are apparently panicking all day, every day, over modern child rearing and everything that comes with it.”
As a black mother, writer Ylonda Gault Caviness went on to say, she wasn’t prone to such hysteria. Why? Because black women “simply ‘know how.’” Her viral and hotly debated New York Times essay “What Black Moms Know” explained why she thinks black mothers are better able to sidestep the mommy wars that plague white mothers—a mix of black women always being in the workforce and respect among moms in the community. Gault Caviness’ book Child, Please: How Mama’s Old-School Lessons Helped Me Check Myself Before I Wrecked Myself is a deeply personal read that takes these theories and applies them to her own life as a daughter of a woman from the old school of black parenting and a mother of three caught between the dueling myths of “having it all” and being the perfect mom.
Gault Caviness spoke to mater mea about what she’s learned from taking several pages out of her mama’s parenting book and the differences in the way black and white parents parent. (Interview edited for clarity and length)
What made you want to write Child, Please?
I think it was more like a need to. (Laughs) It was just an act of liberation for me. I think that the themes and a lot of the story had been mulling around in my head for so long.
You reveal a lot about your relationship with your mom as well as your husband and kids. What was that part of the process like?
You know, that part wasn't as difficult as you might think. What was difficult for me, in the beginning, was figuring out how to tell the story. [With Amy Chua, author of Tiger Mom], she had a lot of great things [to say]. But if you really read it, if you're a mom and you're married, you're just kind of left wondering, "Well, where was your husband?" or "How did she do that?" because she had a career.
I didn't want to do that. I thought that would be disingenuous if I just told you the parts that I wanted you to know. I just felt like if I was going to be honest, I needed to be completely honest. And it freaked me out a little bit, because I wasn't filtering my stuff. I'm looking back [and] thinking maybe I should have. (Laughs)
I love that the book starts with the look that many black women and children know so well.
Yeah, that look... you can't deny that look. I was beginning to think even after growing up with my mom, [now that I’m living] in my little suburban community, "Have I lost my edge? Am I losing my black girl cred here?"
Do you feel modern moms have lost access to that look?
I think we've lost touch with a lot. I think that we've bought into this idea that we should make [kids] happy all the time. You're trying to do things that boost your child's esteem, and some of us have bought into the idea that that's our main goal. We've also, I think, gotten so into the idea of self-expression. Most of us did not grow up like that; we were seen and not heard.
We've gotten so much into the idea of self-expression that we've lost the notion that somebody's got to be in control. I think that should be a parent. It doesn't have to be the mom, it can be the dad. Hopefully, it's both.
What made you decide to tap into the school of parenting you grew up with?
There's a big gap between my two older kids—they're 15 and 14—and my son [who’s] 8. Once I had him, [I realized] I was not going to be able to keep up this act of juggling a career and this family, where the idea was that I was going to be this self-sacrificing person who, at my every waking moment, [was] enriching their lives all the time. It just wasn't going to happen, [and] with this third kid, it was really physically impossible.
I came to realize that my girls were really starting to take stock of what I was modelling. And I didn't think it was really healthy, or particularly attractive, for me. [I was saying], "Study hard and be all you can be," but then you see me, your mother—I'm haggard, I'm running around like a crazy person. I'm balancing deadlines in the wee hours of the night. I don't have it anywhere near together. Not that we have to master everything and show them that we have everything under control, but I think we do have to at least make them understand that for the life we're growing them up to have, we should set some boundaries. That's what you have to do. I wouldn't want them to be what I was becoming.
Now we're so kid focused that we don't even really live our own lives.
Why do you think moms in general have becoming more susceptible to the parenting industry’s "scare tactics”?
I think it's women in general. On the positive side, we're always reflecting, we're very introspective, and that's wonderful. But I think it also makes us vulnerable prey. You definitely see the cover lines on men's magazines that you see on women's magazines, but they're not saying, "Look guys, you suck." (Laughs) And I feel like women's magazines almost say that. It's like, "You suck, so here's how to spark up your marriage. Here's how to get your body in shape like the celebrities do." We're just kind of ripe for it.
Once women really flooded the workforce in the ‘70s and the ‘80s, the parent stuff just became a new vehicle for marketers and the media to jump on board. We were beginning to enter this professional world, and maybe we were trying too hard to make everything about our lives professional. So we're just professionalizing what's really just a function of instinct. We got all competitive. “I've got an Excel sheet for my kids' activities, I've got all these enrichment courses.” (Laughs) We just got all hyper-crazy about it.
Do you think that there's anything wrong with consulting books and articles about parenting?
I don't think there's anything wrong with getting information, but what I do have a problem with is when you surrender your intelligence to a so-called expert, because I don't think there's such a thing as a parenting expert. There are child psychologists who can tell us how the brain works, and that's very valuable; we need to learn all the developmental stages that kids go through. But how could anybody really know your kid, your lifestyle, your values, your family dynamic? How could you get that from a book? I don't see how anybody can do that.
What do you think of the criticism that your op-ed and your book may perpetuate the image that black women are super women?
I think that people who have the most negative things to say didn't really read the piece. When you write something, you write it, and it gets a headline. I never wrote the piece saying, "[Black women] know it all. We got it all going on. We can bring the bacon home and fry it in a pan." I am not saying we're super women. But I am saying, we generally have a healthier perspective than the general population. I'm not at all advocating a super-strong black woman thing. I'm saying rather than get ourselves all in a tizzy—”Oh, should I do Mandarin lessons, should I do this"—we definitely know when to chill out and we have a little bit of a skepticism that's inbred.
How many black women do you know who would really sit and contemplate the "timeout" measure that some people advocate? I was thinking of getting my daughter a phone, and I'm just doing all this research: "Where are the phones that are good for teenagers? What are the plans, and how old are most kids when they have one?", stuff like that. And there are these articles about how you should think about having your kid sign a contract [about] when they’ll call or when they’ll answer your calls, and I'm thinking, What in the world? I just think that's a black woman thing, we're like, "Get out of here." We're a skeptical group of people. And I'm not saying that's always good. How many times have you heard somebody say, "Oh, I'm thinking about going to therapy." And then you'll hear a black woman say, "Girl, you don't need therapy, you just need church." We are generally a skeptical bunch.
I'm not a mom yet, but I'm so entrenched in the parenting space and I read these stories, and I think, "This looks nothing like the way I was raised. Am I supposed to raise my kids that way?”
It's interesting. I think it goes back, though, to that notion—generally, I want to emphasize generally—of the differences between our cultures, black and white. And primarily, I think black parents knew that their main objective was to keep their kids safe and to teach their kids how to survive. When you think about slavery, when you think about Jim Crow South, it was very important that your kid be compliant, because when you left your doors and went out into the world, if you mouthed off or if he did anything that was even perceived as disrespectful, he could lose his life. We all want our kid to do what we say, but that notion of compliance is just really that much stronger in a black household, because it's rooted in something historical.
What does good parenting mean to you?
I think good parenting is recognizing your child's intrinsic value and maximizing it. I think it's taking what God gave you in a kid and nurturing that, and helping that reach its fullest potential. I don't think it's being a friend; I think it's setting boundaries and setting guidelines. A big thing for me, because I will say that one downside of at least my mother's parenting [was that she] was so hard and fast with the rules. It was all black and white. I don't know that I ever felt like my mom really got me. And while I don't want to be my kids' best friend, I do want them to feel like I get them.
What parts of old-school parenting do you think we should bring into the present?
Well, the primary thing would be to set boundaries for your kids, so that they know who's in charge and—I know this doesn't sound nice—that they know their place. I think kids have a bit too much freedom, and I think too many kids feel they're just like adults, only they're smaller.
My mother had this thing—she would actually tell us when we were all in her face, "I'm not studying you," which really was kind of saying, "I'm not thinking about you." And it sounds really bad, but it basically meant we had to figure it out ourselves. We're in such a hurry to fix things for our kids [that] they don't know how to fix things for themselves.
How can black women get in touch with their maternal instincts instead of what's being preached to them from what they see in books, articles, or fellow mothers?
Go back to their mamas' words just like I did. I'm not saying everybody has an idyllic childhood. I didn't think mine was, and it wasn't in many respects. But I think that if we go back to the values we were raised with, that helps you get in touch with that. I don't know about everybody's household, but I think when I talk to women [of all races] everybody's mother had certain kinds of sayings that just echo in your head. I know when my mom would say, "Go someplace and sit down," it meant get out of her face, but I think that it also kind of meant, take a deep breath [and] figure things out.
We have so much information coming at us that we usually lose touch. I feel like my mother and mothers like her were far more pragmatic. She was on her game. She had lipstick on. She had earrings on. She didn't just run out of the house like a lot of us do, looking [crazy]. She put herself first a lot of times. If we walked in on a conversation, it wasn't like she put the phone down. She would have her friends over on a Saturday night, kind of impromptu, she wouldn't check to see if she had a babysitter, and if they started smoking and drinking and listening to crazy music, so be it. We were supposed to be upstairs. Now we're so kid focused that we don't even really live our own lives. We live through them. And that's wrong. I think that's wrong.