wherein we entertain the notions of a creature embroiled in sorting multiple identities. is she a mother? a poet? a performer? an organizer? or is she simply the product of a feminist movement in which women dreamt that simultaneously singing opera, tap-dancing, spinning plates, spouting rhetoric and solving algorithms was liberation. here are the rough drafts.
Parenting is a relationship I initiated. As parents, we have the power to determine the dynamics of that relationship. We define what kind of relationship we are going to have based upon the actions we choose.
I want to be in an honest, respectful, trusting, caring relationship. My children are here because I decided to let them come here when the Spirit offered me this opportunity.
However, they are not extensions of me. They are individuals with their own personalities, preferences and interests. Over time I have learned that my children are not a product. They are an on-going process to which I have committed. We are learning things from each other. We both make mistakes.
As Black parents, I notice we spend a lot of time worrying that our children’s behavior is a life or death issue. It isn’t. Our children make decisions about how they engage the world. For my son, especially, this can be life or death. The simple fact of his Black maleness urges me ~ no compels and commands me ~ to make every effort to model calm, rational, caring behavior. This will be his best survival strategy.
Giving him the ability to self-regulate; to take time to consider his actions; to learn to trust his decision making capability, these are tools he will use the rest of his life.
I am not a great parent. I don't define myself that way because it is not a useful way of orienting myself to the world. What I can say is that I work very hard on being a thoughtful parent, a listening parent, a mindful parent. This is the right style for me, in this moment, at this time. That is the absolutely most important part of my parenting. I try to always understand that my parenting practices are not fixed and immutable. They are ever adapting to the changing needs of my child.
So this is what works for me.
Don’t offer choices that aren’t there. Life requirements aren’t a test. Don’t ask questions when there is only one correct answer.
If it’s time to go; put on a hat; or put the toys away, don’t ask a child if they want to do it. They don’t want to do it. They are children.
You don’t have to me a mean dictator barking orders. A simple, “please put your hat on” or ‘thank you for cleaning your toys up now” suffices.
When you are offering choices, honor the decision they make. Oh, how painful this can be. I can get a real flashy pair of rose colored glasses on and expect my child to make a difficult choice because I am absolutely 100% positive that know they know what the “right choice” is. And because they are such a fantastic, glorious child, they will make the right choice. No. It doesn't work that way. They are still a fantastic, glorious child. But, they are a child. Consistently making the right choice takes practice.
I am eternally challenged to do the right thing in this instance. The child wants to look at a puddle. We have plans to go to the zoo. What I have to ask myself is for whom is this activity? The better parent in me can step back and say, “Okay, then, sure. we can stand here and look at this puddle for the next 30 minutes."
So, they’ve made their choice. And you are living with it. They don’t see the long term. that’s your job. I always make sure that they know the consequences of their choice. And have them repeat it back to me so I know that they understand.
I say, “Tell me, 'I may have to wait a long time for another zoo time if we don’t go now.'”
If they can repeat that then...cool...carry on.
The thing is, I am the grown up. The zoo will always be there. The puddle won't. There are times it just isn't about me. I wanted to go to the zoo. But, the outing was for the benefit of the child. If I want to go to the zoo so badly, I have the power to get some child care and go.
Calmly Communicate Clear Consequences
Be prepared to enact consequences for bad behavior. I have left groceries in the aisle. Left after 5 minutes of a long anticipated coffee date. In the very early pre- 2 years when we ate out, I carried cash. If tempers were unmanageable, we left. I kept a mental tally of our order, added extra for maternal brain death and an acceptable tip. I had to use it twice. We got home. Ate bread. Drank water. And I communicated we had better opportunities.
No need to guilt. No need to call names. No need to be emotional. The facts are the worst thing about what happened. (This is my attorney father slipping out.) State the facts. 1. Screaming in restaurants is not okay. 2. You screamed. 3. We left. 4. This bread and water is dinner. 6. We can always make different choices tomorrow. The end. No further discussion required.
Focus On The Positive. "I really like it when..."
It’s all wonderful to think they should get some kind of warm fuzzy internal reward for doing the right thing. Well, they don’t. When a child does the right thing without being asked, notice that behavior.
I praise and thank my son for all kinds of trivial things. “I really like it when you turn the tv off quickly, get your shoes and coat and go stand by the car. It really helps me keep our schedule. Thank you.”
“I really like it when...” is one of the most useful parenting / teaching phrases I have ever found. After awhile, children actively seek this attention. This phrase has gotten me through many a teaching artist gig. It can be exhausting noticing all the very many, many wonderful things children do. It is a choice for me. Do I want to leave that classroom exhausted and dispirited? Or exhausted and deeply fulfilled? I choose the latter feeling.
Side note: even adults don’t get a warm, fuzzy feeling about doing the right thing. But, we do them. And it’s nice when someone notices. We thank my husband for going to work. He thanks me for making dinner. Living in gratitude creates a positive environment.
Don’t Reward Bad Behavior
Internet rules apply to real life. Don’t feed the trolls. Don’t make a big drama. Develop selective hearing.
I don’t hear whining. I don’t hear rudeness. Don’t talk about things they already know. (Unless you are engaged in a quiet discussion about what exact thought process lead them into doing something they clearly knew was wrong.)
I do hear screaming. I do acknowledge turmoil. Acknowledge the normalcy of the feeling. But, they can’t do that near me. I have other more interesting things to do. They can go work that out far away from me. I’ll be here to do wonderful interesting things with them when they get back.
Expect Good Behavior. “Here is what I know about you...”
I often list all the reasons I am surprised that we are having a discipline moment. It usually begins with “here’s what I know about you. You are a thoughtful person. So I’m really surprised that you’ve done this thing. I need to hear about what isn’t working for you, so you don’t feel like you need to behave this way again." This is the part where really active listening occurs.
Do What You Say You Are Going To Do
If you say there will be ice cream. There had better be ice cream.
If it is going to be 5 minutes. Set the timer.
If you said you could hear the whole story, when it’s a good time, go say, “I wanted to hear all about the worm in the mud. And I have time now to hear the whooooole story.” (Sometimes they’ve forgotten about the worm in the mud. What is important is they know that you were listening and that you care.
Now after 11 years of observing me honor my word my son says. “well, actually Mama if you say it’s going to happen it will happen. As long as you have absolute and total control over it happening." He added the last part. Because once something didn't happen which I told him would happen. He was shocked. I had to explain that other really important life lesson. You can't control everything and everyone. You can only control yourself.
Find The Real Problem
Sometimes, when a child is resistant to the correct choice, there is actually a deeper underlying reason. In spite of believing that I am a fantastic active listener, at times, I am so far from being able to make that statement. It would almost seem like a delusional statement to my child.
Toilet training was one of those times. He was just a little over 2 years old. One day, he woke up and simply wouldn't let me change his diaper. Well, I did not wrestle him to the ground and change him. I let that diaper get ripe. I kept checking in with him about that diaper. Eventually, I needed to let him know I had to make a decision for his health and well-being. I said, "I'm going to take that diaper off because I don't want you to get sick. Do you want a new diaper?" He said, "No." and I stopped and thought about that. So I asked, "When I take your diaper off, you don't want a new diaper?" He said, "No diaper." That was was an epiphany moment for me. He had been presented with lots and lots of information about toileting. He wasn't being defiant. He was making a huge life decision and just needed a little space to commit. He never looked back. He never had an accident.
Every now and then I need to say, "Is this one of those times you need me to listen and not say anything?" This has done wonders for creating an atmosphere where the child is clear that this is almost an amnesty zone. A time when you can just let them work through all of their conflicting feelings and emotions without fear of a lecture, punishment, or advice. Sometimes, they need to hear themselves say things out loud so that they can find their way to their own solutions.
When they are done, you can ask. "Okay, so where are you with this situation? Do you need help? Would you like me to respond?" Sometimes they do. Sometimes, they don't. What they do learn is that you trust them to do their best to solve their own problems. And that you can help them find their own way.
I have come to see that when I offer care, concern, trust, respect and honor, I get it back.
NOTE: I have a full grown, wonderful daughter engaged in the process of becoming who she should be. I am thankful to her for being a teacher to me about ways to improve my parenting. The bulk of these suggestions reflect the parenting of my son. There is a 16 year gap between the two of them.
My parents gave each other parental autonomy. My mother spanked. My father did not spank. I have to say, it was more agonizing being disciplined by my father. He would sit us down to talk. And he wouldn't stop the talk until we had come to some remorseful self-awareness about how selfish, greedy or stupid we had been and how we had known better and still made poor choices. And then he would ask us how we would punish ourselves. And we had friends, so we knew about all kinds of punishments.
With Mom, we were up and back to our bad selves. With my father, we were grounding ourselves for weeks, taking away our own tv privileges and writing essays about our badness. He taught us how to self-regulate. Because his parents taught him how to self-regulate.
Spanking ultimately derives from not having enough time to contemplate and develop strategies to address the adult's unmet needs. To be able to be perfectly present in the whirlwind of ever changing needs a child expresses is truly challenging and requires diligent self-checking.
When do I say no? I say no when I actually care enough to stand up and walk across a room to do something about enforcing that “no.” When do I say yes? I say it when I enthusiastically support the activity. Typically, I communicate my ambivalence through a middle ground statement. “I don’t see why not.” If I can’t think of actual real, tangible reasons why something should not occur, then I empower my child to make that choice.
However, this isn’t really a switch-up fixit fad. I began practicing this response in very early childhood. I never said, ‘no’ unless it was an irrefutable and unchangeable fact. (Usually around concerns of health and safety. The times when you need a child to understand that they must freeze in their tracks or get hit by a car.) Instead, I always said, ‘this is why not” and provided a list of concerns. This way, by the time the child is older, they have a history of understanding that you don’t say no just to be arbitrary and mean.
I find myself telling my son all the time, “I feel bad when I have to say no. Every fiber of my being wants you to be a happy person. But, this thing you are requesting right now? This is a short term happy. It isn’t going to make you become the person you want to be. So, the hard part of my job is saying no. Because I love you.’
That takes a lot of time. The same amount of time Dad spent with me. The time he had to take out of his busy, tiring day to deal with some knucklehead decision I made because I was young; thought I could get away with it; and had very little impulse control. Time he could have spent watching Hawaii Five-O or preparing for work the next day. But, he took the time. Discipline was about building life skills. It wasn’t a problem to be ticked off a list so he could get about the rest of his day and reinforce his disagreement with what I had done.
In all fairness to my mother, she was an executive for a major corporation, a community activist and was responsible for the care and cleaning of a massive house, household maintenance and overseeing the needs of two independently minded children. (Often while her husband was on the road.) I would say she had a lot of unmet needs. She would say, she doesn’t have time to wallow around in thinking about her unmet needs when there are things to get done in the world. (I salute her. She is an incredible and amazing woman.)
It has taken me a lot of time to cherish and value what both of my parents gave me through their parenting techniques. Some days, it would be entirely inappropriate for me to leisurely root around my garden of unmet needs looking for truffles of despair. In those days, I need to take swift and immediate action. Fix the problem and move on. Other days, and always with my child, I am reminded to take the time. To slow down. To breathe and think before choosing which words I will use. Yes.
I don’t see why not.
Here is why not.
Children behave poorly when they have unmet needs. Making sure a child's needs are met - hungry, thirsty, tired, unengaged (bored) - can prevent a child from acting out. This is being a pro-active parent. This is something we, as African Americans, could do better at in general. Be proactive not reactive.
We need to live healthy lifestyles. We need to open spaces in our lives for spiritual and emotional refreshment. We need to anticipate our needs, so that we can plan to get them met. We need to slow down. Everybody needs to slow down. We need to begin seeing ourselves in the long term. I don’t see why not.
a punk rock hurricane or pattering globules waltzing ~
has some composer. know the way your food
sounds like celebrating African women
even if you canʼt see me
I hear you sister!
your wrong throated depth of 51.57 Hz
or the difference of 20 hurts
lower. your power
seeks a new ear.
my throat closed.
I no longer tried
until I heard your sleek cicatrix
muscled darkness calling
your own kind can’t hear you
calling out over twenty years
competing against marine noise
pollution; invalid frequencies;
forgotten migration paths
swim. your own thing
opens my mouth.
NOTE: Scientists have been observing a Baleen whale who sings at the wrong frequency. She follows no known migratory patterns, can not find other whales and has been singing alone for over 20 years. New York Times article.