When Ylonda Gault Caviness first became a mother, she consumed all the parenting advice she could locate, and even served as a parenting expert for NPR and Today. By her third child, however, she decided to stop trying to give her child everything and instead decided to follow the wisdom of her strong black mother who’d always advised her, “Give them everything they want, and there’ll be nothing left of you.”
In the excerpt below from her new memoir, Child, Please: How Mama’s Old-School Lessons Helped Me Check Myself Before I Wrecked Myself, Caviness takes on the political correctness that often dominates our conversations about parenting and race, including stereotypes of white parents and black parents.
There is no shame in my game. I won’t preface what I’m about to say with any attempt to be politically correct because the words I’m about to say are, well, you know…racist. I will own it. No mistake. Stereotypes are, of course, built on racist assumptions.
Just as mainstream America has promulgated certain stereotypes about blacks, we have done the same. There is one particular stereotype I’d always heard, but one that never completely resonated until I became a mom. It truly pains me to say it, but I think it’s better that you all hear it from me—not in the streets. So here goes:
White parents are punks.
Aahhh. It feels good to finally let that out. I’ve never really put it out there before. Generally speaking every black person on the face of the earth believes this to be Gospel. Yes. We hold this truth to be self-evident…That white kids are born with a license to run all over their parents, especially their mothers—with the only repercussion being a tap of the foot and some lame response like, “Now, Becky…”
The belief is so pervasive that when two black people—who are TOTAL strangers and wouldn’t otherwise give each other the time of day—observe a white toddler falling out in a public place, they instinctively connect and nod in agreement. Sometimes they trade non-verbal cues like head shaking or eye rolling. They might even laugh. Same thing happens when a white teenager is overheard screaming like, “Mom, shut up!” or “What’s the friggin’ big deal?”
Before you go and get yourself all offended, I hope you realize I’m sharing this information only out of love. The way I figure, if we want to know the crazy thoughts whites have about black people all we have to do is watch Fox News. But you poor white people have no way to get the 4-1-1. If you tried watching BET, you’ve probably already been led astray, because, honestly, not that many black folks have as much sex as the average hip-hop star. Especially married folks. I know one thing, even if “I been drankin’,” we don’t hardly be all night.
It’s a scientific and well-researched fact that blacks and whites operate under a different set of expectations—a different set of goals—when it comes to parenting. Many black parents believe that obedience and respect for elders are the main measures of a kid raised right—which explains why you’re most likely to see a black child get yoked in public if he acts out. I don’t think most white parents place as high a premium on compliance. Instead, they rank things like confidence and autonomy high on the scale of “good kids.”
Confidence, in the black households I know, is generally not to be openly displayed by kids. Be black and proud and all that good stuff outside the house. But under Mom and Dad’s roof, children are not encouraged to act like they’re all that. It’s a black thing.
Of course, I’ve never heard Mama or any black mother actually say that too much confidence is a bad thing. But it was implicit in even the most mundane parenting interactions. What happens is this: A kid reaches a certain stage—not so much an age, mind you—wherein a sense of supreme confidence begins to well inside. Said child becomes aware of her power, starts to feel emboldened; asks questions; challenges authority. This is a good thing. Right? Well, now that all depends. In theory the emergence of self-esteem is something we parents all want to see in our children.
But there is also a huge downside once you begin asserting yourself in too bold a fashion. And Mama would let you know she wasn’t having it. She was quick to say: “Don’t start smelling yourself up in here!” (Translation: Don’t get too big for your britches.”)
Remember that trench coat-wearing TV hound dog warning us as kids to “Take a bite out of crime”? He talked about some scary stuff and probably made us anxious, but we needed to know about nefarious characters that might try to snatch up blond, blue-eyed girls like Amy. Notice how McGruff never cautioned that anybody might grab Sheneika or deal drugs to Daiquan? If you missed that nuance, don’t think it got past us black people. The message we get pretty much all the time is that white children are worthy of being protected. They are precious.
Black people love their kids, for sure. But historically we never had the luxury of thinking them precious. Special? Yes. There is a big difference. We don’t see our kids as anything akin to fine china, not to be disturbed or broken. In fact, given our druthers, most black parents would choose to “break” their kids before someone else does. So habits like speaking out of turn, acting out in public or any action that draws the scrutiny of outsiders is to be halted—immediately. We fear that if we wait for our kids to simply outgrow such childishness they might suffer at the hands of authority, especially those men in blue. Authority, with its billy sticks and handcuffs and black robes, has not been kind to us. Too much adoring, too much lovey-dovey cooing might fill a child’s head with thoughts that would get him killed. Surely the overseer, the Klansman, the beat cop—or whomever—might find that confident black kid arrogant and do him harm.
Mama almost never talks about the past—especially the messy parts. I once read that Martin Luther King Jr. said that Birmingham, her birthplace, was to desegregation what Johannesburg was to apartheid. When I asked mama about that statement, she would only say, “You know good and well I’ve never been to South Africa.”
Adapted from Child, Please: How Mama’s Old-School Lessons Helped Me Check Myself Before I Wrecked Myself by Ylonda Gault Caviness. © 2015 by Ylonda Gault Caviness. A Perigee Book, Penguin Group USA, Penguin Random House.