I remember hearing the term “generational curses” when I was younger. The expression made me nervous. Back then, I thought it referred to a literal “hex” put on one’s family that carried through the years as a consequence of something an ancestor did.
Years later, I interpret the expression in a more figurative sense. But I still see the importance of breaking them. For me, generational curses go hand in hand with the mistreatment Black Americans have experienced over the centuries.
For the sake of this piece, I’m talking about the harmful behaviors that we’ve learned from our foremothers and fathers.
My community isn’t the only one to develop harmful adaptations in response to mistreatment. Sadly, our children are often left to carry the weight of maladaptive behaviors, like spanking. But there are many other “curses” that I hope to break during my life’s legacy, including:
1. Unnecessarily Harsh Criticisms
I value honesty. I even believe that it is important that when we inform people of what they did wrong we say it in as concise a way as possible. At the same time, I believe those criticisms should come from a place of love and address the specific behavior in question.
There have been many times that I have heard people criticize the long-term consequences of physical discipline, like spanking. I agree, those things are harmful and can have plenty of unintended consequences. However, I believe the damage will live on if we do not spend time addressing the pain we cause others through harsh punishments and criticisms.
There are ways to correct our children when they have acted out of turn that does not do widescale damage. Many parents have devastated their children before the world even had the opportunity to get to them. The worst part is often this is done for the sake of our children having “tougher skin.” But we must remember that correction is best given with love. Tough skin is not enough to make someone have a life in which they thrive.
It’s OK to give your child tips to improve who they are as a person. It’s not OK to use “tough love” as an excuse to tear someone down.
2. Internalized Oppression
Internalized oppression can appear quite similar to harsh criticisms. Still, there are a few distinct differences that make this area lead to its own type of harm. Internalized oppression looks like marginalized people gatekeeping what marginalized youth are able to do out of fear that it will limit their opportunities. Again, the goal is to give at-risk youth information that will help them better navigate the world that is ahead of them. But the consequences can send negative messages and stunt identity development.
Passing on internalized oppression looks different between communities. For women, it might look like elder women telling young girls that they have little value other than to be a mom or housewife and find a well-providing male partner.
A large-scale example in the Black community might look like telling young black children that they have no hopes of getting into a particular school because they do not exemplify [insert white supremacist behavior] that is expected of them. A smaller more common example is using colorism — the preference for lighter-skinned people of color — or preferences in hair texture to tell them that they need to change the way they present to the world.
Those of us who come from marginalized communities each have our own examples of internalized oppression that we are working to overcome. My goal is to help my children skip over this step of identity development. I do not want them to have the same identity complexes that I learned from loved ones growing up.
One way to know that I did well as a parent is raising children who are comfortable in their skin and learn to love the full context of who they are without feeling shamed by mainstream perspectives.
3. Lack Of Appreciation for Mental Health
I want my children to feel comfortable discussing mental health. The Black community has so much stigma around mental health that it can feel terrifying to discuss. I spend a considerable amount of my life being ashamed at the impact of depression and anxiety on my life.
I want my children to know that the emotional highs and lows we experience are important parts of life. It’s okay to feel these things but they also need to know the signs of when to seek help. Having self-awareness will save them from having their hearts broken and breaking the hearts of others. Similarly, there is no shame in getting therapy or using medication to foster mental health.
I saved the best for last. I was raised through fear-based parenting. This is not a criticism of my mother’s (or my grandparents’) child-rearing decisions, but it is a common parenting tactic employed by people of color.
When you are parenting while Black, you often do so in a way that limits your child’s life experiences in hopes that it also limits their access to life-threatening situations. Now that I have two children of my own, I completely get it. But I also understand that “because I said so” parenting does not save children.
What it does do, however, is cause us to raise children who do not think that they can come to us when life gets tough. Authoritarian parenting discourages our children from talking to us at the moment that they need help the most. My intention is to keep my children safe but also let them know that I will be there for them through all things. The only fear that I will let control the relationship I have with my children is the fear that they think they can’t talk to me when something is wrong.
I do not anticipate being able to make these changes for my children overnight. However, I know it is possible to do so. My mother broke generational curses in order to raise me, as did her mother for her. And I will do the same for my children. It’s hard work doing self-development to be the best parents we can. But it is necessary and the benefits will always outweigh the challenges.