A Deeper Look into "Raising Better Boys"
Hi, beauties and gentleman!
Recently, my thoughts regarding raising boys were included in an insightful USA Today article by Matt Alderton.
I'm grateful for these special opportunities to share my thoughts regarding motherhood, specifically raising two wonderful sons.
When raising young males, especially in today's day and age, we must pay particular attention to the way we emotionally and mentally support their growth, rather than "leaving young boys to their own devices," as Matt so eloquently shared.
Masculinity should be synonymous with love, affection, joy, and many other qualities that encompass a well-rounded person who grows into an emotionally sound and confident man. As the mom to two boys (a 14-year-old freshman in high school, A.J., and an 8-year-old, Ashton, who is in the second grade), I thought it would be valuable to share detailed insight to the questions I was asked for this article. Creating healthy, honest dialogue about this important topic is something we should freely exchange, and I hope my parenting methods and thoughts spark natural conversations among your home and friends, too.
Is raising boys different today than in the past? If yes, how so?
If we’re talking about black boys in particular, unfortunately not a whole lot has changed. From the days of Emmett Till and long before, our parents and our parents’ parents and our parents’ parents were, first and foremost, focused on keeping their boys alive, much like my husband and I today. As much as we wish it didn’t have to be this way, the fear of raising a black boy in this society influences a lot of the way we move in terms of what we talk to our boys about and how we are raising them to be.
Boys today face many pressures. The #MeToo movement is a big one, but it’s not the only one. In addition to being more likely to commit and/or be accused of sexual harassment and assault, young men also are more likely to commit gun violence, suffer from depression, die by suicide and a host of other ills. Being a boy of color adds another layer due to the risks of police violence and racial profiling. What’s it like parenting boys amid all these realities? How have these circumstances shaped your parenting style and/or approach? Do you think about these things when you’re parenting your boys? Or do you try not to (because I’m sure it can be overwhelming)?
As a parent, it is my responsibility to think about these realities. It is also my responsibility to prepare our boys to deal with these realities, as deeply unfair as it is in many cases, specific to being black males. My parenting style is to be candid with my boys and not sugar coat the world we live in and it is to do my best to explain the circumstances in which we live to them in an age-appropriate manner (to stride the line between keeping them safe but not saddling them with fear, for instance, in the case of police violence and racial profiling). This is devastating. It is heartbreaking to have to explain to them that they are a threat to others and to know they don’t understand why. I don’t know why. For my youngest son, I do my best to find age-appropriate books dealing with topics ranging from loving the skin you’re in to knowing and embracing your culture and heritage. With my older son, we have found it helpful to have him involved him in as many activities as possible in order to raise a well-rounded kid and to expose him to all the great possibilities of life. This can be done through sports or after-school activities and hobbies like photography (in AJ’s case). It has also been important to us to surround our kids with positive influences - male and female – who reinforce the messages we seek to impart about respect, tolerance, and just being good people. People we trust to help us raise them to be good men and to help keep them safe to the best of their ability -- relatives, friends, coaches, and teachers. We also actively promote positive mental health in our boys as they grapple – or prepare to grapple - with the heavy issues you’ve mentioned. We tell our oldest, “AJ, your mental health is just as important as your physical health,” and encourage him to pray and practice meditation and mindfulness. We practice at home as a family. It is important that kids understand that their bodies are going through hormonal changes and how to manage them in healthy ways. Raising black boys, in particular, I see it as being important to remove the stigma of making good mental a priority. Our boys don’t go to therapy but if we felt they ever needed to we’d send them in a heartbeat!
Psychologists have theorized that one reason boys are so vulnerable is because we raise them with such strict gender scripts. I’m curious how you have approached gender in your household — especially given that your husband is a retired NFL player (football and the NFL are obviously highly associated with traditional masculinity). Do you and your husband “lean in” to traditional notions of masculinity and manhood in your home? Why or why not?
We allow our kids to express themselves the way they want to. We encourage them to be individuals, respective of gender. They are close to their father like they are close to me. They know that they are loved, no matter what. I think when you give your children that foundation and freedom to discover who they are through activities like sports or musical drama, like Ashton does -- whatever they naturally gravitate to -- they know they can be themselves.
You said you aim to teach your boys “practical lessons” often. What kinds of lessons, and how do you teach them exactly?
We are determined to raise gentlemen. My husband opens the door for me, holds the door open for me, and treats me respectfully in the ways we respect our boys, too. Our expectation is that they will treat women and girls with the same type of respect they show me and we make that clear (and not just through surface actions like holding the door open).
Some of our “teachings” are a bit more direct. I’ll give you an example. A few weeks back, over a school break, my son told me he wanted to visit an arcade with a few male friends from school. He wanted to hang out with them but also a girl he has a crush on. I didn’t like the idea of him being in a group of male friends with only one girl. I told him he could go but that he had to take a chaperone – his former nanny – a woman who has become a family-friend. He didn’t understand why this was necessary. I asked him what the worst-case scenario could be with this arrangement and he didn’t have a clue. So, his father and I sat down with him to run through one we knew he wouldn’t be thinking about at his age, but we were. So, you’ve got four boys at the arcade with one girl, we said. What if the young lady’s parents did not know that she was there with four young men? What if she told her parents that one of you guys touched her inappropriately or that she was made to feel uncomfortable by something you or one of guys did or said? We made it clear to him that for her good and for his that there would be no alone time with this girl, nor any sort of intimate touching. Well, he wound up going out with the group - and the girl – but it was under the conditions we established, which, of course, he tolerated because he wouldn’t have been able to go otherwise. Parental win! LOL
What other strategies and/or general wisdom have you learned that might be helpful to other parents of boys who worry about the pressures and risks their sons face? I’m particularly interested in any strategies you can offer specifically for parents raising boys of color.
I know we wish as black parents that we could prepare our boys for every potential scenario. It’s our instinct to do our best to address as many of our fears as possible with our kids, just in case. But the truth is, there is only so much we can do. All we can do in some cases is have “the conversation” and be transparent about why we are having it. All we can do is lead by example in terms of conduct and explain over and over again why this matters, in hopes it will stick. It’s like practicing, practicing, and practicing for a terrible game that may never come in hopes that if they’re ever forced to play, they will win. We have these tough “game time” conversations with our oldest son, and soon, our youngest, in preparation for the “big game” that is life in America -- about everything from how some people will perceive them as young black males to how to handle interactions with police. We encourage them to be and act their best at all times because, unfortunately, black males (in particular) are not allowed to make mistakes. Mistakes can be deadly. We also do our best to teach them to wear their brown skin with pride, which, understanding all that they are beginning to about the world, is not an easy task. In the end, Anquan and I believe the best forms of protection that we can offer our boys are self-confidence, respect, and appreciation for their heritage and the tools to stay calm in the face of oppression and ignorance.
Is there anything else you want to add? Final thoughts?
I shelter my sons more than my white mom friends because I know my sons bear a burden theirs don’t and never will, but it’s a tightrope that I walk. On the one hand, you don’t want your sons to be put in harm’s way. On the other hand, you want them to enjoy being children. You also want to them to grow into independent, self-sufficient men. This means you can only shelter them so much. But - my urge, thought process, and fear is to always shelter and protect them. If my son wants to go to the movies at night with his friends, for instance – some of whom are white – I tell him “hanging out” afterwards, even with them, is not a good idea. Something could happen and they could be targeted. I tell my oldest, there are things your white friends can do, even if you are all just innocently gathered, that you just can’t. My prayer is that my sons continue to listen.