This week, instead of answering a specific question, I wanted to address how parenting dilemmas play out differently depending on the race and gender of the child, as well as the cultural upbringing of the adults involved.
One thing I know to be true of parents in the multiracial community is that we represent a wide range of disciplinary styles. Some err on the strict side, while others favor an easy-going approach. In our world, multiple cultural beliefs interface in one family, often leading to disagreement.
Several years ago, I worked with a family where a White mother was criticized by her Black mother-in-law for being too soft with her Biracial son, offering him “too many choices” and failing to punish the boy when he’d been disobedient. The boy’s mother found her mother-in-law’s rules counter-intuitive. She thought the boy’s misbehavior was age-appropriate and saw punishment as unnecessary.
From my perspective, they were both right, as each woman had learned about parenting from her own parents, who had vastly different beliefs. On one hand, I agreed with the young mother. The boy needed a chance to learn from his mistakes, to ask “why?” when he was told to do something, to explore and experiment. On the other hand, I agreed with her mother-in-law. Limits had to be established, adults respected. Race was relevant here in that the young mother was parenting a child of color, who would not always be given the benefit of the doubt by adults in authority. The mother-in-law parented with race in mind, with an eye on the outside world. How would her grandson be treated as he grew and moved through society as a male of color? How would others respond to him? The boy’s mother had not grown up thinking about potentially racist strangers, how they might judge and fear her boy someday if he was not well-behaved. For the sake of the boy they loved, these two women had to learn to listen to one another, to understand one another’s personal concerns and worldviews.
These women, for better or for worse typified the stereotypes of Black and White mothers. When the child demands “Why?” The stereotypical White mother says, “Why do you think, Sweetie?” The stereotypical Black mother says, “Because I said so.”
To a Multiracial child, absorbing conflicting messages might get confusing, but it is more likely to make the child flexible. Children are more resilient than we give them credit for being. (Just think of how many different teachers they interact with daily—each with a different approach, personality, and attitude toward kids in general!)
One issue that divides parents on all ends of the racial spectrum is punishment. How strictly should you enforce it with your kid? When can you be flexible and when should you stand firm? Is it different when your child is visibly brown?
This comes up a lot in my practice as well as my inbox. This week, in one of my online groups, a mom agonized about enforcing a month-long punishment for her twelve-year-old, Black son who had broken a very serious rule. The mother didn’t specify what the infraction was, but the dilemma involved whether to take the child to see the film Black Panther. Since the child was grounded for a month, the mother felt that going to the movie would be “caving” since it was something the boy wanted to do. Other mothers in the group advised her to stand her ground, cautioning that the boy needed to learn that there are consequences for bad behavior. “The problem with our kids is that we’re too soft on them,” one said.
Here was my response:
I am a family therapist with two teenagers. I believe there is no right answer here, but I have to say that these dilemmas make parenting so hard sometimes. If you have made the decision that he is grounded for a month, stick to that, but, as the adult who makes the rules, you have the right to decide that seeing Black Panther–which, by all accounts is more than a movie–is important enough to make an exception for.
People I know have likened the experience to the feeling of voting for Obama. Others have said “It is uplifting and soul-feeding.” We know that when kids feel good about themselves and who they are, they behave better and do better all around. Just saying, if you take him, you are not caving or being soft. You would be taking him because it is your choice. (He can’t bring a buddy.) You might keep control here by requiring him to write an essay about the film. Look at the big picture–in 20 years, you may not remember the misdeed, but you will remember sharing this experience. I agree that consequences–especially ones related to the error–are important when children misbehave, but punishment is something else altogether. Like I said, though–there is no wrong answer. The right answer is whatever you decide.
So, that’s how I responded. Multiracial Media followers, I’m curious to know what you think.