Lessons Learned From Black Moms

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In her book Child, Please Ylonda Gault Caviness discusses how her mother’s parenting style influenced her own. (Photo: Courtesy of Caviness)

When Ylonda Gault Caviness had her first two kids, she admits she was wrapped up in the parenting the “right” way. “As a parenting journalist, I was writing about stuff like ‘10 Tips to Make Your Kid Stronger,’ ‘12 Tips for Raising a Resilient Child,’ and I was reading the Brazelton books and Happiest Kid on the Block,” she tells Yahoo Parenting. “When my third came along I realized I was not going to be able to keep up this pace of making my kids my everything.”

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Caviness, the author of new book Child, Please: How Mama’s Old-School Lessons Helped Me Check Myself Before I Wrecked Myself, says her mom had been trying to tell her that all along. 

“My mother had been laughing at me a lot that whole time, she would say ‘Girl, I don’t know if you’re going crazy or coming back,’ or ‘You’re making this way too hard,’” she says. That’s when Caviness started thinking that her mom, now 80, a black woman who worked a factory job while she was raising her kids and never worried about parenting “philosophies,” had it right all along. “I remember so vividly that my mother, having very little, she always seemed sane. She always seemed very level-headed and cool. She and her friends weren’t trying to be all PC, they just lived their lives,” she says. “I began to think, that generation did all the wrong things — they drank while they were pregnant, they smoked — but they raised leaders. They raised us and didn’t parent us.”

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This attitude of raising safe kids and doing the best we can, rather than constantly stressing out about the best parenting style, is typical of black moms, Caviness says. “Of course there are black women who eat up all this parenting stuff, but the difference between white moms and black moms generally, I think, is that black moms have different priorities,” she says. “Historically, those priorities have been to make sure their kids survive. On a plantation, you had to make sure your kid knew how to act so that they would not get killed. If you’ve got a kid and you live in the slave south, you can’t afford for your kid to be mouthing off, defying authority, or even being perceived as uppity. It was about how you carried yourself back then.”

Black mothers couldn’t be bothered with choosing between attachment parenting and free-range parenting when her mom was raising her, Caviness says, and that attitude has persisted. “That’s why Toya Graham [the mother in Baltimore who achieved notoriety for disciplining her son after catching him rioting] ran off and smacked her son upside the head,” she says. “It wasn’t discipline, it was maternal. It was ‘I have to save my child, he’s doing something that will get him killed.’ The basic instinct that black women have had since slavery — to help our kids survive —  differentiates us. We have to be practical. When we read things about how our kids should be happy, I think that most black moms give that side-eye shade. ‘Happy? I’m not concerned about how happy he is, he better act right.’ We realize that all the stuff we read about needs to be tempered with common sense.”

It’s a lesson she thinks all mothers – no matter their race – could benefit from. “I think so many moms get lost in the sauce and get crippled with indecisiveness because one set of studies say this, one set of studies do that. It’s too much,” she says. ‘We should all be saying, like a typical black mom, ‘hell to the no, stop it right there.’”

It was a lesson that even Caviness, a black woman with kids now 16, 14, and 8, admits she took a little while to adopt. “As my kids got older, I realized, ‘This creature is all her own. God gave this creature to me, and I don’t care how many Brazelton things I do, there’s no recipe to make her a certain kind of person. She’s not a soufflé I can just bake,’” she says. “There’s a tendency for some moms to professionalize motherhood. But it’s called maternal instinct for a reason – we just have it. That’s what my mother knew. But when you have so much information at your fingertips — smartphones and tablets – it’s hard to trust yourself. My mother would say we all just need to sit down. Remove yourself from the chaos, step back, and do a self-check. Am I doing what I’m doing because it’s what everyone around me is doing? Or because it’s what I need to do?”

Whether you’re black, white, young or old, Caviness says all moms have parenting wisdom.  “We just have to reclaim it,” she says. “We have to trust ourselves.”

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