by Dr Boyce Watkins
When I was young, a lot of people thought my mother was mean. She didn’t let me have the same freedoms as my friends, she would punish me for nearly any little thing and she didn’t buy me any kind of name brand clothes whatsoever. She also informed me that my needs were not the most important needs of the family and that I should be grateful that she’s out busting her butt to give me a place to live and food to eat. My father was on board with everything she said, they were one unit.
When I was in high school, not only did my mother NOT buy me clothes anymore, she “taxed” 40% of my paycheck to apply toward the rent. I hated that. In fact, I am still planning to sneak into her purse and get the money back the next time I come home. When I turned 18, my father said, “You have six months to get out of the house.” When I was a 19-year old sophomore and told my mother that I didn’t have enough food to eat, she simply said, “So, when are you gonna get a job then?”
The point here is that my parents were pretty tough on me, and I can’t say I enjoyed it. They were also ostracized by other parents for being too strict and serious with their kids.
What I found was that, despite the fact that I was consistently frustrated by my parents’ choices, their parenting style helped me to see the world differently from my friends. Years later, when I had friends who were living in their mother’s basements, hooked on drugs, in prison or dead, mine and my siblings’ lives were much different: We didn’t have emergency phone calls in the middle of the night, or crisis conversations when someone was facing eviction. Everyone took care of themselves, went to school, loved each other and lived their lives. It was a drama-free existence, funded by the fact that everyone (my parents included) took care of their own issues, and didn’t burden other people by having them clean up mistakes that could have been easily avoided.
This doesn’t mean my parents were geniuses or experts on parenting. They certainly made quite a few mistakes; in fact, they even (gasp!) spanked me (which I guess is considered traumatic now). But in the midst of all this chaos, my parents gave me something that money can’t buy: Self-determination, self-esteem and self-sufficiency. By the time I was 19-years old, I was able to pay my own way through college, and my three jobs allowed me to have more money than my friends who were waiting for their parents to send them a welfare check every month. My goal was to be an asset to my family and not a liability, since an able-bodied black man should be able to contribute to the household, not take away from it.
I made straight As in college because I didn’t take my education for granted. I didn’t go out and get arrested at wild, drunken parties because I knew that if I got into trouble, I’d have to be the one to bail myself out. In fact, I had no problem telling my friends that I don’t drink because I never felt any ridiculous need to follow the crowd.
In other words, I became a MAN, primarily because my parents refused to allow me to be a grown-ass little BOY. To this day, I thank them for that.
But again, I reiterate: My parents were rougher than they needed to be and they made some mistakes. But I choose to evaluate their parenting by the things they did right, not the things they did wrong. There are a lot of things that my 22-year old father could have been doing besides taking care of a little boy who was created by another man. I respect him for that.
As my parents approach 40 years of marriage this month, I can also reflect on the tremendous benefit I had of seeing two people love each other through thick and thin, largely due to a determination to finish what they started in 1974. This kind of persistence and commitment reflects an emotional determination that you just don’t see these days, where people seem to get divorced because the weather was bad or because their spouse won’t watch “Basketball Wives” with them every night.
My sister is a doctor and my brother has an MBA from an Ivy League school, so based on those superficial measures of parental success, it appears that my parents did OK. This measure is especially relevant when I consider what happened to some of the friends and relatives I grew up with. It’s not easy raising a black man in this world, since there are a lot of traps he can fall into. So, this necessitates the need to ensure that he has the toughness to endure these traps and the intelligence/discipline to avoid them.
I’ve never bought into the idea that you’re showing love for your kids by making sure they never want for anything and are constantly showered with praise, even when it’s undeserved. This sort of bad parenting is like a track coach who only hands out first place trophies and cupcakes, and lets you stop running when you’re no longer comfortable. You might create a series of feel-good moments, but when your athlete (or child) gets out into the real world, he’s going to get his ass kicked. The world is not nice, and it’s not a game. So, you might as well prepare them for a cold world while they are safely in your custody.
Even the great billionaire Sir Richard Branson said that his mother used to put him out of the car when he acted an ass and make him walk the rest of the way to his grandmother’s house. While this was definitely overboard, one undeniable reality is that it made him a fiercely independent spirit and very tough. He learned early from his mother that nobody in this world is going to feel sorry for you, so the best choice is to get off your ass and do something. As a result, Richard is now one of the richest and most powerful men in the world.
Let’s face it: Adversity builds character. Let your kids struggle a little bit and give them a chance to shine. You’d be amazed at how resilient they can be when you push them.