By Troy Flint
Everyone always says that having kids will change your life. It sure as hell does, but it also makes you reflect on your own life – especially your childhood – almost nonstop. I imagine this phenomenon is even more pronounced when the gap between your child’s world and the one you knew is especially large. I’d like to say that I am 100% present when playing with my child, but the truth is that every fifth thing she does sparks some reverie about my upbringing and how my mother would have responded if I’d done the same thing.
The answer to the question of how my mother would have responded is “not the way I did.” I grew up in an aspirational, image conscious, authoritarian family that emphasized strict accountability and conservative social etiquette, and certainly did not spare the lash. This sounds severe as I type it, and it probably is when viewed through the modern lens. At the time, I chafed against the discipline. Yet, I understood – much more so as I grew older – that the rigid structure was a response to the injustices that my elders had experienced. They were trying to prepare me for a world where they saw little margin for error and they weren’t taking any chances.
While the familial culture wasn’t perfect in every respect, it was well-intentioned and a logical reaction to the nature of American society in general and the status of Black people in particular. Although I was occasionally (maybe often?) resentful at the time, I realize now how fortunate I was. Our familial culture provided some decisive advantages and valuable lessons that I draw upon today. The question I face as the father of a three-year old daughter with a son on the way, is how do I impart those lessons and bestow their benefits to my children without the drawbacks associated with corporal punishment and an authoritarian household?
Like many parents these days, my wife and I have decided not to spank our children. My wife comes from a family with a laissez-faire approach to parenting. Despite a strict upbringing, my personal evolution, combined with exposure to research on child rearing and mental development, has made me swear off spanking as well. Our daughter, the beneficiary of our pacifist, non-violent approach has never been struck. In related news, she is constantly testing, continually defiant and only moderately complaint to requests, demands, or exasperated burst of screaming. In other words, a typical toddler, but an especially high-spirited one.
This is night and day from my reality as a child where I rarely tried my mother and fear (although coming from a place of love and good intentions) was a major motivator. Suffice to say, the fear factor in our household is minimal. It’s painful to admit that I’ve become the kind of parent that is a subject of jokes (particularly in minority households): the kind who pleads with their child, cajoling, negotiating and using time-outs as the nuclear option punishment.
It’s a humbling experience haggling with a three-year old and seeming, at times, ineffectual as a parent. So, as I grapple with the realization that parental authority is not all it’s cracked up to be, I try to reflect on the main objective. It’s not the short-term victory of establishing dominance or prevailing in arguments about why she has to brush her teeth. Instead, the goal is to develop a child who is confident in asserting herself, willing to challenge authority when needed, who thinks critically, and lets what’s right, not what’s conventional, be her guide. It’s a long game with few shortcuts. And it requires just as much reflection and development from me as is it does from my toddler.