An open memo to Shaq re: using your 6-year-old to deliver death threats

written by Love Isn’t enough columnist Deesha Philyaw; originally published at The Faster Times


To: Shaquille O’Neal

From: Deesha Philyaw

Re: Using Your 6-Year-Old Son as a Messenger to Deliver Death Threats to Your Estranged Wife’s New Boyfriend

If recent reports are true, it seems you had the brilliant idea to coach your 6-year-old son to tell his mother’s boyfriend, “My daddy is going to kill you!”

You’re also accused of interrogating your four children for information about Shaunie’s boyfriend.

This behavior is straight out of Adventures in How Not to Co-Parent, the book I write in my head everyday while I’m driving. Just when I think I’ve finished the manuscript, a story like yours comes along.

A few nights ago, I had the opportunity to see the following Ustream video of you, and I have to say, Shaq, it’s hard to imagine that a guy who does this would be capable of such manipulation of and reckless behavior toward a child:

I’ve also read that you’re chafing at your soon-to-be-ex-wife’s new reality show, Basketball Wives. And I can’t say I blame you. It seems networks are now taking the Costco approach to handing out reality shows in bulk. They are giving them to anyone who ever sat on a bus next to someone who ever had an ounce of name recognition. I wish the whole genre would disappear. At least until that producer who contacted me about a co-parenting reality show calls me back.

But I digress…

Let’s say for argument’s sake that the allegations against you are true. Exactly what response were you hoping for from Shaunie’s boyfriend upon hearing this threat? Was he supposed to quake in fear? Disappear from Shaunie’s life? Step to you so you could kill him? A more likely result than any of the above is that the threat served only to confuse or frighten your child. After all, he may be spending considerable time around this man whom Mommy likes and Daddy wants to kill. Guess who your words affect the most, Shaq. Here’s a hint: It’s not the boyfriend.

But even if the reports of your Co-Parent Gone Wild behavior aren’t true, I’m just going to go ahead and embrace this as a teachable moment to offer 10 unsolicited pieces of advice to any co-parent who thinks it’s a good idea to use a child to relay messages (of the threatening or non-threatening variety), or to pump children for information:

1. It’s understandable that you might feel uncomfortable or threatened by the presence of your ex’s new partner in your children’s lives. However, it is your responsibility to deal with your feelings as a mature adult, i.e., without dragging your children into it. You risk harming your own relationship with them by reacting inappropriately to their relationship with the other parent, or to the relationship they may be building with your ex’s new partner.

2. Maybe the new significant other poses no actual threat to your child but the idea of this person being around your child overwhelms, enrages, or upsets you. If so, vent to a trusted friend when the kids aren’t around, or seek counseling. If you don’t take responsibility for your own well-being, you risk sacrificing your child’s.

3. Using your child as a messenger between you and your ex (or any 3rd party) puts adult pressure on a child’s tiny shoulders. To do so is irresponsible and potentially damaging to your child.

4. Kids need to know that the divorce is not their fault, and that they can count on both parents to love them and allow them to just be kids. As such, they should not be privy to the intimate details of the adults’ conflict, or bear any of the responsibility for facilitating the co-parenting arrangement (e.g., relaying messages about schedule changes). Nor should kids ever be used as intermediaries when parents refuse to talk to each other.

5. While conflict is inevitable, your child should not be privy to the adult drama that occurs during and after a break-up. Your kids are not responsible for carrying your pain, anger, grief…or death threats. You are responsible for helping them cope with the heavy feelings of sadness, loss, confusion, and anger that they may experience.

6. As a parent, you are your child’s primary role model. What do you want them to learn from your behavior? By threatening people, you are teaching them a destructive lesson about how to manage conflict. They may or may not learn to hate Mommy’s new boyfriend, but they will learn to resolve conflict in unhealthy and potentially dangerous ways. Shaq, you might be interested in “You are Not Charles Barkley…Or, Why You Must Cooperate With Your Ex.” Or maybe borrow a page from Will Smith and Sheree Fletcher’s book.

7. Being interrogated is stressful for adults, so how much more anxiety-producing must it be for children, especially when they are being asked to by one parent to snitch on another? Interrogation makes children feel as if they are in a war, forced to choose sides and declare loyalty, when the reality is that in their world, there are no sides. They love both combatants. And this is as it should be. Interrogation also puts children in the dangerous place of worrying about keeping secrets and struggling to navigate confusing privacy boundaries.

8. Any questions you have about your ex’s new partner should be directed to your ex. If you have serious concerns about this new person as it pertains to your children’s safety and well-being, then use legal means if necessary to ensure they are okay. If your concerns are lesser, mind your business.

9. If your excuse for interrogating or using your child as a message is that your ex does it, remember that two wrongs don’t make a right. For your child’s sake, you might have to be the bigger parent. Let your ex know that you won’t acknowledge messages sent via children.

10. Remember this: The kids are always watching. What are you showing them? How would they describe your behavior since the break up? Does it reassure them, or does it frighten them or make them feel stuck in the middle? And kids don’t stay kids for long; they grow up. Twenty years from now, what will your kids say about how you helped them navigate life post-divorce? Did you bring peace to chaos…or were you the source of the chaos?

Back to you, Shaq. Again, if the allegations are true, I won’t state the obvious and tell you that yet another reason it’s not a good look to have a 6-year-old boy deliver a death threat to a grown man (or anyone, really) is because it begs the question: Are you afraid to deliver the threat yourself, Shaq Diesel? Sadly, you wouldn’t be the first co-parent bully who allowed their child to become a casualty of the divorce wars.

Yeah, I won’t mention any of that.

Deesha Philyaw is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer whose publication credits include Essence, Bitch, and Wondertime magazines; and The Washington Post. She teaches as an adjunct writing instructor in Chatham University’s Master’s of Professional Writing program, and she teaches adult writing classes at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts. Along with her ex-husband, Deesha is the co-founder of, a resource for those who are parenting together after a break up. She graduated from Yale University with a B.A. in Economics, and from Manhattanville College with M.A. in Teaching. She is the mother of two funny, brilliant daughters.

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About Tami

Tami Winfrey Harris writes about race, feminism, politics and pop culture at the blog What Tami Said. Her work has also appeared online at The Guardian’s Comment is Free, Ms. Magazine blog, Newsweek,, Huffington Post and Racialicious. She is a graduate of the Iowa State University Greenlee School of Journalism. She is mom to two awesome stepkids and spends her spare time researching her family history and cultivating a righteous 'fro.
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