Written by Love Isn’t Enough Contributor Rachel Broadwater
Clinical and developmental psychologist Diana Baumrind has identified three distinct parenting styles: authoritative, permissive, and authoritarian. Later it was expanded to include a fourth: neglectful. From there came a slew of sub categories that have fallen in and out of favor; attachment, Christian, nurturing, and slow parenting. There is also emotive coaching and concerted cultivation. Then there is the classic over parenting colloquially known as the helicopters. These parents were the target for Amy Chua author of the controversial Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Most people became aware of the Yale professor after the Wall Street Journal did an excerpt piece titled “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior. “The article laid out for the world why her two daughters were so incredibly successful: the Chinese/Asian approach of strict adherence of the idea of academic excellence. There are no non- parental-authorized extracurricular activities, no sleepovers, TV, or computer. There are regular shamings, countless hours of practice, and the understanding that anything less than perfection is unacceptable. This approach is a direct smackdown to what she considers permissive, everyone wins = everyone loses, gooey western (American) parents who cry themselves to sleep over little Becky and Brian’s emotional state. Her stance is that children are more capable than we think they are. Her children were not just successful but also thriving, so goes the logic, because of the specific way Dr. Chua pushed and challenged them.
Understandably there has been outcry from not only Asian communities who have dealt and continue to deal with the fallout of being considered a model minority but from every stripe of American and beyond. Many pointed to the statics of the high suicide and depression rates in Asians, particularly women. Others, their American pride wounded, insisted with a strong dose of racist reasoning that Asians are robots, incapable of innovation, spontaneity, and creative thoughts. For a number of critics especially African Americans, what Dr. Chua is promoting as an Asian parenting style is instead an immigrant mindset. This has been brought up by Natalie Hopkinson’s “How to Raise a Model Minority,” and affirmed by others who note the lack of coddling is not exclusive to Dr. Chua. Danielle Deadwyler spoke of the “no wuss nurturers” of the Black South. Alexis Stodghill in her analysis “Tiger Mother vs. Black Mamas: Is an Iron Hand the Key to Prosperous Children?” touched upon how traditionally black mothers have emphasized good behavior. She spoke of how “having the correct answer wasn’t nearly as important as knowing how to navigate yourself in a world where your ‘backtalk’ would result in death”. For those who deem that hyperbolic, consider that it is still a necessity for members of the black community formally and otherwise to remind black youth, specifically black men, of the importance of how to conduct themselves if they should be pulled over by the police. In her article “Parenting to Win,” Michel Martin asserts “Chua has the kind of theory of life many black people cannot stand. There is no mention in the book of a larger purpose, God, community or interest other than herself, her kids and their grades and accolades – preferably from famous people like the jurists she invited to her home to listen to her children perform.”
Just as strict parenting is not the domain of Asian parents and yields both positive and negative results, so too has the old school model within the black community. For many African Americans, the sign of a successful child is a child who knows how to act in both public and private spaces. Many attribute this to corporal punishment. For a number of folks, this is still the gold standard. “It worked for me” is the standard cry – no pun intended – of many a parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle, deacon, usher and preacher. They bring up the history, the need for harsh punishment. They take the scripture “Spare the rod, spoil the child” quite literally. Despite some enlightened clergy who correctly point out that discipline means to teach and that it can be achieved without physical punishment and a cadre of child psychologists, psychiatrists, pediatricians, and social workers who emphasize alternatives to corporal punishment, it still is used with varying results.
The no wuss nurturers’ style described by Ms. Deadwyler produce its own complications. When black mothers stress resilience alone, it means children and parents alike are less likely to have conversations about vulnerabilities. African Americans like everyone else value family and community but we don’t always seem to value honest discussion about difficult subjects – AIDS, homosexuality, a fact-based approached to sexual education for boys and girls.
Watching Amy Chua on various media outlets defending herself and the evolution of her parenting style, sometimes with a laugh, sometimes with a pursed lip, but always deadly serious was equally interesting. One of the striking things was that, save for Alison Stewart of PBS’s Need to Know, all the detractors that she faced were white. And that is when I realized that Amy Chua was never talking to me in the first place. When she was talking about western parents, she was talking about the soccer moms, the grizzlies, and the like. I am none of those things. I am a black mother. I am not a “lioness” as Dr. Yvonne S. Thornton, who some may be tempted to label as Dr. Chua’s African-American alter ego, chooses to identify herself. Her new book Something to Prove (she is also the author of the acclaimed The Ditch Digger’s Daughter) may be construed as an alternative to those who may believe that Dr. Chua has the market cornered on raising extraordinary children. Or as she says “No I’m not a Tiger Mom; I’m a lioness. I growl when I need to growl, and set the bar high.” Despite the temptation, I am not either. I am just a black mother. But I want to be more. I want recognition just simply as a mother.
Despite the aforementioned writers bring up interesting and salient points, none brought up the disturbing fact that, for most of America, black women are not mothers. The prevailing wisdom is that black women have babies – out of wedlock at that – and that’s it. Latina/Chicana mothers fare no better with the dehumanizing portrayal of them simply “dropping anchor babies.”
On the rare occasions that black mothers are highlighted, it usually follow one of two tropes; 1. Black mothers universally and regularly employ harsh and excessive punishments, and 2. Mothering under crisis (i.e. 5 children with 8 different men, living in squalor, dodging bullets). Now with the election of President Obama we have a third: the Obamas as the embodiment of the ideal African America family with Michelle Obama replacing Phylicia Rashad as the ideal mother.
After experiencing years of black motherhood being equated with abandonment and neglect, I must admit it was pure joy to see the Obamas walk across that stage to accept the nomination and then the results of the election. Those nights – and those ever since – have been an affirmation for those of us who are what they are: A strong, loving, playful, and spirit-filled African American family. The Obamas, of course, are not the first nor will they be the last but they are in the here and now, tangible and concrete. It is important to note the Obamas – including Marion Robinson, First Lady Obama’s mother who has been hailed by both of them as being instrumental in the development of their daughters – deserve every bit of praise. It is clear that they not only are extremely devoted to their children but also to their own relationship. If there were to be a soundtrack for the Obama family, it would be Stevie Wonder’s “Knocks Me off My Feet.”
They are the flip side to the many single black women – grandmothers, aunties, sisters, and every other in between – who are indeed mothering under siege. These examples seem to be the only dots on the spectrum. For those of us who seem to embody the Obama model, motherhood can be a lonely, isolating, and conflicting experience.
[More on this experience to come in Part 2.]