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As a former NYC public schoolteacher, long-time youth development specialist, and activist, I am increasingly concerned with the challenges and obstacles confronting Black youth. As a parent however, I also understand that we parents have great power to positively impact our children and prepare them to live empowered lives. This power is perhaps most manifested through the lessons we show or teach our children. In this spirit, I have identified 10 things we should not teach our sons and daughters. These messages are in essence, self-defeating, inaccurate and represent forms of self-sabotage we must avoid at all costs.
1. “Race doesn’t matter.” The concept of “race” – that we can accurately determine one’s intelligence, ability, habits, attitudes or destiny based on their biological racial designation – is a lie and illusion. One’s biology does not determine any of these things which are mostly influenced by culture, observation and education. However “racism” is real. So it is more appropriate to teach our children not to judge people on anything but their deeds and actions and to do so on a case-by-case basis. At the same time, we must teach them that racism/sexism/class exploitation, and the brutality, prejudice, discrimination and injustice that accompanies them, does exist, and we should prepare them to identify and challenge these societal vices.
2. “Money is the root of all evil.” In fact, money is a measurement of purchasing power, a tool, and something we need in this system to provide for our basic necessities and luxuries. It is also a symbol of our material wealth. But it is not the root of all evil. The person that created this myth most likely didn’t want poor people to eliminate their poverty and acquire power. Ignorance, vanity, greed, competitiveness, selfishness, arrogance, a false sense of entitlement, avarice, insecurity, and jealously are far more accurate candidates for being the “roots of all evil.” Given this, perhaps we should teach our children that a. money is necessary in our modern economy b. having more of it will provide them with more options in terms of residence, education, food, clothing, entrepreneurship, political power, etc. So they should make plans to acquire it legitimately, budget and invest it wisely, and use it to provide relief to others. But they certainly should not fear, trivialize, or disdain it.
3. “Get a good education so you can get a good job.” It is true that a person with a college degree is more likely to earn a million dollars than a person without one. It is also true that a college education is highly regarded as one way to create more options for oneself. However, the purpose of formal or informal education is not to get a good job, but to primarily develop important contacts/networks, develop successful habits/attitudes, and to learn specific skills/knowledge that will enable a person to effectively pursue his/her goals. As a secondary consideration, we seek education to acquire the credentials for upward mobility. What one does with these credentials, habits, skills, knowledge and networks is their choice, but we must urge our children to use these resources to understand, create, own, run, influence, and control things in their environment. This is the basis of power.
4. “You must vote; it is your civic responsibility and our people died for this right.” Voting might be the powerful demonstration of citizenship we believe it to be if: candidates, the political structure the press and the electoral process were not controlled by corporations, the electoral college did not exist, and money in general did not affect the process. However, all of the above conditions exist, a fact that compromises our political options, our exposure to political ideas, and our vote. Our civic responsibility is to take actions that support humane policies, laws, options and consequences for citizens and to challenge those that don’t. How people choose to do that is another question. We would do more to help our children by teaching them how voting is compromised by money/corporations, how to intelligently research and identify candidates that align with their issues and interests, how to advocate for social causes, and how to amass economic, technological, and institutional power so that they don’t solely depend on politicians.
5. “Choose a partner that will love you the way you deserve to be loved.” This advice contains a kernel of truth, but so much more important information is omitted. In addition, a partner should be someone you are attracted to, can confide in, talk to, find refuge in, receive sound advice from, and whose skills, maturity, knowledge, habits and attitudes contribute significantly to your own peace and larger goals. They should respect you and your feelings, but also be able to challenge and correct you when necessary. When such things are in place, two people are “equally yoked.” Too many marriages, relationships and families have died brutal deaths because people failed to take these things into consideration, and focused too much on subjective feelings, and pleasure alone.
6. “Do as I say, not as I do.” Our actions and behaviors are far better teachers than our words. If we want our children to respect us, we must do our best to make our actions consistent with our words. Mixed messages only serve to undermine a solid relationship with our children, and they cause our children to distrust our advice and teaching. Besides, if there is a major difference between what we tell them and what we do, we are in essence, hypocrites anyway, unworthy of respect or emulation.
7. “I brought you in this world, and I’ll take you out.” Sounds strong and authoritative, but this saying is actually self-defeating and counterproductive. As parents, our role is to provide reasonable boundaries, provide direction, basic necessities, and sound habits and attitudes. It is far more appropriate to take the position that “I brought you in this world, and I will do everything I can to help you navigate it successfully.” A good parent should also provide discipline when appropriate, but never be a bully.
8. “No matter how disrespectful, irresponsible, and disobedient you are, I will still provide you with gifts to demonstrate my love for you.” Ok, we don’t actually say this to our children, but some of us say it through our actions. As parents we are spiritually and legally required to provide food, clothing, shelter, love and education/discipline. Nowhere is it written that we must provide the very finest or most expensive clothing, gadgets, footwear or gifts. Quality is not always synonymous with brand name or price. When we do this, we make our children materialistic, shallow, and we encourage them to feel entitled to things they don’t deserve or haven’t earned. overcompensation for parental guilt by purchasing expensive things for our children causes more problems than it solves. Gifts for our children should first and foremost be practical, useful and in accordance with their demonstrated level of responsibility. If they lost 3 previous cell phones, or spend too much time on the phone, why buy them another expensive gadget? If they don’t do their chores, misbehave or under-perform in school, or demonstrate dishonesty and irresponsibility what message do we send by purchasing the toy, game or gadget they beg us for? And even if they do well in all of these areas, why would we purchase them expensive things they don’t appreciate, won’t take care of, or that cause us serious debt? Birthdays and holidays like Christmas should be used to reinforce these points. We must not replace poor parenting with precious gifts or we will create yet another selfish, materialistic, vain and irresponsible crop of teens and young adults.
9. “I see you more as my peer than as my child.” This is another thing we teach our children through actions rather than words. When we share inappropriate conversations and practices with our children and neglect to discipline and set boundaries for them in hopes that they’ll be our “friend,” we compromise the relationship completely. Now they don’t take our parental side very seriously, nor do they learn appropriate versus inappropriate behavior and speech. Certain television shows, movies, books, topics, and behaviors are simply not appropriate for children. Nor should our children be empowered to make certain decisions for themselves that they are not qualified or prepared to make. There should never be a doubt about who the leader(s) of the household are. Now, my mother and I have a wonderful relationship. We can talk about almost anything and we sincerely enjoy one another’s company. But I am now a middle-aged man with two daughters. I’ve worked for over 20 years and have experienced life. When I was a child however, my mother was not afraid to sometimes tell me “no,” or to restrict my exposure to certain things, or to discipline me.
10. “It’s okay for you to have nothing to do.” Again, this is another thing we might not tell our children but that we might show them. You can actually evaluate a person by observing how they use their time. Being a successful student, lover, professional, or parent requires that we manage our time and use it effectively. It is our responsibility to help our children succeed in all their endeavors by making them respect and properly utilize their time. We can do this by teaching them to schedule their lives. There should be adequate time for study/homework, chores, recreation, eating, conversation and rest. Of course this schedule should be flexible, but our children should never be allowed to think that vast amounts of idle or unaccounted for time are okay. In all the time our children waste they could have learned another language, improved their vocabulary, visited a new place, learned to read and write music/poetry, improved their reading and writing, learned a new skill, and even had more fun! This also allows more time for us parents to do things we need and want to do. And yes, this applies to weekends as well as weekdays, although we can established a much more relaxed weekend schedule. Our children should help set their schedule and it should be written out and place on the refrigerator and in their bedroom. Apply this properly and watch how creative, informed, talented and well-rounded your child becomes!