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The Rules Have Changed! More Words Available for Black Kids

It was a typical Sunday in children’s church class. The bustle of parents picking up their children was the cue adult service was over, signaling to our teacher we could leave.

One by one, the teacher called names, and I grew smaller as I watched my classmates grab their things and disappear, until I was the last one seated. She locked eyes with me.

“You stay,” she said. “I have to speak to your mother.”

Dang. I quickly ran through anything I could have possibly done that was out of line. Nothing came to mind.

I soon stood sandwiched between two towering adults, one spewing a false scenario of me misbehaving, and the other dutifully taking it all in. She’d accused me of constantly disrupting class while she was teaching.

“It’s not true,” I said.

“So is she lying?” My mother replied.

Her challenging glare sliced through any hope of vindication. I was not allowed to use the word “lie,” or any version of it. Couple that with directly challenging a teacher’s accusation (one who clearly didn’t like me, which I’d later learn), and that would make me an offender twice-over. Confusion and sadness sank in. I’d already lost.

Modern moms say, for decades, the temperature in a Black home would change if a child dared let certain words like “heck,” “swear,” and even “butt,” cross their lips.

“My parents wouldn’t let me say ‘lie,’ ‘liar,’ ‘dang,’ or ‘crap,’” says Nakia Kilgore, a mom of two.

These seemingly harmless, forbidden words are just the visible peak of a massive underwater iceberg of age and authority working to muzzle children’s voices and self-expression.

In a conversation with my 69-year-old mom, she explained she was reared the same way. There were certain words she and her siblings just couldn’t say—part of a code of conduct that was ingrained in them. They were never given an explanation as to the reason and didn’t dare ask.

Black parents’ overpowering push for kids to follow orders without question under the guise of “respect” has ties to a history of oppression. An analysis of Jim Crow Era etiquette by California State University-Northridge Professor Emeritus and historian Ronald L.F. Davis, claims, “The rules of racial etiquette required Blacks to be agreeable and non-challenging, even when the white person was mistaken about something.”

“The Jim Crow era was very much a historical piece of not being able to speak at all,” says licensed clinical psychologist Raquel Martin. “So when we did speak, we had to be intentional about what was being said.”

Unfortunately, many nuances in Black parenting can be attributed to survival. Martin says heavy-handed obedience could be a protective measure because Black children are systemically stereotyped as “aggressive.” Black parents may also be unknowingly acting to claw back some sense of dominance and control in a society that withholds any version of respect. Their overreach has created a generational trauma of silence.

“When you don’t allow children to feel as though they can advocate for themselves with their parent, they’re less likely to feel like they can advocate for themselves with any other individual in the world. And that’s a dangerous situation,” Martin says.

Mitigating the damage includes acting as more of an ally. Listen when a child says they don’t want to show physical affection to people. Many parents brush it off and force them to hug relatives, ignoring their own child’s discomfort. Allow your child to have an opinion and respect it. When a child is empowered to speak up at home, they’re more inclined to trust themselves when they go out into the world.

The way many Black people parent is rooted in enslavement and colonization,” says parent coach Yolanda Williams, founder of Parenting Decolonized.

Now Black Parents Are Doing It Differently

I vowed to be different. Unlike some parents before me, I recognize the value in a child’s voice, perspective, and experience, and that I can take every opportunity to validate them. My children are allowed to ask me “Why?”, and I explain things to them. This makes some family members cringe because we didn’t grow up with the privilege of answers.

Other Black parents, like Kilgore, have also paved a different parenting path. She, instead, focuses more on how her children use words, so they understand their importance. Williams champions that effort.

“So many of us are in the process of healing from childhood trauma and are rejecting much of the parenting we received as children because there's more information, more resources, more communities to lean on,” says Williams. “Many of us realize that much of what was taught was based on respectability politics and centering of the white gaze, and we are taking back our power, parenting our children more intentionally, and protecting them by refusing to parent like enslavers.”

Being allowed to use my own words to tell the truth about my teacher's lying would have boosted my confidence and given me a cloak of protection I desperately needed—one my kids will never lack. And I love watching the village of parents who share my determination grow. My mom admits watching the exchange between my children and me was an adjustment for her because back in the day, some of their responses would have been considered “talking back.” But she has always respected and supported my parenting tactics, and she’s grown to understand the reason behind them.

“I look forward to seeing what the world looks like in 20 years with all these liberated Black children walking around,” Williams says.

It’s something I look forward to myself.


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