My son is only 2 years old—he’s loving and outgoing. He runs to strangers with open arms, saying “Hug” in his cute little voice. He laughs heartily and shares his toys regardless of the other child’s color. But most importantly, he’s free.
I want him to keep that freedom for the rest of his life. But I know that not preparing him for the world will hurt him more than help him.
His father and I both grew up as “awkward black kids.” My interest in animals and nature, along with my husband’s interest in anime and computer science, left us ostracized. To the world around us, black children didn’t have a place in nerd culture. My future husband coped by socially isolating himself. And I changed to be more accepted.
If allowed, the world will suck the freedom from our son as it did his father and me, limiting our range of expression as black people. Race-related hate is running rampant in these times—and the reality of that can feel unbearable for black parents.
As the mother of a black child, I am hyperaware that he won’t be granted the same period of innocence (pdf) as white children his age. Little black boys and girls don’t get to be like “regular children.”
By the time my son is school-age, instead of being seen as curious, he’ll be more likely seen as disruptive or hyperactive. He’ll be more likely to be suspended or expelled from school if teachers don’t like his behavior (pdf), which could create a direct path to the criminal-justice system.
It’s not normal to have these sorts of fears for a 2-year-old. But we are dealing with our fears constantly, both in real life and in the media.
According to Dr. Erlanger Turner, a psychologist who specializes in race and mental health, the media’s portrayal of black youths’ deaths affects black parents.
“I think [media portrayal] can increase black parents’ concerns and anxiety about their children. Watching these images in the media can make parents not only worry, but may encourage them to limit the involvement of their children within society,” he says.
Unfortunately, the amount of time black parents must dedicate to educating their children about the world’s biases doesn’t just limit their children’s ability to explore the world around them; it also has a significant impact on parents’ mental health.
Alex White is already planning for “the talk” with her young son, A.J., but he’s only 8 years old, and she’s unsure what to say.
“What worries me the most when A.J. leaves the house is that I feel he’s never fully prepared for the world. They say have ‘the talk,’ but what does the talk include? Black males [and females] are a target for all types of discrimination, injustice and negativity. I never know if I’ve covered enough to prepare him for the world,” White says.
“As the mother of three black boys, I’m just worried that I’ll teach them the best I can and it won’t be enough. That some unthought-of scenario catches them off guard, and their last thought will be, ‘Mama didn’t prepare me for that,’” she says.
Like White, I’m unsure when to have “the talk” as well. Meanwhile, I find myself being sterner when my son misbehaves in public than I want to be. Afterward, I feel guilty and remind myself that he’s only 2 years old. I want him to have the freedom to live life unrestricted, but I know that failing to prepare him for the restrictions of black adulthood could cost him his life.
Jo Davis is the mother of biracial children and says the anxiety plagues her just the same.
“My husband doesn’t always get the hyperawareness that we black parents have to take extra steps to prep, train and advocate for our kids,” says Davis, whose husband is white.
One instance that stands out in her mind involved her daughters play-fighting with a friend. Her husband believed that she was overreacting, but it didn’t take long to prove that she wasn’t.
“I told him that two black girls playing like they were fighting with a white girl is going to start trouble. Not even a few minutes later, a police cruiser rolls slowly down the street. The cop inside eyeballing the girls. I looked at my husband and said, ‘Overreacting, huh?’” she recalls.
When asked if the frequent anxiety black parents experience might have unacknowledged consequences, Turner was adamant that this is true in more ways than one.
“There is a strong connection between stress, physical and mental health. A recent report [pdf] from the American Psychological Association notes that stress due to social injustice can impact the way people think and increases their perceptions of threat. Stress due to concerns about a child’s safety causes hormone changes in the body that can lead to physical and health issues,” he says.
We can’t discuss the effects of hypervigilant parenting without considering how it affects our children. It is likely that dealing with parents who aren’t effectively handing the anxiety about their children’s safety affects the mental health of their children.
Earlier this year, a research team at Rutgers University found that black youths express depression differently from people of other age and racial groups. In addition to providing black parents with better tools to handle the stress that accompanies parenting while marginalized, we need to develop personalized, targeted initiatives to spot the effects in black children.
It’s worth noting that the authoritarian parenting style used by most black parents may seem reasonable, but we can do better. Thankfully, there are alternatives to the restrictive style many of us grew up with.
Recently, Turner wrote a blog post for Psychology Today that discusses the different parenting styles and their effects. It provides a helpful breakdown of the four most common techniques.
Of the four, authoritative parenting may yield the most benefits. “One well-known alternative is what research refers to as authoritative parenting style. Instead of being overly strict, using firm limit-setting and boundaries, mutual respects and being supportive. This provides the structure that children need and allows them the space to grow as children,” Turner recaps.
This is the style my husband and I use with our son. We value his freedom, but we also want him to understand that life comes with consequences and boundaries. My husband and I do our best to let our son grow up with room to explore. But giving a black child room can be stressful, especially in public settings. I combat some of this stress with regular mental health check-ins.
If your parenting seems mostly reactionary and authoritarian, it might be a good idea to seek support—if not counseling. Culturally competent mental health professionals exist, but it may take a few tries to find a good fit. If counseling isn’t feasible, consider finding support groups or even establishing your own that can help you manage the daily stress of black parenthood.
Black parents may also find comfort in podcasts tailored to people of color, like Parenting for Liberation, Dem Black Mamas and The Black Neighbors. Check out this directory for tons of other podcasts!
Self-care is often overlooked—yet it is a critical area of focus for black parents. “I think it is necessary to practice self-care during tough times or when dealing with extreme stress. Sometimes it may be hard to avoid difficult situations, but you can make an effort to give yourself time away from thinking about the situation,” says Turner.
It can also be an excuse to get some well-deserved alone time. “Self-care may include just 20–30 minutes of time alone to relax. However, self-care could involve doing a fun activity with a friend or family member, taking a walk or exercising. Once you clear your head, you can focus on dealing with your situation,” he says.
Anxiety can cripple black parents. But it doesn’t have to. We deserve better than spending all of our free time wondering if our child will be the next victim of a hate crime. But the time we spend using fear-based parenting techniques drastically reduces the amount of time we have to enjoy our children. We must stop; the preoccupation and stress are slowly killing us.
Love your kids, practice self-care and parent on!