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Parenting while Black, with intention

Kali Fields Williams - Mental Health Coach at Headspace. Mom of 4 girls and personal development geek.

As parents, we all worry about our children. We worry about their future, their health, their safety. But as parents of Black children, we have the added worry and responsibility to protect them from what they’ll encounter outside of our homes. When they step outside, a world full of beauty and opportunity awaits them, yet it’s a world that’s also steeped in racism and white supremacy. If we want our kids to thrive in this world, then we have to parent with intention.

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After the murder of George Floyd, my husband and I knew we had to be intentional about how we talked about it with our four young daughters. So we gave our daughters a version of “The Talk.” Most of us are familiar with this rite of passage in our families, typically used to instruct our young boys on how to behave when confronted by a police officer. Many of us train our sons to be polite, to make no sudden movement, and to tone down any semblance of threat. Sometimes it works. But, sometimes it doesn’t.

For me and my husband, The Talk with our girls was less about how to stay physically safe in the event of a run-in with a cop, and more about informing them about the history of police brutality that preceded George Floyd’s murder. Our hope is that this knowledge will serve as a sort of emotional protection, a “heads up” about white supremacy and how it continues to impact this country, and how it could impact them.

On the day of our Talk, only our three youngest daughters, ages 6, 9, and 10, were present. To start off this particular conversation, we decided to show them the Amy Cooper video. We chose this intentionally because it depicts so clearly the racism that exists in our own backyard, in broad daylight. And we chose it to show how racism can exist in even the most mundane circumstance of a man birdwatching in a park, and how, unlike in the murder of George Floyd, racism doesn’t always — and in fact, doesn’t usually — manifest as physical violence.

“Why is she so scared?” our 6-year-old asked. “Oh my God! She’s strangling her dog!” said our 9-year-old dog lover. We talked about Ahmaud Abrey, and they asked if that could happen here in our progressive town. We chose to tell them the truth. That it could, in fact, happen anywhere.

Parenting While Black, With Intention

And then we brought the conversation around to Floyd and how he was handcuffed for allegedly using a fake $20 bill. Then the knee to his neck while other officers looked on. To be clear, we did not show them this video. “Why didn’t they just handcuff him?” “Why did they stick their knee in his neck too?” We explained the history of police brutality — to a point. We did not harken back to its overseer origins. That’s a lesson for another time. We were intentional about what we decided to include. We considered their ages, and how much of this information we thought their young minds could process in one sitting, and how much we wanted them to know.

In the midst of the questions and the quiet, I saw tears fall from my 10-year-old’s eyes. She had been trying to hide them, but thankfully I noticed and convinced her to share. “I have really big goals. What if this makes it harder to reach them? What if these racists make them impossible?” It had never occurred to her that her success wasn’t solely in her hands.

My husband and I knew that we had to pounce on that thought with intentionality. We had to counter the fear we heard in her questions with a sense of hope. We wanted to get to that fear before it had the chance to take root in our girl’s psyche. We spent the better part of that evening and the next day in restoration mode: affirming the girls’ sense of self, sharing success stories of other Black folks, discussing Mansa Musa of the ancient Mali empire, watching and processing Michelle Obama’s “Becoming.” We reminded them that they are very capable of doing hard things. And that they are capable of having hard feelings like uncertainty and fear, and that they’re capable of working through them, too.

Protecting, nurturing and loving our children are common acts of good parenting no matter our race. But parenting Black children in this society adds a unique layer to how we must approach those acts.

Here are a few strategies that work for my family, especially in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder. I hope that they can be a starting point for your own intentional parenting. These strategies are not meant to be exhaustive, nor are they meant for one-time use. Parenting with intention is an ongoing and ever-evolving way of relating to your Black child and preparing them to take on the particular challenges they will face in our society.

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1. Have your own version of The Talk.

Come up with your own version of The Talk to prepare your child to navigate racism. Be mindful of what you want to share, how much you want your child to know about the issues, and what is developmentally appropriate.

2. Explain our history.

Teach your child the history of white supremacy and racism. But also teach them the history of Black people, especially Black people pre-slavery.

3. Share the successes of other Black people.

Tell stories and find age-appropriate books to read with your child. Remind them that ‘We live for the we’. This idea comes from the book of the same name by Dani McClain and perfectly articulates the notion that our lives aren’t meant to be lived without thought of others. We are a part of a whole.

"...Our lives aren’t meant to be lived without thought of others. We are a part of a whole."

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4. Create a joyful home.

Adopt the attitude that joy, in the face of racism and injustice, is an act of resistance and self-care that builds resilience. Laugh, play, and have fun together.

5. Teach them to manage their emotions, and model it.

Remind your children that it’s OK to have hard feelings and that they’re capable of working through them. Show them how to do it by managing your own emotions. If you need tips, check out Headspace’s “Strategies for dealing with racial trauma.” Or reach out to a mental health coach who can support you in your efforts.

Parenting Black children takes thoughtfulness and planning but also intentionality. As you prepare your children for this world in which racism is a reality that they'll encounter every day, remember to attend to your own emotional well-being and acknowledge any racial trauma you may have suffered. Take care of yourself so that you can appreciate the wonders that this world has to offer. But also so that you can authentically model joy and hope, and be your children’s living example of resilience, courage, and what is possible.

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