First, I want you to imagine the voice(s) that told you you were unworthy of love as a child. Remember how stick-slippery it felt, the drummed echo underneath this voice convincing and committed to you being wrong. Born wrong. Listened wrong. Did everything wrong. How you are still trying to get it off. How you hear it especially at night when no one else is talking. I want you to remember the vow you made of not doing this to another child.
Now, take a deep breath. Go on this journey with me.
Some folk birth and/ or raise children without any intention of loving them. (And these children are punished for this non-intention, though they aren’t at fault.)
Some folk birth and/or raise children with the intention of loving them and they fail. (Partly because they haven’t built an accountable, honest space with their children to have conversations about what loving looks and feels like.)
Some folk build one sided relationships with children that don’t open up space for them to opt in and re-shape conversations, boundaries and needs.
A few weeks ago, I asked my little brother Mikel for a hug and he said no. He’s three. It took me a while to notice that he’d named a boundary and I hugged him anyway. I’ve done this before, in various ways with other children. I’ve created a world where they can explicitly name what they are not okay with and then violated their consent by disregarding what they say.
I’ve shamed them for not wanting to hug me. For not saying “Hi” when they pick up the phone and I am on the other end. I’ve asked them to hug other people and suggested that they follow my instruction. I have asked them to take care of me, renew me and represent me when they go outside.
I have thought it cute when they scrunch their noses up after the embrace. I’ve given half apologies and encouraged them to continue to say no when they don’t feel like it. And still, I’ve crossed the lines they created. I’ve silenced and belittled their requests because it was not what I wanted.
I am still crossing the lines they have drawn with their own hands. Part of why I cross these lines is because the way that my siblings and other children I “teach” perform reflects how “well” I’ve taught them. It says whether I have been a worthy teacher, sister and human. Whether I will eventually be a worthy and capable mother.
The world measures this too. It asks who raised these misfits, troublemakers and criminals.
All of this is code for Black.
Tangled up in how I teach and love children is both a fight against and reinforcement of respectability politics, anti-Blackness and unnamed trauma. This dance is constant. And it’s fueled by denial. When I recognize the importance of combating this narrative, I then create space and credence to arm ourselves against it.
We can build sustainable and accountable relationships with and for children that honor our needs, agency and imaginations.
We can cultivate structural and spiritual containers that are grounded in protection, open communication and emotional intelligence. We can tap into the incredible capacities that children have when we ground ourselves in the belief that they can and do make complex decisions.
We can raise consent driven and consent conscious children once we’ve considered and held ourselves accountable to how we have interacted non-consensually with their bodies and spirits. We do this by being honest with them when we make mistakes and sharing what we are struggling with. We do this by naming hierarchy, building dedicated space to them in all their possibilities and by allowing them to name the mistakes we’ve made without consequence.
We must also be considerate and realistic about what Black children encounter when they leave their homes everyday. The very real threat that they will be killed. We must talk with children about Blackness, legacy and how to arm themselves against attacks without killing them in the process.
We must honor the ways that they have resisted and the ways that they have been terrified. When we create space for them to ask questions, it moves beyond the one-dimensional, one sided relationships that we often encourage them to replicate with us (and others). We account for this new world and newer way of being by allowing them to see our fears and our strengths. By crying in front of them and allowing them to cry in front of us, naming our struggles and committing to doing better through action.
These new experiences of living must allow for heartbreak, inconsistencies, crisis and joy. Black children are holding and pushing up against terrible pain. They are told they are inadequate every step of the way. They are not seen as children. They are not seen as innocent. Disrupting this narrative is necessary for re-imagining and re-building towards Black freedom.
When we are critical of ourselves and each other, we build a more accountable world for Black children.
Black liberatory practice, praxis and dreaming must then center Black children. Building this liberatory practice without children is failure. Liberatory work includes believing that Black children are capable. Black children will win. Black children get to reject the consistent narrative that they must be villains or heroes. Liberatory work includes creating a foundation that encourages and strengthens childrens’ right to exist outside of hegemony. To engage and be included in conversations about placemaking, belonging, mapping and home.
Black liberatory work means that children get to choose and/or reject the structures and the existence of binaries and margins. That they can destroy them. That we trust them to choose for themselves. And for us.
Kiese Laymon says, “You are not good enough to not practice.” I have taken this and incorporated it into my life, into my conversations and the ways that I have moved in the world. Most importantly, I have used this to encourage me to continue to practice with myself in how I am relating and building with children.
We are attached to and dependent on the idea that children are possessions, dream vessels, legacy and legitimacy in our lives. We want them to reinvigorate us and so we pull from their energy, make them our lifelines. It feeds our egos and allows us to exercise the limited power that we have over external things.
We are not good enough to not practice. We must be observant and acknowledge when we are building unhealthy dynamics. If you get a rush from disciplining children, you need another outlet. Identify your support networks and ask for help when you need it. If you find yourself shaking after disciplining your child, don’t excuse it. If you find yourself physically and/or emotionally hitting a child, interrogate it. Often times we think that we are protecting our children from abuse and killing by abusing and killing them. We do not get to do this. Our children are terrified of us. They are terrified of the world. And they don’t have space to talk about that terror and violence. We are not good enough to not practice.
May we hold ourselves and others accountable for the ways that we take advantage of children. May the responsibility be placed on us even when we don’t know better. This is not their burden to carry.
We must practice and build practices that acknowledge childrens’ reason (and right) to not trust us. We must practice not punishing them for telling us the truth, for looking us in the eye and telling us we are full of shit without every muttering a word. We must consider how we exercise and expand our authority over the landscape of their lives in non-loving ways. And we have to be real about the fact that the way we treat children is never about children.
Children owe us nothing. And yet we constantly mark them by saying they are “ours”, “mine”, “yours”.
I have fucked up in how I’ve disciplined and talked to children. I have reinforced patterns that I grew up with that I knew harmed me, harmed my mother, my grandmother, my great grandmother. I still do these things.
Children are not possessions. They do not belong to a specific person. They should not be threatened with, “I brought you into this world, I can take you out.” Children do not owe us their obedience and they shouldn’t be afraid of us.
At what moments have we checked ourselves on the idea that our child(ren) don’t owe us their life? That if we engage and perpetuate this dynamic, we strengthen the violences we claim to fight against? At what moment do we recognize that we are harming the being we poured into and promised to protect? That this being gets to be complex and make mistakes?
We talk about teaching children consent but the way that we teach children to honor consent is by violating theirs. By blaming them for the non-consensual ways that they have engaged with bodies. This is our fault, our reckoning.
The way we exercise our authority over children’s lives is disturbing, abusive and not-caring. Though some of us have the best intentions, our intentions often don’t match up with our impact.
We honor both the child we are raising/ interacting with by honoring the child within us. By speaking with those who have been burned, harmed and destroyed by their parents/ caretakers/ siblings/ us. We have to separate what has happened to us and what is happening to the children we are engaging with and claim to love. Intergenerational trauma is real and if we are to do the work we must name it and think about the ways it has shaped our interaction with all of the children of our pastpresentfuture.
When we consider this we must also question how we engage with Black children in a way that prioritizes their well being, boundaries, consent and imaginations every day. We must listen and support poor, trans and disabled Black children. Combating colorism and anti-Blackness in our households includes conversations about what it means to have a favorite.
When do we honor them, tell them they’re brilliant, beautiful, important? In our words and actions? When and where to we build space for them to be wherever they are in the moments when they are around? How do we build their capacity to hold conversations?
How and when do we disrupt the hierarchy of parent/child, adult/ child? And when we find ourselves perpetuating the violences that we experienced as children onto children today, where are the support networks? When do we talk with instead of to children? How have we allowed them to shape the world, the household, their interactions with their elders? When do we back them up? What do we say and do when they are torn down in every other space? How do we build trust?
How do we build a world where they do not have to be martyr, savior, sacrificer?
Actionable Things You Can Do Today:
1. Apologize sincerely and let them know you are working on it in real time.
2. Commit to doing better and then actually do it.
3. Honor their nos.
4. Take breaks and ask for help when you need to.
5. Cry in front of them.
6. Be realistic.
7. Stop talking down to them.
8. Protect Black trans children especially and explicitly.
9. Ask questions and be real about not knowing all of the answers.
10. Identify your support networks.
11. Be tender with them and yourself.
12. Trust them to lead. Trust them to take breaks. Trust them to break the mold you tried to form.
13. Let it happen.
Children do not need to be heroes to survive and thrive. Children do not need to be villains in order to be criminalized and killed.
Towards loving them enough. Towards trusting them enough. Towards believing in them and ourselves enough.