William and I are now empty-nesters. Our adult son is self-sufficient and living on the other side of the country, and our daughter is completing her freshman year in college. Some months back we were out to dinner waiting for our server to bring entrees when I asked my husband about his hopes and dreams. It perplexed me that he said he didn’t have any, because I know he wants to return to school in the near future, and he has plans for another profession after he retires from the fire department. As far as I’m concerned, those are dreams. I prodded and mentioned school and his post-retirement life. He replied, “Those are goals, not dreams. I don’t have any dreams for myself.” He added that all his hopes and dreams are reserved for our children. “I want them to be happy and have beautiful families. That’s my only dream.”
We both, in our own way, tried to create for our children our vision of an idyllic childhood, while also paving a path that would lead to success in adulthood. I was deliberate and intentional about providing a challenging academic experience, and William was committed to being an affectionate and supportive father. Our styles were complements. If I were to ask our children for a metaphor to describe our parenting styles, they would probably say that his was the salve to my burn.
I’ll give you some background so you’ll have a better sense of the childhood experiences that influenced our parenting styles.
Because my dad’s standard for academic performance was so high, I wasn’t ever really challenged in school. I had great teachers, yet my dad established very early on that my work had to meet his standards not theirs. I didn’t have to put forth a lot of effort to earn an A because I was accustomed to performing at a level that was acceptable to him, which made school seem relatively easy. Because I didn’t have to work hard, I took education for granted – I did just enough to get good grades instead of striving to be a learned person. I was adamant that our children’s educational journeys would be different.
William’s father was from the Deep South. He was hard-working and the primary breadwinner for his family. Like most Black fathers of his generation, he didn’t express his love with hugs and kisses, and he didn’t verbalize “I love you”. Instead, he demonstrated care and commitment by going to work every day, providing for his family, and being a responsible member of his church community. My father-in-law (whom I never met), was 49 years older than William. He wasn’t playful and didn’t engage with his children the way some younger fathers might (through sports, etc.). He died from health complications when William was 17.
And here’s how our backgrounds showed up in our family life.
I took the lead regarding education, and William took the lead in all matters related to sports and athletic development. We were co-leaders in exposing them to formal music training, first through piano lessons then guitar.
I was unyielding that our son and daughter perform at their highest ability. If you’ve read part 3 of the Education posts (November 2015), you have a sense of their foundation. I was more steadfast with our son. When he was a toddler, I determined that he would land at the highest-tier college, hoping that the corresponding advantages would shield him from some of the harsher realities of life for Black males in America. I gave our daughter more latitude in terms of her academic performance, though she was never permitted to slack. I felt that it was more important to give her an impenetrable armor of self-assuredness to withstand the barrage of assaults that Black women face around physical beauty, emotional stability (e.g., the angry Black woman), and morality. I wanted to protect her, and I believed the best way to do that was to imbue her with a solid sense of self.
William was the voice of reason in our home. Oftentimes, he told me when to let up and when I was pushing too hard and demanding too much. He was also our children’s coach, trainer, and best friend. William introduced them to sports at a very early age, and later, at the age of five, they both began playing organized sports. For our son, William was either coach or assistant coach for every team he played on, up until high school. William introduced our daughter to art and helped develop her talent. He also taught her to read. She was the only one in the class who began kindergarten reading fluidly. She and William had a ritual of bedtime reading. When she was three years-old, she told him she wanted to read to him instead of his reading to her, so he bought a large phonics book and taught her how to read. In terms of our daughter’s confidence, both William and our son were instrumental in affirming her worth by setting a high bar for athletic performance and expectations for how she should be treated by the opposite sex.
Both children attended a total of three schools prior to college. Our son received his foundation at an African-centered school from ages two to seven before transferring to a public school for one year. In fourth grade, he began prep school where he stayed through twelfth. Our daughter was in public school for kindergarten and first grade. She moved to a small, nurturing, private school in second grade and began prep school in sixth grade, where she stayed through twelfth. Each time they switched schools, it was for more rigor in the classroom. The two prep schools, St. Albans and National Cathedral, provided the challenge they needed and then some. They both thrived in those environments – academically, socially, and athletically.
Both established themselves as leaders among their peers very early. William and I expected and demanded that they be of sound character, be resolute about right and wrong, and take a stand when necessary.
During our son’s first year at St. Albans, another parent told me how happy she was that our sons were in the same class. She recounted this story – her son, who is Black, had received an award. Some of the White classmates commented that he didn’t deserve it. The award winner turned to our son wanting to know how he felt. Our son’s response was something like this, “Why do you care what they think? They don’t have any awards, you do.” This woman’s son went home and told his mother how our son’s perspective made him feel. He went from questioning his worthiness to being assured of it, all because of what our son said! I was so thankful that she shared that story with me. What’s more remarkable is that our son was a full year younger than almost everyone in the class. Yet, from the beginning, he established himself as the consummate leader. Every morning, before dropping our son at school, William would say to him, “Be a leader today, Dream.” Our son took those words to heart. He was elected to leadership positions throughout his time at St. Albans, including serving as Head Prefect during his senior year which meant he was head of student government, the entire student body, and the honor council. Upon graduation, he received the award for “best all-around boy” as voted by the students and confirmed by the faculty. He was also a standout at Yale.
Even though we’re in different parts of the country, the four of us still communicate daily. William sometimes ends his morning texts or conversations with “BALT”. Our son knows it means, “Be A Leader Today.”
Our daughter is more reserved, but no less a leader. On her first day of class at National Cathedral, she challenged a classmate’s false rendition of an incident. Our daughter set the record straight by interrupting and telling the teacher what actually happened. As she was speaking, some girls were sharply whispering at her, “Stop. Don’t say anything else.” But she persisted until the truth was told. Our daughter wasn’t the subject of the lie, and yet she felt compelled to stop them from telling a lie on someone else. When she came home and recounted the story, I told her, “Do you know the majority of adults can’t do what you did today? You are a leader!” And she continued to be a leader among her peers, including holding the office of student government leader, in addition to service leadership positions as an acolyte and a member of vestry.
I’ll close with an email that our daughter shared with me five weeks into her freshman year at college. The email is addressed to an author who was required reading for a freshman seminar. The author’s reply was powerful, but I’m not including it to preserve her privacy. I’m sharing the content to give you a sense of our daughter’s confidence, thoughtfulness, and understanding of very complex issues.
William and I are most thankful to have been chosen to nurture and guide these two, very special people.
Next month’s post is about preparing your child for College and Beyond.
Hi Mrs. Patrick,
I read The Truth About Awiti for my freshman seminar on black women’s history at Wash. U in St. Louis, and I found it striking that Awiti’s pain and its manifestation in destructive behavior persists for centuries. In my head, I likened it to an expression that my mother likes to use, “we’re all still healing”. I’m from D.C. and went to the National Cathedral School for the bulk of my education. I don’t know if you’re familiar but it’s a predominantly white environment, and just to give you an idea of the context in which we would use that phrase, I encountered a lot of black people, girls especially because it is an all girls school, who weren’t completely comfortable in their skin. I distinctly remember hearing a black classmate who is “still healing” say “no one wants to be any more ethnic than they already are”. Because you spoke from such an interesting perspective, I was just curious as to whether or not you think that we (black people) will ever be completely healed. Especially when it seems that people are consistently tearing at our wounds. I hope that this reaches you. I wasn’t exactly sure where to find a personal email.