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Why I Won't Get Behind Traditional Parenting

Photograph by Akilah S. Richards

When Sage was 2, she began wearing a uniform. Not because she was in a school that required it, but because she was firmly committed to wearing her lavender leotard with sequined spaghetti straps, fitted tunic that billowed out into a pinkish tutu, and sparkly fairy wings. She would wake up each morning ready to put on her uniform, weather patterns and event-specific attire norms topping her list of highly irrelevant shit.

Anyone denying her the right to rock said uniform would be forced to endure an urgent, highly audible, take-no-prisoners problem, which nobody in our house wanted any part of: Sage in Oh Hell Nah! mode.

At first, I took no issue with her uniform, washing it a few times a week to make sure it was ready to be worn all the way out every day. But then nature happened. And because Sage (unlike the good folks on "Game of Thrones") couldn’t give two shits about winter coming, we were unable to avoid the urgent, highly audible, take-no-prisoners problem of babygirl not being able to rock her choice.

Oh Hell Nah!

I figured she’d get over it after a couple of reality checks. Natural consequences like frigid butt cheeks or numb fingers.

Nope. Not even slightly.

Instead, our resistances knocked against themselves until we discovered a mutually agreeable solution. Ultimately, amid crisp mid-thirties Georgia temperatures, Sage wore her summery-ass uniform, accented by a thick red turtleneck, winter tights, furry boots and a coat.

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That was one of the many lessons my husband and I have learned when it comes to autonomy and agency, both for Sage and her sister. The four of us would constantly be neck-deep in hell and high water if he and I took a traditional approach to parenting.

By traditional, I mean the bits that encourage adults to mold children into what makes sense to us, to push back against their resistance, and to teach them how to conform, be quiet and behave as expected. And let me not even front like I don’t understand the appeal of fear-my-wrath parenting.

That mindset, where adults are feared and revered because they are older—that approach where children are molded and scolded because they are children—will not help them navigate the direction in which the world is going.

Children can be so damn random. They do arbitrary nonsensical shit or act like they can’t remember the basic rules, then get mad when we call them out. We tend to feel that if we allow children to “get away” with resistant behaviors, we’ll end up regretting it when they grow up to become assholes with no regard or prioritization for how their actions affect other people. I have, and still do, experience that fear.

But show me a sure-footed parent and I’ll show you a liar or a denier.

Parenting from Fear vs. Empowerment

None of us can be sure that our approach to parenting is the best one. Holding on to some traditional elements can offer us a sense of the tried-and-trues, the things that work—which most of us would trade good money, or maybe carnal favors, to know. Still, I am constantly reminded that it is not a feasible option to raise children with oppressive, coercive interaction as a primary means of engaging with them.

Because social justice informs so much of my lens, I take personal responsibility for exposing my children to the reality that they are entitled to their perspectives, and that their needs are valid and relevant. I do not see it as wise to raise them in fear of my retaliation. For me, that means I cannot create an environment where they practice being silenced, abused or invalidated because I (someone in power) don't agree with their decisions or don't understand they way they choose to be.

The old-school, fear-based parenting model cannot apply to our children. They have full access to way more information than we ever did. That mindset, where adults are feared and revered because they are older—that approach where children are molded and scolded because they are children—will not help them navigate the direction in which the world is going.

Here I am making exactly that case on the Steve Harvey show.

My babies introduced me to most authentic Me. I’m far more Alecia “Pink” Moore or (fine ass) Jada Pinkett Smith than I am Clair Huxtable. I am hella opinionated. I'm an intersectional feminist, free-spirited, nomadic type with a flair for profanity. As luck would have it, this way works well in our household. But under scrutiny of the public eye, you’d think I let my children slow roast baby kittens. I get all the flack for not showing up in ways that most people equate with appropriate mom behavior.

Though I’d love to truthfully say that I give give zero shits about outside perspectives, that’s not true. They matter, mainly because mainstream society’s responses to my choices affect my daughters, too. But some shit just isn’t up for discussion, not with the outside world, anyway.

Our observations and intuition have shown us that our daughters do not need to be told what to learn and when to learn it. Instead, they need to understand their process for finding and managing information.

Here are three examples of the way my partner and I parent, and why folks who keep trying to get us to change it might better just watch their kittens (bad joke!):

1. I will not 'school' them into conforming

Our unschooling family practices self-directed education. Our observations and intuition have shown us that our daughters do not need to be told what to learn and when to learn it. Instead, they need to understand their process for finding and managing information. My daughters need to practice being in the real world. That means connecting with people, collaborating and learning with guidance, not forced, culturally-biased curricula. This let's them practice real-life skills and develop their confidence and autonomy. It's foundational to their willingness to make, and recover from, mistakes. As their mother, I can help facilitate that, sometimes as a guide and sometimes as an obstacle.

But never by denying them dignity and the right to resist.

2. I will not force them to hug, touch or even smile at anyone

My daughters’ bodies are their own. They get to decide whose body theirs touches, period. In a society that routinely tells women and girls that their physicality is for public consumption, not personal value, consent is an absolute factor. I see it as my job to help my daughters develop a keen awareness of their rights to say "yes" or "no" to anything regarding their personal space. I can’t see how else they’ll be able to practice asserting their needs and preferences. How else will they be comfortable and willing to share when those preferences are violated?

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3. I will not make them dress according to our preferences

* Pulling my chair closer to see the urgency in my eyes*

I’m raising black girls in a system that manages to both sexualize women of color and tell them their bodies are not beautiful at the same damn time. Add respectability politics to the mix and we’ve got a thick stew, seasoned with all the fixings of “you can never be OK as yourself.” For some of us, personal style is a huge part of self-expression and sense of agency. As I learned from Sage, we have to remember the option to resolve instead of force.

Ultimately, I’m grateful my husband and I see eye-to-eye on most things, so we use those reactions as part of ongoing dialogue with our girls. We discuss how people perceive what they do not understand, how they react to what they don’t agree with and how people’s choices can harm others.

That’s love-centered, social justice work right inside our home. So whenever we see those opportunities, we are ready to take on those bad boys.

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Photograph by: Akilah S. Richards