Thirty-eight years ago, my son was 2-years-young. My mother was especially close to her first grandson—a welcome relief from raising three daughters. We spoiled him but did not allow all that comes with the terrible twos: tantrums, biting, hitting, throwing, refusing to eat, running away to hide, constant ‘Nos’. More than his grandmother, I was very protective, there to grab him to prevent falls, making sure he did not climb out of the crib, bundling him during winters and more.
On a day I will never forget, my son was playing outside, with me watching his every move. OMG, he tripped, but I could not reach him in time before he skidded on the cement. He started to scream, cry, and run toward me. I picked up my precious baby boy and started to soothe and rock him. As we both started to cry (me harder than him), my mother clean and bandaged the small wound. A close family friend, a Black male around my age, witnessed the entire episode. He stormed up the steps to our house and screamed, “Put that damn boy down! He needs to stop crying over falling and act like a man. Give him to me. What are you trying to do to him? Make him a punk?”
I was stunned and dismayed. He literally snatched my son and dragged him back to the very spot of the fall to ‘toughen him up’. He came over several times a week to spend time with my son to ‘roughen him up’ when playing ‘male’ games, especially wrestling. #NoCryingAllowed. I went along with this for about two years, until my son suffered a serious head wound while learning to ride his bike at the direction of this family friend who was intent on making a ‘man’ out of my little Black boy. #ToxicMasculinityOperating
The song ‘Big Boys Don’t Cry’ pains me. It strikes a blow at my conscience for letting two years go by before going back to allowing my young Black son to express his pain with tears And, yes, I remember the same pain-filled message about girls. Well, big boys do cry when they have been permitted and encouraged to do so as young boys. Crying can be cathartic and must not be a source of shame for our Black males of any age. Crying shows our humanness and humanity.
Distorted and misguided views about who is permitted to be sensitive, empathetic, and demonstrative about being in pain of any kind must not be part of raising Black boys. Studies indicate that Black males seldom and/or are the least likely to seek and ask for formal and informal help, such as counseling. Their pain festers and can implode in such forms as anger and rage. Health issues ensue (e.g., high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity), along with shorter life spans.
Child (human) development is multidimensional and all areas – cognitive, academic, personal, affective, and social-emotional – must be given attention and support by families and educators. Neglecting one area can offset another.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Need is foundational to raising children, and educating, teaching and reaching students. Note the use of ‘need’ rather than ‘want’. Physiological needs are those we cannot live without – food, water, sleep. Safety needs are next – security, stability, and shelter. Children who have consistency in a place to rest, study, eat, learn, etc., are more likely to thrive than those facing insecurity and trauma. There are indeed examples of Black people who overcome the first two needs; this is where resilience kicks in and our Black children achieve in spite of challenges. In the seminal hierarchy, belongingness and love needs appear third, which is the focus of Farmer Kris’ “How Strengthening Relationships with Boys Can Help Them Learn” I agree and vehemently challenge those who think and act otherwise. Let me share one of my favorite models on needs in the context of development.
In Maslow’s hierarchy, esteem is at the third level. Here, individuals feel a high degree of regard for their accomplishments, such as high academic performance, being in college, being employed, receiving compliments, and more. I cannot empathize enough that racial identity and pride are crucial in what I call the ‘Black resilience algorithm’.
The last need-based level is self-actualization – fulfilling one’s own objectives and goals. Those at this level may not have achieved what others expected of them, but they are happy and at peace with their lives and work that support others in positive and just ways. Self-actualized individuals leave a legacy where others can also thrive. In Black communities (and some others), it is our cultural obligation to ‘give back’ when we become successful.
A Few Suggestions for Black Families – Your Son Needs. He is Watching You
- Let your Black boy at all ages be emotional, sensitive, and empathetic, and praise him for doing so.
- Teach and embrace your son asking for help from you and others to cope and constructively deal with emotions and to build and maintain healthy relationships.
- Admonish anyone who, in any form and fashion, criticizes you for raising a Black boy who is compassionate.
- Never let your son be bullied for being sensitive and expressing human/humane emotions that come with nicks and bruises on the body and in the heart and soul.
- Do not be afraid to demonstrate and discuss your healthy emotions and behaviors with your son, and do so early on.
A Few Suggestions for Educators of Black Boys. They are Watching You Too
- Own up to your biases and stereotypes about Black boys and adults.
- Stop adultifying Black boys (and treading White boys like they are younger). Concentrate on their developmental age.
- Do the necessary work – extensive and ongoing – that will help you to be/become a culturally responsive professional for Black boys – and others – who need your guidance.
- Study cultural theories, models, paradigms, and studies that clearly explain why securing trusting relationships with Black boys are important for them and you. Generic models and the like will not suffice. Be intentional. Don what I call ‘20/20 cultural lens’ to sharpen your vision and mission as teachers, counselors, administrators, policy makers, etc., when viewing and working with our Black boys who are as precious as your own boys, students, and clients.
Let’s give our young Black boys the space to be boys. In doing so, we will help them to grow into confident men.
Dr. Donna Y. Ford is a Distinguished Professor of Education and Human Ecology and Kirwan Institute Faculty Affiliate at The Ohio State University’s College of Education and Human Ecology. You can follow her on Twitter @DrDYFord