Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Does Discipline Equal Love - bell hooks response #1

News Flash: I am black. Which means, usually, that I was raised in a black family. It just so happens that I was raised in a typical black family of the 70's. First generation northerner. My grandmother was born in the south and lived through share cropping and jim crow and then moved north to get married and have her children. But the south came with them when they migrated north as did the ancient adage and practice of children being seen but not heard. But it was more than that.

I was an inquisitive child. Always asking questions, the way children do. But that was frowned upon in my family. I was constantly being quieted and told I talk too much. I was discouraged from asking questions and seen as a nuisance if I persisted. To this day my relatives still refer to me as "the child who didn't know when to keep her mouth shut." WTF? My family showed they cared in the way I am sure they had to in the south - they verbally abused us. We were told to "stay in our place" and to "not question our elders." And I am sure that this type of training was of particular use to young black men in the south who could be found swinging from the nearest magnolia if they didn't avert their eyes in the presence of a white woman. But that wasn't the reality I was living in in the north - I mean I was a freed negro. But the elders of the family held sway and controlled how things were done and so that same type of discipline - down to picking my own switch - continued through my childhood.

Being seen and not heard, however, backfired. I was privy to all kinds of "adult" conversations. I heard things I didn't quite understand and things I understood all too well. With my mouth shut my eyes and ears were open and I, more often than not, copied the behavior rather than the words. But a few things happened to me recently that made me think about my use of language and the way I "discipline" my children.

Up until recently - the last 10 years or so- I had incredibly violent language. And I didn't realize it was violent until I stopped to listen to what I was really saying. I had incorporated my upbringing into my daily living and it was an uncomfortable realization. But the other day I saw a young black mother with her two children crossing the street. She was pulling the youngest to get across before the light changed, even though I am pretty sure the cars were not going to run her over. And I saw her getting more and more frustrated with her youngest child who had at this point begun to cry. And the mother turned on her child and screamed (and I am not kidding here, she screamed) into that little face: "SHUT UP BEFORE I GIVE YOU SOMETHING TO CRY ABOUT!" And there is was - my 100th angel arriving in my presence. I have heard that sentence said to me more often than I care to remember. As if being publicly humiliated and dragged across a street WASN'T something to cry about. It made me cry. And I cried for the little spirit that was crushed that day in the street. And I cried for the little me who had also gotten her spirit stamped on at an early age. And then they came: the hot angry tears of remorse when I realized that I had at some point in my life said the same thing to my children. OUCH! I am not proud of admitting this but it is true. I have told my children to shut up and I have told them I would give them something to cry about and I use threats to get results. And I am searching for a better way to raise my kids. And I realize that in times of frustration and fear we revert to our training and mine was verbally abusive.

bell hooks talked about this in her interview with my friend Nathalie. She said that in the black community we discourage inquisition by children. And when we do that we silence them and instill in them the belief that asking questions is wrong. That to question is wrong. We, as a people, cannot afford to be silent and not ask questions. Of our educators, our politicians, our government, our service providers, our food suppliers. And this type of silencing keeps us, as a people, enslaved. There is a lot of "old school" folks out there who think that talking with your kids and asking them questions is weak. That we are elevating our children to the level of "adult." That they don't know their place. Well, aren't these all the same things said about black people back in the day? We were seen as children who needed to be reminded of our place. And we cannot afford to pass that misconception on to our children. They must question - everything - including us. As uncomfortable as it may be.

So, does discipline equal love? I think it depends on what you mean by discipline. Here is the Merriam-Webster definition of discipline:
1 : punishment
2 obsolete : instruction
3 : a field of study
4 : training that corrects, molds, or perfects the mental faculties or moral character
5 a : control gained by enforcing obedience or order b : orderly or prescribed conduct or pattern of behavior c : self-control
6 : a rule or system of rules governing conduct or activity

And I love, ironically, how the first definition is punishment. But then it is instruction and training that corrects or molds. And that is a huge responsibility - molding a young character. What kind of people do we want to create? People who are afraid to question authority and who feel disenfranchised? Or strong, compassionate, inquisitive people? I am going with the latter. And I am working every day on disciplining myself first - loving myself first so I have something of worth to give my children.

we are blessed may we recognize the blessing

photo: Leonard John Matthews

next installment in the bell hooks response: the black woman's body - stay tuned

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