I am no perfect parent by ANY means. Some of my reflections about parenting that you’re about to read come after years of hindsight thinking about things I could have done better. Nonetheless, I hope to challenge you to rethink and retool your methodology and philosophy of parenting, as it remains one of the most influential and impacting roles in our society.
Of all distinctions one can have, perhaps parenting is the most challenging. It comes with no standard job description nor training manual, and requires executing dozens of diverse roles: teacher, counselor, conflict mediator, nutritionist, chef, motivational speaker, dean of discipline, publicist, financial planner, nurse, psychologist, comedian, spiritual guide, tour guide, etc. I wrote a previous article urging us to develop a more holistic concept of public school education that provides our youth with the skills and knowledge to function and succeed in society. This article focuses more on tweaking our understanding of the parenting project itself.
Parents play a major role in developing well-adjusted and empowered communities as individuals constitute communities and parents develop individuals. This remains true despite the increasing (and often negative) influences of mass media and popular culture. No amount of misogynist songs, questionable fashion trends,low-performing schools, or displaced values can completely sabotage good and consistent parenting.
The problem of course is that while it’s easy to become a parent through sex, this alone does not make one qualified to be a good one. And if we are honest, we will concede that not everyone meets the qualifications to be a good parent, and many people that are parents should not be. Such an important role is challenging for mature and financially sound adults, and even more so for millions of young, unseasoned and immature youth with scant wisdom, education or financial stability to their credit.
And yet, once we make the decision to have children, the deal is done, leaving us and the larger society to deal with our choice for better or worse. As a former schoolteacher and youth development worker, I’ve seen firsthand both the transcending power and impact of good parents and the sad and dysfunctional effects of poor ones. In either case, we are all affected since we inherit both deprived and well-guided children in the form of students, co-workers, love interests, and fellow citizens of the world. Parents then wield much more potential power than we give them credit for and it is my aim here to address themes to help parents use this power effectively.
The Role of Parents – Municipal View
What is the role of a parent? According to municipal law a parent is expected to provide adequate food, clothing, shelter, safety and education (via having them attend school) for their child. Larger society however, only imposes mandatory minimums or basic standards and expectations on parents. Those unable or unwilling to meet these basic standards risk fines, imprisonment, or having their children taken from them and dispersed to group or foster homes.
Social Costs of Poor Parenting
Our local governing bodies take these matters seriously because children of abusive or negligent parents are believed to later become societal burdens in the form of being unemployable, dependent on social services, and even involved in criminal activity. In each unfortunate case, taxpayers shoulder the financial burden in an already failing economy.
A Broader View of Parenting
Moving away now from the municipal perspective, how do we view our role as parents? I’ve asked this question and heard a number of varied responses. On the more basic end of the spectrum, parents view their job as providing the basic necessities of life and helping to make their child a “good” person. More sophisticated views include providing children with spiritual grounding, character development and helping their children to navigate the bumpy road of life.
These are all noble aims, and I’d like to think all parents count these among their intentions. But perhaps there is room to expanding this thinking by approaching it from a different perspective and developing a general outline to effectively reach these objectives. Those of us more traditional-aged parents (which I’ll loosely define here as being 27 and older) can think back to our previous critiques of our own families, society previous relationships, or interactions with co-workers. Instead of raising our children with the guiding idea that they belong to us, how would our parenting improve if we raised our children as individuals that belong to others?
For example, imagine how our methods and guidance would alter if we thought, “I want to raise a child that will make mature decisions, exhibit good character, and be USEFUL/EFFECTIVE/RESPONSIBLE as a student, co-worker/business owner, lover/spouse, community leader, neighbor, friend and parent.” Without specifying a long list of tactics, lessons, and activities, just this perspective points us in a different parental direction
This thinking radically broadens our sense of parenthood and makes it more consistent with our social reality. No one lives in isolation from others, so although our child “belongs” to us, in a larger sense, they also belong to the world into which they are born and must be prepared and taught accordingly. This approach also coincides with the Ghanaian proverb suggesting that “It takes a village to raise a child,” since no one household has the total resources, information or energy to provide a child with everything they need. Indeed, raising children adequately requires parental collaboration with teachers, spiritual leaders, community centers and other outside resources. We might consider this a slow,gradual and generational means of social change, transforming our institutions, relationships, and conditions one child and household at a time.
Agyei Tyehimba is a former NYC public schoolteacher, co-founder of KAPPA Middle School 215 in the Bronx, NY, and co-author of the Essence Bestselling book, Game Over: The Rise and Transformation of a Harlem Hustler, published in 2007 by Simon & Schuster. Agyei has appeared on C-Span, NY1 News, and most recently on the A&E documentary, “The Mayor of Harlem: Alberto ‘Alpo’ Martinez.” Mr. Tyehimba is a professional consultant and public speaker providing political advice and direction for Black college student organizations, community activist groups, and nonprofit organizations. If you are interested in bringing Agyei to speak or provide consultation for your organization, please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.