Contrary to popular opinion, a purposeful life is not created by a few dramatic or grandiose highlights, but by the consistent application of small but empowering principles and habits on a day-to-day basis. Nowhere is this truth more evident than in parenting. I’m drawn to this subject because today is my mother’s birthday. Please indulge me by enduring this positive rant about a phenomenal Black woman, because honestly, she really deserves it. Furthermore, in an era in which we witness many parents being selfish, short-sighted, and dysfunctional, I believe she serves as one example demonstrating the power of good parenting.
My mother was educated in the segregated South… in Montgomery, Alabama to be exact. Her mother worked closely with her pastor Rev. Ralph Abernathy and his best friend Dr. Martin Luther King, to break the back of racism in Montgomery. Pushed toward academic excellence, cultural appreciation, community service, and character development, my mom later graduated from Fisk University, moved to Chicago briefly, then landed in Harlem, NY where she met and later married my dad. What distinguishes her in my opinion, are 3 things.
1. Her ability to put her energy into the truly important things in life. She had me (I believe) in her mid-twenties. Rather than frequenting the popular clubs, buying the latest fashions, or spending enormous amounts of money to be seen and be cute, she did her own hair and nails, went without things she couldn’t afford and that were not important, and worked and stayed home, where she taught and modeled principles and habits for me that still serve me well to this day. She knew how to stretch a dollar and she saved money and invested much of it into me, via parochial schools/educational camps, and recreational/educational trips. She did not allow the television or my peers to raise me. Instead, She, my dad and grandparents, and the Black church raised me to be conscious, competent and committed to Black people.
2. She set clear and consistent parameters and high standards for me, enforced them, and did not allow me to have my own (immature) way. My mom clearly saw herself not as my buddy or pal, but as my parent and co-leader of the household. She relentlessly corrected my English, encouraged me to be articulate, polite and to take my life seriously. During those times she stayed home, she played educational games with me, reviewed my homework, and explained the importance of aiming for excellence. C grades were unmentionable, B’s were decent, but she expected me and prepared me to get A’s and always do my best. Dishonesty and disrespect and mediocre performance were not tolerated in the least and she never allowed me to get away with blaming other people for my misdeeds or misfortune. Understanding that children often mirror the behavior and attitudes of their peers, she kept a close eye on who my friends were, and did not allow for much idle time. If I wasn’t in school, camp, church, a community center, library, playing organized sports, enjoying safe recreational time or studying, I was at home (or at my grandparents’ house) where the environment was stimulating and peaceful. She was a stickler for being organized and responsible. If I didn’t clean the tub, she woke me up early in the morning and made sure I did. I could not play until I correctly completed my homework. I couldn’t stay up late at night, but had to honor my bedtime. I was not allowed to be around inappropriate adult conversation. If I violated house rules, I couldn’t go outside to play, or got spanked, or got lectured (and sometimes all three) depending on the infraction. She never awarded disobedience or poor performance with nice gifts or privileges. She cooked delicious and nutritious meals, made me do non-negotiable chores (including dishes, cleaning my room and the bathroom, and my laundry), and had no problem saying that powerful parental word, “no.” And she modeled good practices for me. She listened to good music, read, watched educational television programs, never used profanity toward me, and kept her circle of friends small.
3. She emphasized the importance of thinking and making decisions. Tantrums, poked-out lips, whining, crossed arms, and bad attitudes didn’t faze my mother. She would repeatedly say, “How could you have done that better?” “What better choice will you make next time?” “One day you’ll be a grown man, and crying and whining won’t get you anywhere. My son will be mature and able to solve problems.”
Her example and leadership serves me well, and has also shared my daughters well, as I’ve adopted her ways and tweaked them to fit my own preferences.
Generally speaking, “they don’t make too many moms like mine these days.” And if they do, they either are not made of the same durable and well-crafted parts or are hiding somewhere from public view. I truly love and admire my mother, not out of some biological obligation, but because she has truly earned my love and admiration. Among other things, she taught me what a strong a good woman looks like, and (although I have ignored her example in some relationships, and suffered as a result) I find myself evaluating women professionally and in relationships by the examples she set. Perhaps her sacrifice and good parenting have been rewarded. She is retired now, heavily involved in community service via the church, dependent on no one, and has become a literal “Harlem Globetrotter (She has traveled to Egypt, Greece, Morocco, Italy and will soon visit South Africa).
In conclusion, my mom was no perfect parent. She admits now that there were some things she would do differently, and that she didn’t have it all figured out. But she didn’t need to be perfect. She just needed to be excellent. And she was. Such is the power of good parenting, specifically good mothering. It equips children to be their highest selves, accomplish good things in life, make good decisions, and be empowered and empowering beings. If we want to transform the United States and the world, regardless of our political ideologies, we will need to become better parents and role models for our children. Our deeds must mirror our proclamations, and we must have the maturity and vision to sacrifice for our children if we want future generations to be and do better. Politics, families, relationships, classrooms, organizations, and our communities are suffering greatly from emotionally damaged, insecure, incompetent, and shallow individuals who did not receive what they needed in the home, school, community institutions or places of worship. We cannot afford to forget that the first teachers are parents, and the first and perhaps most pivotal classroom is the home. As the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass wrote, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”
Agyei Tyehimba is an educator, activist and author from Harlem, N.Y. Agyei 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. In April of 2014, he released Truth for our Youth: A Self-Empowerment Book for Teens. Agyei has appeared on C-Span, NY1 News, and most recently on the A&E documentary, “The Mayor of Harlem: Alberto ‘Alpo’ Martinez.” Agyei earned his bachelor’s degree in sociology from Syracuse University, his masters of professional studies degree in Africana Studies from Cornell University, and his master of arts degree in Afro American Studies from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. 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 visit his website.