For close to 11 consecutive years, I’ve worked in adolescent mental health and juvenile justice. While I love what I do, I have to admit some things. The first being that the work I am invested in sometimes cosigns the idea that Black folks—especially Black youth—are not normal. We are aberrations that need to be treated like hostile aliens on our home planet. My second admission is that I feel traumatized.
My people have told me this for years; my wife has begged me to find a different line of work because she didn’t have access to all of who I was. Until recently, I shrugged her off. I was writing a draft of a report about one of my clients and saw water droplets hit and spread across the paper. I thought the pipe above me had sprung a leak, but it was me, crying. I rarely cry, and never about work. I thought I had a superpower that allowed me to make firm separations between my work and personal lives. But that wall was slowly crumbling.
The client in question did not make it—he didn’t die, but he was transferred from juvenile probation to the adult justice system. Ten-to-15 years.
He barely had a chance. He never knew his father; his mother was on every kind of drug trying to cope with her own mental health challenges. They were poor, and lived in a neighborhood where it was infinitely easier to buy weed and guns than to find a library or fresh fruit and vegetables. By the time he was 13, he had been shot, experienced several deaths of loved ones due to gunfire, and was reading at a second grade level. So when he became gang involved and started peddling dope, it was not too surprising to those around him.
The kryptonite of mental health workers is questioning yourself as to what you could have done differently. It’s purely reactive, like yanking your hand away from something that hurts. It’s an instinct. For however much longer I’m in this field, I want to be more proactive for our boys and girls. The first step is that we have to be mindful and direct as we instill in our children a sense of resiliency. We need to teach them how to bounce back and not succumb to a society that doesn’t have their best interests at heart.
How is this done?
Despite the media and other societal factors doing just the opposite, we have to humanize our children. They need to know they matter. This can be done in so many ways, but one of the many I’ve seen that works is to let our children make mistakes. If they spill something, and it’s age-appropriate, direct them to clean it up. If they are too young, help them to clean. Mistakes are a part of learning, not something that deserves punishment. Many of us expect our children to be perfect, when we are far away from perfection ourselves. If they’re punished for trying, they’ll stop trying. And if they stop trying, they’ll never learn. See where this is going?
Teach our children to be moral beings. If you consider yourself religious or you’re an atheist, you can teach your kids effective tools to discern right from wrong. The thing about morality is that we have to be moral. Our kids are always watching and listening. We—not just as parents, but also as adults in the lives of children—are instruction manuals. We are role models. I hate that saying, “do as I say and not as I do.” I hate it, not for its rampant ignorance of child developmental stages, but because it acts as permission for adults to act a fool while telling children to do the opposite.
One of the primary factors that will make or break a child is how connected they feel. Do they have relationships that are healthy and mutually beneficial? Are there safe and loving family members readily available to the child? Do they know how to have healthy attachments? If they’re old enough, can they recruit friends and mentors who will enhance their lives?
We’ve barely scratched the surface. There is much more to discuss. But the main thing I want anyone to get from this is the idea that we need to start young. Parenting isn’t babysitting—it is active and passive instruction. Because if we don’t effectively parent, there are systems that will do the job for us. And I’m not so convinced that our children will be better off.
Shawn Taylor is the author of Big Black Penis: Misadventures in Race and Masculinity, and People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. He lives in the San Francisco Bay area with his wife and daughter, and can be found sporadically on Twitter @reallovepunk.