My firstborn likes to tell me when I do things right. She showers me with praises then says, “You’re the best mom ever.” It’s a nice ego boost until she tells me what I’m doing wrong, or reminds me not to say something inappropriate. Most often, she interrupts my conversations to ask what I’m talking about or why I said something in a certain way. Her interruptions and corrections are frustrating—and humbling—but unlike how I was raised, I never tell her, “Children should be seen and not heard.”
Throughout my early childhood and adolescence, my sister, brother, and I were often reminded of our “proper place” by the adults around us. We were not allowed to contribute to adult conversations. We were discouraged from questioning decisions that were made for us or disagreeing with them because this was seen as mouthing off. When angry, we kept our emotions restrained behind neutral expressions and carefully placed footsteps as we walked away, lest someone mistake our response for having an attitude, or worse, acting grown. We didn’t pay any bills or have much life experience, so why should anyone listen to us?
“Do what I say, not as I do” and “Children should be seen and not heard” were common refrains in our home.
I thought this was normal. Until I was writing this essay, I believed that the latter originated in the Black community, especially since so many of my childhood friends lived under similar rules as it was also ubiquitous in Black television shows and movies. I recently discovered that this way of thinking began in the 15th century as a way of keeping women and children subordinate. It has staying power that influenced my parents’ expectations for my siblings and me, requiring that we be unfailingly compliant. Essentially, our desires had no currency and if we operated outside of these boundaries, my father would cut us down with, “And who asked you?”
Undoubtedly, my parents’ instruction had the benefit of teaching us patience and sharpening our listening skills, but that was outweighed by the true lesson: We learned to be quiet. To quell our voices. To smother our opinions.
My siblings and I were kids trying to establish ourselves in an ever-changing world. It was normal for us to be inquisitive. To want to understand our choices (or lack thereof) as we grasped a bit more control while puberty unsettled us on a daily basis. There was a lot we were trying to comprehend, and we looked to our parents to help us figure it out.
When we complained that we weren’t being listened to, my father was fond of yelling, “We are not the Huxtables!” He was right, we were not a perfect TV family. He was also letting us know that the near equanimous parenting, the thorough discussions, and opportunities to make mistakes that Cliff and Clair offered their children on The Cosby Show were off the table for us.
Now that I am a mother, my parents are caught in a continuous cycle of reminiscence. They compare my daughters to what I was like at their age then regale me with parenting “war” stories from their perspectives. In doing this, my mother will occasionally mention the times I stood up to my father and because I am the only one who does, he listens to me. I take small pleasure in this privilege, especially since, aside from a handful of moments in high school, I didn’t have the confidence to openly disagree with my father until well after I had moved away for college. And even then, I did so warily, my voice crack and head throb with anxiety while I spoke.
I can’t stand the thought of my own children being afraid to ask me questions or even tell me when I’m wrong.
I don’t believe a child’s place in the household means complete subordination or erasure of their feelings. This leads to low self-esteem. It also fosters a hard environment that makes it difficult for children to navigate the world in a way that is healthy for them and everyone around them. When a child is taught that their place is below adults, but not taught what their place really is, then they are left wandering and rebelling in order to find an identity.
I am unpacking the consequences of unhealthy parenting techniques that were used in my own childhood. Part of that means recognizing that I don’t want that life for my daughters. I believe in proper discipline and corrective measures that teach children how to be respectful, while also encouraging them to think critically and to formulate and value their own opinions.
I think children and adolescents are incredible sources for new ideas and have the potential to make incredible contributions if we’d only allow them to.
I talk with my oldest daughter a lot. We break our feelings and reasonings all the way down. The keyword is “our” because as her mother, I have several emotions and experiences that inform the decisions that I make in her life and we break it down in simple terms until she understands. I also listen to the intent behind her questions and remarks. There is a clear difference between inquisitiveness and disobedience, and I don’t want to punish her for genuine curiosity. It can be time-consuming and bring processes to a standstill, but it has alleviated stressors and cleared up misunderstandings in our home. My husband and I are still working with my youngest, who is one year old, but as we put these beliefs into practice with her, we have already seen how she’s able to communicate more clearly with us.
I can see how these conversations have borne fruit. My daughter offers perspectives on situations that I would have never considered. She also sees how I value her, and as a result, her self-confidence has grown. She is also comfortable talking through her emotional outbursts, instead of running and hiding. And if my husband and I do something she doesn’t like, she tells us—sometimes so bluntly and clearly that I am stunned. Each time we have these conversations, peace washes over me. I hope my daughter feels it too and knows that she may be my child, but we are in this together.
Motherhood—and mothers’ voices—should be celebrated every day. But that also means having conversations about the complexities of parenting. In our weekly series, “Millennial Moms,” writers discuss the simultaneously beautiful and daunting responsibilities of motherhood through the lens of their millennial experiences. Here, we’ll be discussing things like burnout from the several side hustles we work to provide for our kids and pay our student loans, dating app struggles as young single moms, rude comments from other parents at daycare, and so much more. Stop by every week for a judgment-free space on the internet where women can share the less rosy aspects of motherhood.