Badly Behaved Children

Sometimes I get a little annoyed when folks go on and on about how shocked they are that my sons are so well-behaved. The typical comment goes something like this:

"I just can't BELIEVE how good your kids are! I mean, look at them! They are just so well-behaved, it's AMAZING!!!"

Those are the moments I want to ask in return, "Why can't you believe it? Because they're black and male? Do you think all black males are heathens who can't behave? Hmm???"

But that would be me reading into the situation a little too much, even if I do sometimes think that racial dynamics are a part of the shocked response to their good behavior. I never ever do the, "Oh, but you should see how they bad they are when they're at home," thing. Instead, I verbally agree with the person, especially when my boys are in earshot. "Yes, they are very well-behaved. They are such good, polite boys."

We talk about the proper way to behave a whole lot in my house. Plus, I was a teacher, a teacher that did not play around and accept anything less than excellent behavior. Kids learn how to behave if you teach them how to and reward them for being good. To me, it's the essence of vanity to think you can go somewhere and be rude or disrespectful.

My seven year-old just started taking Kung Fu lessons at a place a couple of miles from my house. My husband took him to the first two lessons but I wanted to go so I took him last night. There are six other boys in the class and five of them are really badly behaved. My husband had warned me about how bad they are, but I still wasn't fully prepared for how they were talking back to the Sifu. These boys are a little older, maybe 6th graders, so the Sifu was giving them sets of push ups to do as punishment for being disrespectful. It really didn't seem like these boys cared all that much because they were doing dozens of push ups.

I saw my son watching these boys and then he'd look over at me to gauge my reaction to this. I kept shaking my head at him and giving him the "eye".

I started having flashbacks to something that happened when I was at a middle school basketball game. This girl in my class named Eleanor called her mom a bitch in front of everybody. What did Eleanor's mom do? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. She just stood there and said, "Oh, Eleanor, don't talk like that, honey!"

And what did Eleanor do with that? "Well you are a bitch! And I hate you! I wish you weren't even here."

My mouth was totally hanging open and I remember my mom just looked at me with this look that said, "If you ever do something like that, I will kill you."

The parents of these boys at Kung Fu last night were sitting right there watching their sons misbehaving. I think they saw my mom's look on my face. But them? One mom actually had the nerve to laugh and say, "They just come in here with so much energy, don't they?" They were totally being Eleanor's mom.

I made sure to talk with my son after the class about it all. I told him how I liked how respectful he was, how carefully he followed directions and how he thanked the Sifu after class. Then I took him to Robek's to get a smoothie treat. He asked me why I thought the other boys were bad and I told him it's because their parents let them act like that.

Later on, I got to thinking about how every single one of those misbehaving boys are white. After I got home I was talking on the phone with a girlfriend of mine and I told her about these boys. I started joking with her, "What they need is a black mom to set them straight because black moms don't play that."

Total stereotype, I know, but I think there is a grain of truth that certain cultures, particularly black folks, don't look kindly on their children misbehaving in public. And if your mom or dad is there, that's a definite no-no. It's not regarded as cute or funny and there's the cultural legacy that misbehaving in public can get you killed. Google Emmett Till's story if you're not sure what I mean by that.

Clearly, I know from teaching that black and Latino kids can and do misbehave in public. But again, I never saw it go down while the parents were sitting right there. I had students who would talk much smack, they'd be all, "Call my momma, I don't care!" Then when I'd call mom and get her to come up to the school, the tears and apologies would start big time and they'd never be a problem again.

The flip side of this is that while some of this cultural stuff is true, it also gives rise to, like I said, stereotypes. White parents are nice, but passive wimps, and black parents are mean and will beat your ass if you even look at them wrong, (especially if they're from the Caribbean).

Now, I don't beat my children at all. I do the modern version of discipline, which clearly, parents of all colors do: explain the rules, enforce the rules and reward and punish accordingly. I'm curious though, what do you all think about all this? What do you think about culturally different ways that people raise their kids or discipline them? In your experience, what do you see happen?


Jameil said…
my mom just looked at me with this look that said, "If you ever do something like that, I will kill you." LMAO!!! I KNOW THAT'S RIGHT!!!

I would've looked at my mom like I would never do that mom!! SO SCARED!! wow... it's very cultural. like you said it's not like black kids don't misbehave but i KNOW my momma don't play that and most of my friends say the same thing.
Mango Mama said…
I'm not so sure it's so cut & dry, because I see a lot of behavioral issues with Black kids at my kids' school. I do think some of it my be generational. Some of the younger Black parents are a lot more permissive than I'll every be. I'm a lot like you and I can control my kids with a look. I'm also not into to hitting my kids, but I have hit the booty on a few occaisons when the kids were younger. What it comes down to is parents need to parent and not rely on somone else to do their job. It will just lead to problems later.
Lydia said…
The stereotype definitely rings true. I resent when people comment on my children's behavior as being "so good". At a parent conference when my son was in second grade his teacher told me that he was "very well behaved". As a teacher, my primary concern was his academic progress, beside I know my son knows how to act! I looked at her and asked " did you think he was going to be swinging from the light fixtures?!

I can accept that different cultures handle discipline differently. Black folks come from a history where if you didn't listen to your mama the FIRST time, you might end up dead! For real though! Hence more "hands on" tactics.

I don't hit my kids either, but they know the look and not to play with me. I wish my daughter WOULD call me a bitch...PUH-LEEZE!

Times have changed however, folks want to call Social Services if they THINK you are putting your hands on your kids. Now I am not advocating rampant spankings/beatings , but the reality is that life for black children, especially black males is MAJORLY different than it is for everyone else in Los Angeles....the country(even if we do have Barack!)...the world, and MY SON can't act however the HELL he wants! The consequences of his behavior either comes from me or the cruel, biased world.
Anonymous said…
Liz, fascinating what you say about black children being better disciplined than white ones, I'd never thought about it. Certainly I'm always horrified by the way most children behave (and most children here are white) in public places like restaurants. They run around screaming, they moan and complain, they play with the food. And I'm equally horrified by the parents' pathetic indifference to the havoc and the annoyance to other diners. Of course children should be properly behaved in public with due respect for their parents and other people present. I'm glad you take this particular parental duty so seriously.
Anonymous said…
I go through the same thing. "OH, your son is so well-behaved...sweet...he's so good."

They act like its by some random happening in universe. He's that way because I parented him to be that way. He's that way because I don't think misbehaving is cute. He's that way because I told him HIS behavior is a reflection on OUR family.

And though those White kids misbehave, they are "expressing themselves" and they are "precocious" and you rarely, if ever, see them in some special education environment in public schools.

There are a lot of reasons. Some are cultural, some are generational, some are even racial. But most of it is simply bad parenting.
Tasha said…
It is interesting what you say about black children being better behaved. Like some other commenters here, it seems like when little white kids are acting up in a restaurant or public place and tormenting the other patrons, they're just "expressing their creativity", but if a little black child does the same, then he or she is a heathen.

It is also interesting that "better behaved" black kids end up in prison at a much higher rate than the white kids who were "expressing themselves". Hmmm.
Sundry said…
All this stereotype talk always just hurts me right in the gut.

If you want to talk stereotypes, there's also extreme opposite of the white parents who beat their kids regularly and for just about anything. My brother's living in rural Texas and can't seem to make any friends because of this attitude, which seems to be pretty widely accepted in the area he's in.

My Euro-momma sure didn't let me get away with anything, but I always felt the punishments were fair and in proportion. There were consequences and there were ways to behave. My sisters kids were raised the same way. Her daughter's about to have her first child and I think she'll pass that on.

I'm also frustrated with the way that good manners and respect are falling by the wayside. I'm tempted to blame a certain affluent section of white America, too. But then I look at what's going on on TV and all these reality shows seem to be a very public attack on the concept of treating each other with respect, and that's across the board from the sick competitions on Survivor and Temptation Island to the Flavor of Love.

I guess it all boils down to, I don't see how accepting stereotypes of any kind rather than resisting them helps to figure out the problem in any way. It seems like it just makes it easier to shrug one's shoulders and let it be someone else's problem.

Also, it gives me a stomach ache.
Unknown said…
The form of discipline you promote is really about love and survival. NOT doing so is signing a death certificate, on many many levels. Death of spirit, character, faith in society...are all possible if we as black mothers do not do our jobs and do them well.

I too employ the "eye" method, and now that my son is 12, he knows exactly what that entails. He now understands that he is not in his own world. It is still a "white" world where he is a moving target of hatred and fear, so if he chooses not to adapt to the survival methods I have instilled, well he knows I'll take him out!

Seriously though, not to sound cataclysmic, defeatist or even fear-mongering, but if our boys go out acting any kind of way they are subject to racial epitets such as what you described or worse.

We must remember Jena6, everyday until it doesn't happen anymore.

I have had to share with him that he has to perform 150% to even be considered. He has to assimilate and be at the highest level because he will not be able to get away with anything his classmates get away with.

In college it will be, white (boys will be boys) black( He tried to car jack me, I was scared, he raped me, purses held tight on elevators, he said there was a gun so I shot him 50 times) so it is a rough lesson in America, but I know we will rise and meet the challenge and begin to shed that social stare of "being good boys" to it being typical that black boys are all of that and more without the surprise!

It pains me so that our boys and men are looked upon with such wonder, fear, amazement, jealousy, hatred,'s like folk dont know what to think about them, so we have to raise them up, honor them, teach them and LOVE them!!!
OH the black man...where is Angie Stone when you need her? Heather Headley! India Arie!k.. im done ;0)
Liz Dwyer said…
I remember being sooo shocked that Eleanor had called her mom that and was still standing upright! We were on middle school cheerleading squad together and I remember our coach was standing RIGHT THERE and didn't even say anything to her about it. It was CRAZY! I've seen that sort of scenario played out in public many, many times over the years, but I've never seen a black child do something like that. An eye roll is a BIG deal, let along calling your momma a bitch!

Actually, the closest I've seen is the few black kids they have on My Super Sweet 16. So maybe those kids think mommy and daddy's stacks are gonna save them from how the world really sees them?

Mango Mama,
Gosh, I know, it's not so cut and dry, right? I hesitated to even post about this because it can give rise to sooo many generalizations and a parent is not a good parent on the basis of skin color alone. And it definitely could be generational. Alot of folks I know that grew up with a switch/belt/extension cord are trying to shift gears, but don't know what else to shift to. And black parents are like everybody else, hustling at the job for too many hours and feeling like the media is raising our kids instead of us.

You make me think about a few things I noticed in my six years experience supervising 1st and 2nd year teachers:

1) Non-black teachers were overwhelmingly reluctant to call a black child's house if the kid acted up because they assumed that the parents would not care or that they'd be hard to deal with, especially the women. I always thought the whole thing was an interesting little window into the modern day relationship between white women (the teacher) and black women (the mom) and reflected so many of the divides we see playing out today given the political climate. And most black teachers had ZERO problem calling the house (not scared of the black mom).

2) Non-black teachers would ask the kids to do something, "Andre, can you sit down, please?" And Andre might be like, "Um, NO, I can't sit down because I'm gonna sharpen my pencil." But a black teacher is more likely to understand that culturally most black folks don't ask their kids to do stuff like that. You don't have a choice. You need to sit down. Now. So black teachers would give a command, "Please sit down in your seat."

Non-black teachers tended to punish the misbehavior of black kids but not punish the SAME misbehavior in non-black kids. If two children were talking and one was black, and the other wasn't, guess who was getting in trouble? The black child. Then that child gets angry because they know they aren't being treated fairly, they act out, and then the cycle begins. The teacher then loses all credibility in the black child's eyes and whatever that teacher says is dirt.

It wasn't until folks learned how to relate to black children culturally that the misbehavior stopped. It wasn't until they called themselves own subconsciously racist behavior that they could get control of a class, and alot of them when I'd point this stuff out to them, they'd be sooo angry. But if they changed their outlooks, became more culturally aware, read some Lisa Delpit, THEN the behavior of black kids improved significantly.

Sorry so long but your comment really made me think about all that!
Jessalyn said…
I've seen evidence of this stereotype holding true as well. I can't help but wonder if some of it is because of society's expectations as well. When a white parent spanks a child in public, people are ready to call DFACS, but if a black parent does it, it is deemed acceptable. I can't help but wonder why that is. Of course, there is a perfectly fine middle ground of keeping children accountable without beating them or without being overly permissive that so many people miss, but that's another point entirely.

I also find other people seem to hold my biracial children to higher standards when it comes to behavior than they do white children. When one of my children misbehaves, it seems others view that as my children being future delinquents. Yet when white children engage in the same type of behavior, it is "kids just being kids." While these people claim to not be racist, I can't help but think they do hold some inherent biases against children with darker skin tones. I worry about my children being disciplined more harshly in school because of their skin color as well.
Liz Dwyer said…
There are definitely a whole lot of badly behaved kids running around these days. Maybe people are shocked by my sons because they are just hit over the head with so many bad acting kids period. Restaurant behavior is a definitely problem. Half the time the parents have bad table manners themselves and sit up at the table talking on their cell phones or something. But sometimes I think it's parents just not recognizing when their child is tired and has had enough running around. Parents drag their kids everywhere and the kids get tired and cranky. Anyway, I think black kids can misbehave just as much, but I think it's the public thing, especially when you're with your parents.

I definitely think bad parenting is the root of it all, regardless of color of culture. I also think there are cultural differences around what behavior is considered inappropriate for public, etc. Yes, in my house and the way I grew up, if you misbehave, your behavior is a total reflection on your family. And like pretty much every black person in America, I was raised to believe that if you show out in public, white folks are going to be saying, "See, look at how those black people are! That's why I think they're not as good as me!" I do think some of that sentiment is evaporating though. Another thought I had is that I read a book a couple of years ago that talked about how parental emphasis on behaving appropriately and following the rules is a lower to middle class attitude, and the upper classes emphasize more freedom, individuality, creativity and critical thinking. It's all interesting stuff, but in the meantime, my kids had BETTER behave! ;)

There's a definite difference between being raised to believe that this is your world /vs/ being raised that it's someone else's world and you have to learn to survive it and function in it and I think a lot of black children are raised with the latter viewpoint. The psychological burden of that second viewpoint and how it plays out in the real world with the mass disenfranchisement and miseducation of millions of children in crappy "urban" schools, dangerous neighborhoods with little to no green space... gosh, I could go on and on about how those boys that have that inherent sweetness and politeness in grade school, they f***ing HATE the world by the time they are old enough to see what's up. I mean, my own husband first got pulled over by the cops when he was 12 years old. You know the ole, "Is that your bike? I think you stole that bike. Where's the proof that you bought it?" His mama should NEVER have had to go get his 12 year-old self from a police station! Yeah, you can hate the world and yourself after stuff like that.

Yeah, they still have corporal punishment in schools in Texas, don't they? I definitely don't hear a lot of white folks talking about being beaten growing up. Folks must be holding out!

I've been in many conversations with white friends, acquaintances, colleagues where it turns into, "My mom would never hit me, no matter what I did! That's just uncivilized!"

I've always been like, yeah, right. I know some of y'all got spanked too. And then the black person in the room is holding up their arm and showing the scar where their mom burned it with an iron because they looked at her funny. Then folks walk away thinking, "I had no idea black parents were so crazy," and, "Wow, white parents are really permissive," which is SO not the point. Good parenting is good parenting and we need more of it from everybody.

Anyway, good manners have totally fallen by the wayside across the board. You're right, the reality show say anything, do anything culture has soaked into the fabric of our society. There's such rampant individualism that people think they really can do whatever they want.,
Okay, you totally have me tearing up here because I think about all this a whole lot and how this world just tries to stomp all the life out of our black boys. It is about love and survival. If I raise my sons to believe they are going to be looked at the same as everybody else, I do them a disservice, but it hurts my heart to have to say to my eldest, look, this is why you have to get 100% on the spelling test every single time and no, a 90% is NOT good enough.

I totally believe that in the black community the physical discipline is a legacy of oppression. If you misbehave on the plantation, you could die so everybody is going to check you and make sure you get the point. Mom may burn your arm but Massa will do worse than that. And, like I said in my post, if you're Emmett Till and you go down south and act up, you die.

These days, if you're just walking to school, someone might shoot you. Black kids don't even have to be acting up to get killed. All they have to do is exist.

What you say is very true and your biracial children are being held to a different standard. In my own experience as a biracial woman, on the one hand, I've found that some whites have been more comfortable with me because I strongly identify with my Irish heritage and don't seem as "threatening" -- or at least as long as I play by certain "rules". On the other hand, I've definitely experienced the negative assumptions that get put on black women: I'm promiscuous, loud, angry and overweight, even though I'm none of the above.

As far as public spanking, the perception is that black people are violent, therefore black parents all spank, so it's not a big deal to see it. But if a white parent is spanking in public, then there must be something serious going on and it needs reporting.

The contradiction to this is that I saw sooo many non-black first year teachers automatically report the minute a black child even said that their parent would spank them. Iterestingly enough, when I first started teaching, kids would try to "play" me by saying, "Please don't tell my mom because I'm going to get a spanking!" My response? "You should have thought about that before you acted up in my class." I even had a parent come up and spank her son at recess after I called and I was like, okay, that'll be the last time he ever pulls that mess in my class. And it was. That didn't mean I didn't also suggest, "Take away the playstation," as an alternative though because I did. It was a fine line but I kept in mind that there's a difference between swatting on the behind and giving your child a black eye and I kept an eagle out for all sorts of out of pocket abuse, and reported it if necessary.

I still can't fully explain why I operated this way as a teacher though, especially since I personally believe spanking breaks the spirit of children. It changes them in ways that aren't good and it teaches that violence is an option for getting what you want.
Anonymous said…
I was in Denver International Airport one day and I saw this black grandmother say to her 10 years old grandson: "This is what I expect from you. You will say "please" and "thank you". You will stay by me when we are in public." and on and on.

And I thought, "That's exactly what a kid that age needs."

In the Open Grove, I interviewed a man who is a very famous parenting expert. His advice? Tell your kids what you want, not what they are doing wrong. Then he challenged me - watch parents. They say 'no', 'don't do that', 'get down'. They never say, 'sit right here with me', 'I need to talk to Daddy, wait for me here.' etc.

And you know what? He's right.

I don't think kids are afraid of being beaten or getting in trouble, I think they know what's expected of them. So they do that.

Heck, I found the more clear I was about what I expected from Rose, our dog, the better behaved she was. Go figure.
daughter of Caribbean parents here. my dad had a belt that he put on top of the fridge and was not afraid to use it. ouch.

I think parents can go overboard with disciplining but that Eleanor situation? Jesus, I never even thought of saying something like that to my mom or any other adult.
Anonymous said…
in my clinic i often see that parenting reflects the level of education of the parents, as well as the support they feel in their own environment. i see bad parenting from all colors and ethnicities. the majority of it is reactionary parenting and comes from people who have very little control in their own lives and over their own emotions. it is also very negative. it is all about what the children should not be doing, and not what they should be doing or encouragement of what they are doing well.
j'taimee said…
As shocking as your tale is to my sensibilities as a person and future parent, I am more dismayed by how normal this behavior is becoming. Parents seem to be playing a popularity contest, and have become so laissez faire in the raising of children that "no" is suddenly a bad word...
I hope I'm not the "exception to the rule", but my siblings and I would never even have dreamed of misbehaving in public like that - not even in front of our friends when other adults weren't present. It just wasn't a bluff we cared to call.
But this scenario is alarming - if children are not taught to respect their elders and peers, how can they be taught to respect anything?
MartiniCocoa said…
how could the parents allow their kids to be so rude and disrespectful?

maybe it happens more with white kids because their parents assume that they will be judged individually (as brats!) whereas when black kids act out, it's assumed that all black kids act that way.

i don't know but I'm glad you are on point with your sons...their future gfs/wives will be so grateful!

my mom just looked at me with this look that said, "If you ever do something like that, I will kill you."


Popular Posts