Unlearning the Negative Habits of Our Parents
Author: Khalei Suol
When I was younger, I held a job in retail that gave me the opportunity to see something I’ll never forget. One day, while at work, I noticed a guest enter with her child and a friend. They began browsing and the child, no older than 5, began to do what children do -explore. The child then began to damage some of the store product, which led management to ask mom to watch her child more closely. The mom’s immediate response was to grab the child and say, “I will beat your a—if you keep acting stupid”, this was said in a stern voice and loud enough for the entire store to hear. I’m sure that at some point in our lives we have all seen a similar event, heard a similar story, or experienced this ourselves. African Americans swap stories of how stern our parents are/were daily. We hear things like, “My mama would slap the teeth out of my mouth” and, “My daddy would beat the sh—out of me if I did that”. Although these stories are usually followed by, “it made me better, I understand why they did it” research tells us differently.
Trauma is any disturbing experience that results in significant fear, feelings of helplessness, dissociation, confusion, or other disruptive feelings intense enough to have a long-lasting negative effect on a person’s attitudes, behavior, and other aspects of functioning. A norm consists of a range of values that represent the typical performance of a group or individual, it is through these norms that comparisons can be made. For example, it’s culturally normative for Americans to celebrate the fourth of July because of our history. A norm can also be thought of, in some situations, as an expectation. You expect gifts during Christmas because it’s normal to receive them during the holiday season. Conversely, it would be strange to give gifts during the fourth of July.
Through the mom’s actions in the prior situation, a few things occur. Normalizing the use of profanity in her child’s life being one of them. Additionally, associating correction with embarrassment and violence. Our home environment is critical to our growth and development. The behavior a child experiences at home becomes the foundation for how they expect to be treated in the world. The lack of a traditional childhood and knowledge of adult situations in early childhood increases the likelihood of substance abuse in adulthood. Furthermore, insensitive parenting during childhood increases the likelihood of both substance abuse and instant gratification. Instant gratification can be directly linked to addiction, sexual promiscuity, and criminal activity later in adult life. Harsh parenting speaks to the use of profanity, vulgarities, and the overall lack of care as it pertains to a child. As noted by Fields et al. in their 2015 study, children who grow up in these families learn to distrust their own observations, feelings, and feel powerless to change their environment. Moreover, Dr. Paul Wise notes that adverse early exposures are associated with long-term mental health conditions and bullying (both peer to peer and adult to child) during childhood can affect or heighten the risk for adult depression and related disorders.
Through fluctuating home environments, threats of violence, and toxic communication habits children begin to shape a view of the world around them. As a parent it is imperative that the home environment you create for your child be safe, stable, and harm-free. This can present a difficult task for us as African Americans considering our history. Violence and the threat of violence were used daily as a way of communicating by racist white America during slavery. Through these atrocities African Americans learned to discipline their children in ways similar to their oppressors’ discipline of them. Sayings such as, “Beat you to the white meat”, “Slap the sh—out of you”, “Knock your teeth out” etc. are all direct depictions of ways in which our ancestors were tortured. Being that what a child views as normal is related to what they see, hear, and learn at home, it is plausible that if the home environment is entrenched in discord -discord and conflict will be present in their adult relationships. Which furthers negative generational carryover by creating unstable home environments for their children and so on, and so on, and so on.
Personally, I feel the pressure of doing better and being better as a parent. I ask myself where the line is drawn between healthy discipline and the continuation of negative learned habits. Historically, when I’ve heard profanity used it’s typically in a moment of anger. I would say that no one, who has ever been cursed at or cursed out, felt better about themselves afterward. So why continue this behavior? Likewise, verbal threats do not build self-esteem, nor do they create positive views of the world. Consider this, would you tell your child, “I will hit you so hard that the blood will temporarily stop flowing to your brain, which will cause you to lose consciousness, and lead to you losing control of your bodily systems and defecating yourself”? Sounds crazy, right? However, this is what would have to happen in order to literally “Smack this sh—” out of someone. The action is the same, the verbiage is different.
There are a number of things you can do to forward a more positive discipline routine with your children. First, realize that if what you’re about to say would hurt your feelings it will hurt theirs. Remember the actions of your parents and how it made you feel as a child and work on strategies to be better. I recommend beginning this process with a licensed clinician. Second, don’t respond in anger. We all get angry, it’s a regular human emotion. When you find yourself angry with your child, step away or send them to their room. This allows you to have alone time which you can use to stabilize your mood and respond to your child with love. Lastly, watch for triggers. Negative behavior isn’t always a child “Showing out”. If you notice your child repeating negative behaviors it is possible that they may be triggered by an outer/inner source. In this case I recommend seeing a child psychologist.
It is possible to cultivate a safe emotional environment for your children while still being a firm parent. Being a parent can be stressful and none of us are perfect. In times where you happen to be aggressive an apology will remind your child of the love and care you have for them. It also teaches them that healthy relationships have confrontation, moreover, healthy confrontation makes the relationship stronger not weaker. By better understanding ourselves, unlearning the toxic habits of our ancestry, and purposing to be better it is possible to change our home environments for the benefit of our families.
Check the Sources
American Psychological Association, (2021). American Dictionary of Psychology: Norm. Retrieved from https://dictionary.apa.org/norm
American Psychological Association, (2021). American Dictionary of Psychology: Trauma. Retrieved from https://dictionary.apa.org/trauma
Fields, E. L., Bogart, L. M., Smith, K. C., Malebranche, D. J., Ellen, J., & Schuster, M. A. (2015). “I Always Felt I Had to Prove My Manhood”: Homosexuality, Masculinity, Gender Role Strain, and HIV Risk Among Young Black Men Who Have Sex With Men. American Journal of Public Health, 105(1), 122–131. https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2013.301866
Wise, P.H. (2016). Child poverty and the promise of human capacity: Childhood as a foundation for healthy aging. Academic Pediatrics (16), S37-S45. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.acap.2016.01.014