How Not to Raise a Racist Murderer
A 15-item checklist for parents of White sons
In light of the news this week, I am yet again thinking about what it means to be the mom of a White son in a nation with so much White violence against Black people. My son will grow up undoubtedly privileged — middle class, two college-educated parents, all the benefits of race and gender. That doesn’t mean that parenting him to be a good human will be easy. Quite the opposite, in fact.
What we see on the news too often these days are White supremacist terrorists and violent, racist cops. If we want the narrative in 20 years to be different, then we have to raise our sons differently. I have written before about anti-racist actions you can take as a parent (see here) but I want to talk here about more overarching things. Our society’s default parenting clearly hasn’t been enough. So, I am making a checklist for myself, and sharing it with you. Some of these are really basic. Some of these are really hard.
1. Do you lock your car doors when a Black person in a hoodie crosses the road in front of you? Or hold your purse tighter when you walk by a group of Black teenagers? Hint: don’t. Your son will notice if you give off signs of fear around people of other races. Fear lays the basis for hate. If you need your car doors locked to feel safe, then lock them as you pull out of the driveway.
2. Do you use derogatory descriptions or allow others to use them around you? Most people I know won’t say the n-word themselves. But an awful lot have a racist granddaddy who does. What happens if you are at the grandparent’s house and your granddad/ dad says, “Those n*** are all thugs.” You had better believe your kid will notice your response. Don’t let it slide. Next time, try something along the lines of “That’s not true, and we don’t use n****, particularly around my son. We are teaching him to be kind.” If he keeps saying it, you can declare, “Grandpa is having a cranky day today. We’re going to leave and come back another day when he can use nicer words and be kinder.” Then follow through.
3. What news does your son hear? Don’t let anyone play “news” programming that is using derogatory generalizations around your son unless they are old enough for you to have a critical thinking conversation about it afterward. Do have critical thinking conversations with your child about the news.
4. Does your son watch Black TV characters or read books with Black heroes? Don’t let your son think that White is the default race. This means you are going to have to be diligent in the YouTube channels, cartoons, and videos your little boy consumes. My son is not yet two, and at this age, more programming has animals as main characters than speaking roles for Black characters. That’s a problem. We have to be super intentional with TV and books and toys. When he gets old enough to learn history, I will need to supplement the textbooks with Black history in months other than February.
5. Do you really have Black friends? Invite Black people (coworkers, church contacts, neighbors, fellow daycare parents) out for drinks or over to your house — I mean, once this pandemic is over and all. You should also visit them, but you might need to make the first invitation. Your Black friends might not be sure where they really stand with you. It’s up to you to take a little extra initiative. The same goes for your son’s Black classmates. Reach out to set up playdates so that their moms don’t have to play the “I wonder if she is okay with Black people” guessing game.
6. Have you trained your son to respect women? One of the glaring characteristics of White male mass shooters is that they were abusive to girlfriends before they went on shooting sprees. Teach your son consent starting at a very young age. “If Sarah’s not having fun with you chasing her, you need to stop chasing her.” Teach it again at every age. Be open with your son about how sexual harassment feels. Teach him to notice when other men are engaging in harassing behaviors. Teach him to intervene. And go beyond that. Read books with him books that feature women as strong characters. Call him out when he says something is “sissy.” Teach him that feminine traits are to be admired, not despised. Talk about sexism and counter it.
7. What are you modeling as good authority? Do you want your son to hit people he is in charge of? Probably not. Then you need to not spank him. Sure a lot of kids who are spanked turn out fine, but statistically there is a higher risk of kids who are subjected to spanking turning to violent behaviors themselves both in childhood and later in life. It’s also plainly ineffective and fails to get to the root of the behavior (see here and here). Learn to talk things out with your kid, figure out what is really going on, and come up with creative solutions or consequences. Use positive parenting to reinforce good and kind behaviors. Ultimately, behave toward your kid like your ideal boss would behave toward you — clear expectations, open conversations, plenty of attainable incentives.
8. What are his conflict resolution skills? This is not something that all kids learn intuitively on the playground. If your son has siblings, you can work to help them develop good negotiating and compromise strategies. If they are an only kid, actively look for other opportunities.
9. What is his level of emotional intelligence? Does he have a vocabulary for his feelings? Consider using a feelings chart if he isn’t intuitive about it. Then take it the next level — ask him to observe people, and tell you what he thinks they are feeling. Ask him what might have motivated the character’s responses in his favorite shows. Ask him how his friends were feeling at school today. When he does something you think is mean, ask him how he thinks that made other people feel. Build conscious empathy.
10. What does your son think is manly and heroic? Define masculinity as something other than physical strength and dominance. Superheroes and video games aren’t bad things, but there is a tendency to glorify fighting. Whether you need to place boundaries on things like nerf guns and WWII video games might depend on your kid, but you need to be having conversations with him about why he like those things.
11. Can your son control his use of force? Consider enrolling your son in martial arts, or other activities that teach them to channel their anger. Taekwondo actually requires calming down. It requires knowing your strength and using only the necessary amount of force. Boys who do martial arts are less likely to be bullies.
12. What are his web habits? Check on his social media profiles and online browsing patterns, starting early, as early as he starts browsing. If you see something concerning, like a lot of time spent on sites with racist language, have a conversation with him about it, and set new boundaries.
13. How does he think you would react? Make it very clear to your son that you will not defend him if he is the one who hurts others. Mama does not have his back if he is the bully. You will not ask the principal for leniency. You will not pay his fines for legal infractions. You will not bail him out of jail.
14. Does he have access to weapons? Don’t buy him a gun before he has a fully developed brain. I really, really shouldn’t have to say that. But if your son is still in the phase where he would do stupid things on a dare (and most boys are until somewhere between 21 and 25), then he doesn’t need to have access to a weapon. If you have guns, keep them locked, empty, and separate from the ammo. If your kid ever gets to the guns without your permission, move the guns out of the house entirely. And above all, don’t give him one until you know without a shadow of a doubt that he won’t use it for harm.
15. Is your son aggressive or anti-social? If you think he might hurt someone, take steps to prevent it, and treat the root issue. Some kids are born with or develop mental health issues that really do put them at risk of hurting other people. If you think your kid might be one of these, talk to his pediatrician, get a recommendation for a child or adolescent psychologist, and make a game plan. There usually are things that you can do as a parent to mitigate violent tendencies. Ignoring it because you can’t imagine that your little dear one would actually do something that bad — that’s not a working strategy.
Most of this checklist should apply to everyone in their parenting. But White parents of cute White boys often get a pass. Black boys aren’t allowed by society to go through angry and acting out phases. Their parents will hear it if their sons are even a little rowdy. We White parents will likely get people brushing off our son’s behavior with phrases like “boys will be boys”. Other White people might say “teenage guys are just moody” about White boys. That means as White parents, we have to be the vigilant boundary setters and behavior coaches.
Can we fully control our sons and determine what kind of person they will be? No, of course not. But we can do the work of laying a good foundation and giving good guidance. We can model kindness. We can call out racism. We can set our boys on the right path. Anything less, and we are consigning our country to a dumpster fire and putting our Black neighbors at risk. Let’s raise our sons to be men who end racist violence, not ones who join in.