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Nothing disturbs me more than a “food on the table, a roof over your head” ass parent, and I mean nothing. As a child, I knew the routine. Ask for something completely unrelated to food, clothing, or shelter, and be guilted about all of the above. My whole childhood was one big IOU. Simply being born as a direct result of my parent’s life decisions meant having to hear just how much of a financial burden I was and just how lucky I should’ve felt to have parents who provided the necessities.
I carried that pathology into parenting myself, often feeling my son was ungrateful for not recognizing all I did for him out of duty. But one day during a conversation with a friend who had been struggling to find joy in discovering that she would soon be having a child of her own, I realized our community had harbored so much on the obligatory side of parenting that we had likely missed out on the actual joys of it. None of which, unsurprisingly, had anything to do with food, clothing, or shelter, all things adults are obligated to maintain whether parents or not. It was a recreation of her parental dynamic my friend was having an aversion to, the indebted feeling that many children are made to feel when finances make it difficult for their parents to see them past their obligation to their most basic needs. But regardless of how parents see their legal and moral obligation to provide for the lives they create, no one owes you for fulfilling your parental obligations, especially not your children.
The concept of reciprocity is a beautiful one when applied within the appropriate terms. Romantic relationships, for example, are one kind of relationship where reciprocity is at the root of its survival. A business relationship is another dynamic that requires equal contributions from both sides. Children neither ask for nor contribute to their existences in our lives, we bring them into it. We figure out how to sustain them while they’re there, not the other way around. So where did the idea originate that children were tiny burdens who pop up unexpectedly to curve our summer plans and empty out wallets for 18 years straight? Well, much of what we know about parenting comes from the plantation.
I get it, it’s exhausting to keep having conversations about current pathologies plaguing the global Black community and being told that the origins of these issues are ones we had no hand in creating. But we were never debriefed after abolition, there were no group therapy sessions or interventions, no parenting classes to attend, the physical chains were removed and the psychological ones were tightened. So if we think that the dynamic of human ownership is one we quickly recovered from, we’re not giving the institution it’s just due. The fact of the matter is that the possession of other humans is a concept we took with us, children went from being the property of their slave masters to the property of their parents. We have to take into account that children were being bred for the purpose of being put to work, the fruit of our womb was used to bear fruit from this country’s soil so it’s no surprise that our history here as it pertains to parenting is one rooted in the rules of plantation politics. Children were not the focal point of their own childhoods, they were judged on their ability to prove their usefulness and offset some of the costs of their keeping, and for some of us, that reality never changed.
Now some of us may be struggling with the correlation between seeing our children as our property and expecting our children to be forever indebted to us but the two are more interwoven than we think. How many of us have ever heard this from a parent, “I brought you into this world, I’ll take you out”? Anyone? Probably everyone if we’re being honest. And although we’ve been able to turn that threat into a funny thread of crazy things Black mamas say, it’s hard to pretend that statement isn’t riddled with the stench of ownership. For starters, so much for the gift of life, right? Anything you have to pay back isn’t much of a gift at all. And worse, if it’s a gift you forever hold the return receipt for under threat of retracting it at a moment’s notice, then it’s not much of a gift at all, more like a loan. We may not be serious about ending our children’s lives for talking back, but we are serious about the sense of ownership that we feel over them. And when we emphasize this ownership, it creates the same fight or flight response it created on the plantation. Who wants to constantly be reminded that their unavoidable consumption of air and electricity is a commitment to a lifetime of indentured servitude? Millions of us ran from our parent’s homes at the tender age of 18 for the sole purpose of freeing ourselves from the constant reminder that our presence was being calculated to the nearest kilowatt, only to turn around and recreate the same guilt-centered environments for our own children.
Guilt doesn’t just make children feel bad, nor does it teach them about adulthood or the value of a dollar. A 12-year study conducted at the Washington University of St. Louis found a correlation between childhood guilt and physical changes in the brain. While most of us are aware that excessive guilt is a symptom of adult depression, few of us know that that dynamic begins for many during childhood. Children who experienced excessive guilt saw a decrease in volume in the area of the brain known as the anterior insula, the region associated with regulating perception, emotion, and self-awareness. A decrease in the anterior insula has also been linked to mood disorders, anxiety disorders, and schizophrenia, not to mention recurring episodes of clinical depression. Speaking emotional debt into your children takes something from them, whether intentional or not, and no amount of food, clothing, and shelter can fill the void. This explains the dynamic between the parent who constantly gloats about the provisions their child enjoys and the child who seems disillusioned by it all. Ever been in a relationship where someone’s constantly doing things for you out of “the goodness of their heart”, but can’t wait for the opportunity to flash those same good deeds in your face in an attempt to establish your emotional indebtedness to them? Think how exhausting that dynamic becomes, even when you have the ability to leave of your own free will. Now imagine how damaging this rhetoric can be for a child who not only isn’t in the parent-child relationship by choice but is also powerless to escape it.
At some point, we need to assess why we cling to ideations as a community that are short-sighted and self-serving, one of the most damning ones surrounding our parenting. Western individualism has infected us with a something-for-something mentality, even down to our reproductive organs — because how could these little humans steal our bellies, our bank accounts, and our hypothetical baecations and expect to pay nothing back in return? They owe us, whether that means helping around the house, helping with the other children, providing us with emotional and psychological support, or helping out financially until the debt is paid, and the debt you take on for being given with the gift of life is one you never fully finish paying off. This mentality has nothing to do with learning responsibility and maturity and everything to do with our belief that no one gets a free ride on the plantation, not even the children.
There are many ways to communicate responsibility to our children without treating them like unwanted renters, and it’s in our best interest to explore those methods because contrary to popular belief, guilt isn’t a long-term motivator. Countless parents are stunned when their adult children opt to place them in nursing homes or avoid their caregiving needs altogether, but once the emotional debt is unpacked and invalidated, the behavioral obligations are null and void. We descend from a communal people who believed it was the responsibility of the village to care for and cultivate the children. After all, the children carried the future of the culture, and that responsibility was significant enough. If we teach children to do for others in anticipation of being done for in return, we strip them of the ability to enjoy the relationships that are not predicated on one to one exchanges, like friendships, sibling relationships, human-nature relationships, community-community member relationships, and of course, parent-child relationships. We have to raise children, especially Black children, to feel unconditionally loved not conditionally cared for. Only then will they become adults who see love as an incentive, not liens. After all, our children are our contribution to a better society, not our consolation for surviving a worse one.