By Hilary Levey Friedman
“Carston Friedman, PUH-LEASE.”
With a three-year-old in my house I find myself using these three escalating statements fairly often. According to Ylonda Gault Caviness I ought to add “Child, please,” to the repertoire… Though more often than not I should actually be saying those words to myself and not to the children.
Caviness recently released Child, Please: How Mama’s Old-School Lessons Helped Me Check Myself Before I Wrecked Myself. The book could, sadly, not have been more timely. Just before its release Caviness wrote an opinion piece in The New York Times that went viral—”What Black Moms Know“—after the Baltimore riots. The piece describes her reaction to worries about college admissions (when your child is in preschool), the “Mommy Wars,” and Toya Graham, the Baltimore mom who gained nationwide attention after grabbing her rioting son and smacking “him upside his head.” If you liked the Times article you will also enjoy Child, Please, though it does differ from the book.
You might expect Child, Please to offer advice on raising kids today, and while the book does so it comes in a different guise than other parenting books you might know. Caviness has really written a motherhood memoir; stories about raising her own three children and her relationship with her mother form the story’s scaffolding. The major narrative arc traces Caviness’ early experiences as a pregnant woman and takes us through her pregnancies (including miscarriage) and how they affected her relationship with her own mother. The forays into her mother’s past bring up issues of region in America, class, and of course race. Caviness deftly weaves this cross-generational mothering story together with her strong and entertaining voice. It’s her mom’s hard-won pearls of wisdom that form the advice part of Child, Please.
Take for example Chapter 3, “Don’t Start Smelling Yourself,” likely the most evocative chapter in the book. Caviness pulls no punches writing, “White parents are punks.” She goes on:
Before you go and get yourself all offended, I hope you realize I’m sharing this information only out of love. The way I figure, if we want to know the crazy thoughts whites have about black people, all we have to do is watch Fox News. But you poor white people have no way to get the 411. If you tried watching BET, you’ve probably already been led astray, because, honestly, not that many black folks have as much sex as the average hip-hop star….It’s a scientific and well-researched fact that blacks and whites operate under a different set of expectations—a different set of goals—when it comes to parenting. Many black parents believe that obedience and respect for elders are the main measures of a kid raised right—which explains why you’re more likely to see a black child get yoked in public if he acts out. I don’t think most white parents place as high a premium on compliance (duh?). Instead, they rank things like confidence and autonomy high on the scale of ‘good kids.’
Definitely entertaining and assertive with lots of truth. But here, and in other places in Child, Please, I found myself hungering for more about the “scientific and well-researched fact.” Describing those findings and using them to bolster the wisdom and experience of Caviness’ family would have taken the book to another level. Similarly, given that Caviness was a parenting editor for several years I found myself wondering if she thought articles directed at black moms significantly differed from articles targeted at Jewish or Korean moms. Caviness has access to various databases that could have showed just how crazy some white moms might be for peeling a pea (full disclosure, I had never heard of this before reading it in Child, Please!) and it would have made for a different contribution alongside the memoir and folk wisdom.
Nonetheless, the larger cultural message of Caviness work is so important and rings out loud and clear. For instance, also from Chapter 3:
Black people love their kids, for sure. But historically we never had the luxury of thinking them precious. Special? Yes. There is a big difference. We don’t see our kids as anything akin to fine china, not to be disturbed or broken. In fact, given our druthers, most black parents would chose to ‘break’ their kids before someone else does… We fear that if we wait for our kids to simply outgrow such childishness, they might suffer at the hands of authority, especially those men in blue. Authority, with its billy sticks and handcuffs and black robes, has not been kind to us.
Beyond her writings on race the best parenting advice from Caviness, via her mother and mother’s friends, has little to do with children. Instead it has to do with taking care of yourself as a mother and as a person: “They taught me that, first and foremost, you have to love on yourself. And that doing so was not an act of selfishness, but an act of strength and wisdom and fortitude. This modern habit of mothers, almost bragging that they’ve no time to take care of themselves, no time to care for themselves? It’s not cute.”
During the summer we often think we will have more time, even though we often end up with less. So do yourself a favor, go get that pedicure you’ve been putting off, or head to the beach for an hour or to all by yourself. But don’t forget to bring a book when you do—child, please.
Hilary Levey Friedman, PhD is the Book Review Editor Brain, Child and the author of Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture. She teaches in the Department of American Studies at Brown University.