My son is Black, and I am white. He insists that I can’t relate to him because I’ll never understand what he goes through. It makes me so sad.
Parenting advice on racial differences, being nonbinary, and family names.
Dear Care and Feeding,I am an almost 40-year-old, well-educated white male. When I was a teenager in a southern state, my Black girlfriend—also a teenager—and I had a child. Our relationship didn’t last, but I’ve been present in my son’s life, taking him for most vacations, including summer and holidays. His mother understandably moved to a more Black city to raise him amongst people who look like him, but she never married and he remains, for both of us, our only child. She’s done a great job raising him and our relationship is cordial. Our son spent half his quarantine with her and half with me.
AdvertisementAdvertisementAdvertisementOur son is graduating from high school this year. He and I have always had what I perceived to be a good relationship, but recently we’ve been having trouble communicating. He’s very angry about a lot of things that are of course things everyone should be angry about, but lately I’ve felt that he’s using me as a proxy for his wider rage at structural inequalities, using me as a stand-in for all the white men in his world and in the world at large who are at fault for a lot of historical and modern crimes. I try not to take it personally (after all, he’s had to “not take personally” a lot of things, and he’ll keep having to in order to survive, much less thrive).
AdvertisementStill, it is beginning to impact our relationship in a way I don’t like. I can’t offer advice as a father without being told that it’s impossible for me to understand anything about him. I can’t offer help without being told that I’m indulging my white guilt. My family, with whom he has regular contact and who have supported him as much as they do other family members—contributing to his college fund, taking him on family vacations, sending him cards and phoning regularly—are also a bit scared to react to some of his frustrations, so instead they simply agree with him and keep their mouths shut, which is perhaps the best I can do, too, though it is not what I want to do. I’m his father, and he’s becoming a young man—and I’m proud of him, but he’s still prone to mistakes that kids make (for example, he wants to skip university despite having the financial and academic ability to go to a good one of his choice because he feels that “universities are part of the structural inequality that holds [his] people down”). I don’t want to be cut out of his life because I’m the wrong color. How do I handle this? How much of this is normal teenage rebellion against one’s parents? Should I try to help him avoid potential mistakes, or just make it clear that I’m here if he needs me? headtopics.com
Advertisement—Want to be a Good ParentDear Want,I think you’re missing the point. Your son is rightfully angry (as you grant, in passing). He is figuring out enormously important things and questioning things you take for granted. His fury at structural inequality is “beginning to impact” your relationship in ways you don’t like, but your not liking that is not the crucial piece of information here. Your son is going through something
big. If it’s hurting your feelings that right at this moment he isn’t interested in advice from his white dad (who in factcannotunderstand what it feels like to be him, to live in his skin and move through the world), you are going to have to recognize that your hurt feelings are not central to what’s happening. Stand back. Listen when he talks. Accept the fact (as all good parents have to when their children start growing up) that you don’t always know better, and that this is just the beginning of a shift in the dynamic between the two of you. When the two of you talk, own up to the fact that there are things you don’t know, that you’ve made mistakes, that there are things you feel helpless about.
AdvertisementAdvertisementAnd for what it’s worth, by the time our kids are 17 or 18, wecan’thelp them avoid potential mistakes—andthispart of the parenting equation has nothing to do with Blackness and whiteness. We can try, sure. We can talk ourselves blue in the face. But insisting that they do what we want them to do—what
weare sure is the right thing to do—pretty much always backfires, one way or another. So, for example, if he feels strongly that he wants to skip college, there’s no percentage in forcing him to go anyway (even if you could, which I doubt), and debating the merits of going (straight on) to college is unlikely to yield a win for you. It’s possible that he’ll work his way through this on his own, however, given time and space to think; it’s possible that he’ll decide headtopics.com
laterto go to college.AdvertisementIt’s hard for parents of older teenagers to hear this, I know. We’ve spent so many years guiding our kids, overruling them when they want to do something dangerous or destructive, flinging ourselves in front of them when we see something coming that they cannot. Supervising them. And then they grow up and we need to recognize that their lives are theirs, not ours. And even that there may be some things they know more about than we do. This is only the beginning of that journey for you. If you can reframe the way you’re thinking about it (like:
he’s going to cut me out of his life because I’m the wrong colormight be recast ashow can I best continue to support and encourage him while recognizing that there are limits to what I can understand about his experience),you will be giving him more of what he needs and less of what you need.
AdvertisementAlso: letting kids who are on the precipice of adulthood know that we’re there for them if they need us is Read more: Slate »
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