Originally published on The Guardian.
I have what’s known as a “spirited” child. Mia has run me ragged since she knew how to walk. She’d run across soccer fields as a toddler, never once looking back. I have learned how to navigate her strong nature while nurturing it as well. I raised her to think for herself. I raised her to question. I raised her to defy – a privilege that far too many parents do not have.
In the United States, parents raising black and Latino children may think twice before raising their children to defy, especially as defiance could get them killed, arrested or expelled. According to recent research, 54.5% of children of color report being harassed by the police while, on average, 15% of all black students are expelled, as opposed to 5% of white students. These are simply not risks I ever have to worry about, despite Mia being strong-willed.
My privilege is not because of class. I cleaned houses while putting myself through college, raising my daughter well under the poverty level. This privilege comes purely from my physical appearance. I’m white. I have privileges as a parent that many others don’t. Of not only teaching but expecting my daughter to stand up for herself because I have no fear that harm will come to her when she does. I am reassured by her teachers that her willfulness will do her good as she gets older.
I’ve braced myself for parent-teacher conferences for the past few years. Her first-grade teacher last year told me: “I think I know how to handle her.” This, coming from a woman who’d taught the lower grades in elementary school for possibly as long as I’d been alive, still had to pull out some new tricks for my daughter to follow classroom rules instead of constantly challenge them.
I have to prepare my daughter Mia’s caregivers before I leave them alone. “She tends to be like a horse enclosed in an electric fence,” I’ll say. “She’ll test every spot to find the weak one to break through.” They smile and nod, pat Mia’s head, and tell me they’ll be fine. Then I remind them she is persistent and smart, citing the story from back when I worked and went to school and she managed to get all three babysitters in one day to take her out for ice cream.
One friend recently had Mia over for a special sleepover at her farm. As they were leaving, I heard her mention they had to swing by Target just to pick up something. I saw the glimmer in Mia’s eyes. Even though I gave her the usual “you are not getting any toys at the store” talk while saying goodbye, my friend still admitted Mia tried to talk her into buying several things.
When my daughter was four, I sought out the help of a parenting coach, who told me the behavior was perfectly normal. “Just think of the leader she’ll be as an adult, and try to cultivate that,” she said. Her bossy nature was a positive. It meant she’d possibly run companies, or maybe even a city, state or country.
I’ve never had to educate Mia on appropriate behavior around police, or what to do if they ever showed up to a park where she played, or a party she attended. I don’t have to ask her to repeat after me that she must keep her head down, her voice low and respectful, with her hands visible at all times when talking to the police.
When she plays with other kids outside our low-income apartment complex, I don’t worry that she will be profiled, and that a cop will stop to frisk her. In New York City, half of those stops are children and young adults aged 13-25, and only 6% are white. If I see a police car drive by, I don’t fear someone thought she was playing alone because of neglect on my part. I’m not afraid of her running around with a toy gun, or screaming and hiding during imaginary play.
When she grows into her gangly but muscular body, I’ll expect her to fight for her rights, and even protest. As a teenager, I hope she doesn’t take a person’s word for fact. But I won’t have to worry about her being a suspect for her skin color. I won’t have to worry as much about police using excessive force to physically take her down. Like all mothers do, I’ll worry when she leaves the house. But as a white mother, I won’t have to worry about her getting home safely because she has become yet another victim of police brutality.
Other parents in this country, our friends, and our neighbors, do not. And that is unacceptable.