Exclusive: Ylonda Gault Caviness On Her New Book, Child, Please

June 12, 2015  |  

Mother knows best. It’s what you say to your children, but know deep down inside know isn’t always the truth. But what if you really did have the answers? What if you actually knew more than you thought you did when it came to parenting? And even worse, what if your mother knew more than you?

It’s instinctive and that’s something that Ylonda Gault Caviness is accepting. In her witty new memoir, Child, Please: How Mama’s Old-School Lessons Helped Me Check Myself Before I Wrecked Myself, Caviness recognizes how effective her mother’s parenting skills really were. These days, we moms are juggling the pressures of raising our children in a parenting society that overdoses on advice.

Send your kids to private school. Give them music lessons. Don’t beat ‘em. Put them in time out. They must ride in a car seat until they are 16. Feed them fresh organic baby food that you make with your hands. Okay, maybe some of the new school advice is useful, but is it necessary?

It depends on who you ask. And if you ask your mom, chances are, she’s set in her own ways. And some of those ways aren’t as bad as you may think. As the senior producer for iVillage’s pregnancy and parenting channel, Caviness, a mother of three, has been writing about parenting for over a decade. But after everything she’s researched and written and experienced, it’s her own mother that still knows best.

Mommynoire: What sort of parenting advice did you want to give in Child, Please?

It’s not really so much advice. We get so much of that, it gets overwhelming. I feel like we are so inundated with advice, not only as moms, but as women. It’s just, we’re always trying to do everything better. Child, Please is a memoir. Even though I was writing about this stuff for a dozen years, my point is that there is no expert but you, and you probably know a lot more than you thought you know.

You caught some backlash for an Op-Ed you wrote for the New York Times titled “What Black Moms Know.” Tell us what happened.

People don’t know. You don’t write the headline, you write your piece. The headline that went with it is what set some folks off. I guess [they took the headline to mean] what we know and they [White moms] don’t. If you actually read, and not just go by the headline, all I’m really saying is that moms of color come from families where women worked. And maybe because of that we are a little more pragmatic and less vulnerable to every little parenting thing. I know [as a parenting writer], our readership would live and die by [what we wrote]. ‘Day care is good. Day care is bad.’ Every time you turn around there would be a different story.

What do Black moms know?

I feel like as women of color, we didn’t have a lot of choices, so we had to be pragmatic. That really is what you gotta do as a mom. It’s fundamentally your values and your lifestyle. We tend to think that our childhood was a lot more harsh than they really were and we forget the lessons. I was beaten as a kid, and I don’t think, I can’t imagine that I would do that to my kids. I just think it doesn’t work. We learn and we improve upon things. Some of the old school lessons, or sayings, ‘Go someplace and sit down. Act like you know better.’ If your baby was teething, you heard, ‘Put some whiskey on it.’ There was ‘kids conversation’ and ‘grown up conversation.’ We are so free now, but we haven’t put any boundaries on it. College professors and employers will tell you that this new generation doesn’t know how to think critically. They don’t have a clue. They haven’t grown up to know their place. There’s no boundaries. It’s time to put that back.

So how did it make you feel to hear criticism from some calling you racist?

Honestly, I was amused and flattered. I really was. Because you know, when you are a writer, you are in a vacuum. I really didn’t write it to get attention. I’m a pretty opinionated person. I didn’t say anything that other moms of color don’t think. It’s just that it was in the NY Times.

We live in a time where people are afraid to talk about race really honestly, and somehow talking about race seems to turn into racism. There are cultural differences, yes. I don’t think I said anything that was unduly harsh or inflammatory. If I’d gotten mostly negative stuff, it would have bothered me.

What were you hoping to accomplish with this book?

One of the big things, I thought, and I didn’t think this right away. As I got into my mom’s background, I learned as I got older, why she was so harsh. I knew that the South was prejudiced, but I did not know about her school. I knew her mom died when she was 2 or 3. I’m a very medium brown, but my grandfather was Beige. Back then, “beige” was close to Godliness, and they used to tell my mom everyday that ‘you’re black and ugly and you’ll never be shit,’ so she was hardened. Tough love was the only love my momma knew. I think [as Black women], we have a bit of a harshness. Sometimes, we feel awkward about that. It’s a holdover from slavery. Back then, you had to keep your kids safe…so you couldn’t have your kids getting so uppity. It’s almost like, ‘I’m gonna break you first, because I don’t want you to get out there and get yourself killed.’

I think all I was trying to say. I felt, like, regular women who are not super affluent and worried about which Au Pair to use, we had no voice. And I hoped that I would be giving us one.


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