On Father's Day 2012, Black Fathers Need to Stop Being Absentee Dads and Start Parenting

Editor's Note: Lumumba Seegars published this piece last year in response to Amy Chua's Wall Street Journal op-ed, and referencing President Obama's 2008 Father's Day speech. We have republished here because we feel his message still rings true today.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal discussed the differences between Western and Chinese parenting. The author, Professor Amy Chua, praised a parenting style of not allowing her children to go on play dates, encouraging them to play the piano and violin, and choosing their extracurricular activities for them. Western parents, she argued, are way too sensitive about their children’s feelings and, consequently, never push their children to their greatest potential.

I am struck, however, by my realization that the experiences of the author – and her critique of Western parents – fell outside of what most African-American children experience. That is, many black children do not even have the luxury of a two-parent household.

It is no secret that many African-American children do not see their fathers. The problem is so widespread that then-Senator Barack Obama discussed the perils of absentee black fathers in a speech on Father’s Day in 2008 — in the middle of the presidential campaign. In his speech, Senator Obama noted that more than half of African-American children live in single-parent households. Those children who grow up without their fathers are more likely to drop out of school, become criminals, and end up in prison. These effects are detrimental to the African-American community and our entire country in general.

Obama pulled no punches in his assessment: Black fathers “have abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men. And the foundations of our families are weaker because of it.”

So instead of getting parents who don’t push their kids enough, African-American children just aren’t getting both parents. Many African-American mothers are doing the best that they can, but their efforts still come short because they do not have help. What kids need more than anything is for their parents – optimally, both parents – to be present in their lives.

Being present does not simply mean being physically available either. It calls for parents to be mentally, emotionally, and spiritually present as well. Kids need the full support of their parents — not just their parents’ unmet dreams thrust unfittingly upon them. Children need their parents to listen to them. Learn their interests. Study their habits. Discover their goals and strengths. Parents need to provide their children with emotional support that is empowering and not prescriptive or stifling. Kids need love.

The debate between Western and other non-Western forms of parenting is worth having. But for now, in my community, we need more fathers to be present. In all communities, we need all of our parents to be more present, beyond the physical.

What’s the use of forcing your son to learn the piano if he is truly a poet instead? What’s the use of forcing your daughter to learn ballet if her true passion rests in the science lab? What’s the use of forcing your kids to love something they don’t understand when they really just need your love and understanding?

For now, be present. And that’s not just for the African-American families. Chinese parents, I’m sure can do the same. And Korean, Indian, and Ghanaian parents too. We can worry about whether or not we’re pushing kids too hard or not enough once we realize what their true passions are and have spent enough time listening to and watching them. First, be present— in body, mind, and spirit.

Photo Credit: Seattle Municipal Archives