It happened as it always does — my opportunity to gentle parent when the world was seemingly falling apart. In my quest for maintaining a healthy relationship with outside news (while also having a healthy detachment from doom and gloom) I found myself on my weekly inquiry into the world as we know it. Just as I had suspected, the world is spinning faster; I read about multiple new mass shootings, blatant racism in our government, thousands of educators quitting their jobs, COVID is booming again, pox of monkeys … cringe.

At that very moment, my husband slinked toward me with a look that I know all too well. Something was up.

“Remember when baby boy was sick?” he asked.

“Yeaaa?” I responded cautiously.

“I have COVID,” he said, holding out his fresh COVID test and slowly slipping a black N95 over his face.

At six months pregnant, and with a toddler and an 8-year-old, this was NOT news that I needed nor wanted. I closed my eyes slowly, thinking of the past week of mucus and spontaneous toddler vomit that we hoped and prayed was a fun mix of allergies and dairy intolerance. Before I knew it, I was waking up with cold symptoms while life continued around me — my toddler was melting down about her favorite stuffed animal, my 8-year-old was secretly hiding his unwanted noodles in random places throughout the house, my baby girl on the way was growing enough hair to give me heartburn to last a lifetime — all while listening to my husband hacking up everything in his body in his quarantine room.

These are the moments when nothing is gentle about parenting. When the meltdowns and rough behaviors that were easy yesterday seem so hard today. It’s easy in these moments to reject everything that we’ve learned along the way and abandon the emotional maturity ship with zeal.

I think often about the way that I was raised — the lack of communication and understanding, the backhand that too many of us know all too well, and the “Get somewhere and sit down” that still lingers in the back of our minds. My healing journey has included an incredibly deep dive into understanding the psychology of trauma, of generational trauma, of the effects on our minds and bodies, and the way that it can change the DNA, as well as the ways that we think and process information. I vowed that the way I parent my children would not only break the traumas of my past but also the generational chains that we seem to have passed down in my family.

I started the long process with my husband of truly dissecting and re-learning everything we knew about how we were parented, about how we wanted to parent, and about what our beautiful Black children needed in their childhood to not just survive, but to thrive. To understand, to be mentally and emotionally strong and mature. To succeed, and to live a truly free adult life.

Thus was born our own mixture of conscious parenting, Montessori parenting, and gentle parenting, all through a social justice lens, centered around emotional wellness. A mouthful, yes, but a daily practice that I will NEVER abandon. One where in the quiet moments, we experience hearing our baby girl’s small voice apologizing for yelling in a moment of anger, or listening to my 8-year-old as he uses what we’ve taught him to talk through a hard moment or feeling. It’s enough to make me remember that these are kids who will grow to be adults, who are firm in their boundaries, comfortable in their accountability, and knowledgeable about their emotional state and wellbeing. I’m so happy to be doing the work. THIS is the work.

I can’t lie and say that I am some kind of parenting magician. Don’t be fooled; this work is never-ending. My own healing is a lifelong journey, and the “Get somewhere and sit down” inside me VERY much still lives on. Mistakes are made often, exhaustion is a feeling that I am familiar with, and weeks like the quarantine week spent with my husband (where we did both end up getting COVID, in case you were wondering) are painful reminders that life is not easy and doesn’t always flow and adjust to the plans that you make for yourself.

Parenting is a hill that I love with my entire being, but one that comes with emotional turmoil, triggers that you would never expect, and no handbook at all for how to move through this life with kids. Knowing that I can’t be perfect is a thought that keeps me grounded on a daily basis, but also a thought that brings poetry to this amazing life that we’ve chosen — a life that reminds you that kids don’t need perfect parents. They need resilient ones — ones that show them the gift of what it looks like to try and fail, to do the emotional work, to live in love when it’s easy to live in fear, and to try and try and try again.

If this is a life that you’ve also chosen, my hat is off to you. If it isn’t but you are looking for a starting place, here are five tips and tools that we’ve learned along the way. I hope that they can help someone out there reading this as they have helped my husband and me. Long live the paternal yodas and senseis; may we raise the healthy, emotionally mature warriors that we always wished to be.

Illustration of a yoda-looking dude on a colorful background.

1. Your healing is the starting point; carry on with care.

The work always starts within. Truly understanding your own children and what they need as separate entities from you starts with the emotional work that you do for yourself. Don’t be afraid to dive in, especially for those of us that come from lives riddled with trauma. Trauma has an interesting way of driving your emotional ship if you’re not careful, and digging into your own pain is a great place to begin.

Oftentimes, we unconsciously project our own childhood pains, fears, failures, and biases onto our children. That projection might mean seeing their freedom as your own bondage, their boldness as your own weakness, and their ferocity as your own fear. Projection, in my eyes, is the number one way that we as parents can blind ourselves from seeing the true essence of our kids, instead of living out our own traumas over and over through their learning experiences.

My own personal healing became my road map into the maternal pitfalls of my mother and the paternal emptiness from my father. From a place of love, I was able to see them no longer as my parents, but as people who had lived, been hurt, and were carrying traumas and plans of their own. I learned how to slowly begin the work of self compassion, feeling my way through it, to release the things that I was holding on to. Nothing about that process is easy, but being able to see your kids behave in a way that you wouldn’t have dared to out of fear, and yet responding with support and curiosity, is a gift that I can’t even begin to describe. One where the result is great and has positive effects on both your kids and your inner child. Stay on top of your emotional work; it will lead you to the parental promise land.

2. Raise them for the world they live in.

One of my struggles as someone who is big on preparation is knowing how to raise my kids as fierce, fearless, compassionate, strong individuals whilst also knowing of the traps and roadblocks set for them. I know from my history of being in our school systems as a little Black girl, and also mentoring other young Black girls in our cities, that traits like being able to stand up for yourself are sometimes easily misconstrued as confrontational, being competent seen as overconfident, and even simply being angry being confused for being problematic. But these fears are easily settled every time I remember that the depths of these issues simply have to be taught.

In many Black families, the life vest of passing down our stories often gets forgotten. The traumas seem too hard to talk about and the pain too impossible to relive again for many that came before us. But spending time explaining to young people the stories of your past is an invaluable road map to emotional success. A tool that gives the youth perspective to go along with the lessons that you are teaching along the way.

The world that we grew up in is one that no longer exists. So raise them to thrive in the one they live in. Teach them everything that you learn through your own healing journey. Understand that things are both easier and harder for them, and learn to give compassion instead of judgment. New challenges — such as your bullies being able to not only bully you at school, but follow you home via social media, curl up in bed with you, and tear you down relentlessly — is something that many older generations could never understand.

Don’t be afraid to teach your kids (in age appropriate ways) about the things going on in the world around them. They aren’t sheltered from any of it. So make sure while teaching them how to think and not what to think that you’re also leading the charge about integrity and the rights versus wrongs that they might be witnessing every day. Learning to master emotional tools like detachment, boundaries, and confidence are essential not only for the youth but for ourselves. Grow with them and make sure that you are a place of understanding in this world that is forever changing.

3. Accountability is not a cuss word.

If you were raised in the 80s or earlier, you were in some of the generations that vehemently believe that children are to be seen and not heard. You could get a backhand for asking for clarification, and a warm plate of food or a trip to the store was sometimes the only apology you were going to get from a parent. The memories of this are oftentimes great laughs for those of us who endured, but the emotional damages from these sorts of behaviors are great. The more healing I do, the more I notice how many grown adults lack some of the simplest of emotional tools. And as funny as it is to remember our childhoods pre-internet, the lack of tools passed down through many generations is the cause of so much suffering.

As I mentioned before though, perfect parents don’t exist, and becoming okay with that is a struggle of its own. Kids learn from us through our behavior. I apologize as often as I can for mistakes made — lashing out in moments of weakness, going back on my word in times of exhaustion, forgetting when I’m supposed to be remembering. All human mistakes, but mistakes nonetheless. For people that see children as not being worthy of common respect, I suppose that an apology can feel like an impossible task. Showing your kids that it's okay to not be perfect, that pride is a pitfall, and that an unhealthy ego is a detriment through apologizing to them when you are wrong just means that they can learn these lessons faster.

My daughter now apologizes for her own moments of weakness and works hard, learning through watching me, to make better choices. To see a 3-year-old being able to emulate those behaviors is just everyday proof that emotional maturity is something that can be taught to everyone. It’s not an impossible theme, just a harder one. Learn to exercise accountability; it is the bridge between us and enlightenment. Cross it often with your babies and show them how to take ownership of their lives and emotions.

4. It’s okay to be a priority in your life.

The most cringeworthy thing that I’ve heard when it comes to parenting was when I was pregnant with my daughter. Many times people would offer me unsolicited advice that sounded a lot like, “Nothing is about you anymore; you don’t matter, only your kids matter now,” or jokes about how exhausted of life my husband would become. I deeply understand the sentiment, but I loathe the message that this sends to us as parents.

If I had a time machine and could go back to when I was being parented by my own mother, one of the main things that I would tell her is that showing us resilience, work ethic, strength, and what it really means to hold your head high were irreplaceable lessons. But showing us self-love and how to hold yourself in high regard was a lesson that we also desperately needed. Being a happy mom is an everyday goal of mine, and of course there is no way to guarantee happiness every single day. But making sure that my own cup is full in order to fill my family’s is something that I wish I could package and ship to every parent on the planet.

It’s also important to address the harm that self neglect, such a toxic message, sends to children. Teaching your littles that they are the only people in your family that matter is a detrimental message; community is a lifeline. Teach them to be a part of it and to contribute to it, rather than be the center of it. There are many times as a parent when I’ve learned to ‘do life’ while exhausted, under the weather, or busy to no end. But taking care of ourselves can’t be an option; it’s a necessity.

This, of course, is more difficult if you are anything like me and have lost your parent support system, or are a single parent. I understand these struggles. But even so, in my own way, I know that this is one priority that has to be high on my list in order to be my best self. Make sure that you matter to YOU. Watch the movie, get your nails done, go out with the boys, spend time with your girls, put the kids down and slow dance with your husband or wife, schedule time to do nothing, set boundaries in your work life. Do whatever you have to do to make your own happiness a priority and never stop striving for that. Kids don’t just need parents; they need happy and emotionally stable ones, and they need to learn through watching you how to also attain happiness and emotional stability.

5. Learn healthy communication.

Many of us were not born with the tools for healthy communication, or on the contrary, grew up with very toxic communication being normalized. See yourself as a clean slate and do what you need to always be a student of this life, and especially when it comes to healthy means of living. I remember my first college psychology class vividly. Discussing healthy relationships, the professor talked about not using accusatory ‘you’ language when addressing someone (such as “You’re always doing this”), and instead using ‘I’ language (such as “I feel ___ when you do this”). I remember thinking that it was semi mind blowing, making our own issues about what’s going on with us instead of making it about what the other person is doing.

We talked a lot about relationships in that class and the thought that I have today is: Why do we seek healthy relationship traits for our partners but fail to prioritize them for our kids? We can pass down health or dysfunction but the choices are very much up to us. We often fail to see kids as worthy of respect because many of us have an unhealthy relationship with the word. We see respect as submitting to, or bowing down to, as opposed to what it is, which is a deep admiration of someone, or a due regard for their feelings, wishes, or rights.

We can’t teach our children how to have healthy boundaries without giving them and teaching them respect. Nor can we teach them healthy communication without communicating with them in a healthy manner. Learning to be direct yet kind is a tool that many of us could work on perfecting. Gentle parenting isn’t passive parenting, it isn’t speaking to your children in a baby voice and allowing them to walk all over you or grow disrespectful. It's setting clear boundaries, setting clear expectations, and explaining to them why something isn’t acceptable as a means to teach them instead of silence them. It’s showing children grace when they make mistakes while still teaching that our actions have consequences, and responding with love and curiosity when their big feelings overcome them instead of leaving them to fend for themselves.

Gentle parenting includes practices like commenting on the action and not the child (e.g. “I understand that you were angry, but being angry doesn’t give us the right to violate someone else by hitting”), switching out commands for invitations to do certain things, and encouraging positive action instead of the “because I said so” approach. It can be life changing. And when all else fails, when emotions start to get hot, learn to raise your level of speaking, not your voice. As hard as it is, show your kids how to keep a level head in a tense situation by teaching them that it's possible to speak in a way that others understand instead of yelling when you don’t feel heard.

All in all, these are five of the things that we have learned to become the people and the parents that we want to be. But even in their impactfulness, they are still only the surface level of the tips and tools that we’ve acquired. Join us in remaining students of parenting and life. Hopefully through this article we can encourage other parents to jump on board — to change the world one household at a time.

To every parent raising kids in these crazy times, while you’re trying to find the balance between completely panicking about the state of the world and welcoming peace, I hope that you know how valuable you are. Parenting is not easy, but it is the most beautiful and spiritual experience. To every single one reading this and bringing life into this world, I hope you know that you are seen and loved. Cheers to the Yodas, and may the force of healthy parenting and healthy people be with you.

Poet, writer, social justice advocate, and choreographer Daishaundra Loving-Hearne is no stranger to the arts or the power they hold. She is the CEO of Urban Poets Society and Loving Hearne, LLC, both organizations in our community centering the youth, art, empowerment, and mental and emotional wellness through a social justice & DEI lens.