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Social Studies


By Vincent Williams | Posted 5/26/2010

So, as much as we fashion ourselves to be gender-neutral parents, some things seem to be out of our control. Like clockwork, when our daughter turned 5, she informed us that she wanted to be a ballerina. Being the responsive parent that she is, my wife found a nearby church ballet program that runs from ages 4 to 16 and immediately signed the kid up for classes. Here's the thing though: The classes are headed by ex-Philadanco and Alvin Ailey dancers who, rather than treating them as an excuse for little girls to wear pink tutus, are instead running the program as a pre-professional one. And they are hard-core. Every Saturday morning, we parents sit in the waiting area while our little angels march upstairs to the studio like they're going to war. From below, all we can hear are the instructors banging on the floor, "Five! Six! Seven! Eight!" like crazy-ass Debbie Allen from Fame. And we've all been talking amongst ourselves about the pros and cons of having our daughters get yelled at.

Obviously, since we're all still there, the consensus is that it's a good thing. Best believe everyone's closely monitoring the situation and, for all the noise, the intensity is focused, and above all, professional. There's a recital coming up, and the teachers have set high expectations for the dancers. So we have all agreed that ballet has become a good lesson for our children in the tried and true Protestant ethics of sacrifice, deferred gratification, and hard work leading to reward. And, frankly, we all like the way the ballet instructors are toughening them up a little bit.

Because, in general, it seems like we all treat our kids so, I don't know, delicately. For the most part, all the parents I know planned their children with the same calculation and forethought with which we've all laid out every other aspect of our lives. Many of us don't have children so much as we schedule them in our lives. I don't think there's anything wrong with that--planning is always a good thing--but one of the by-products of our children being another task crossed off on our to-do list is the fact that we treat them like precious, breakable investments. Obviously, they are precious, and God knows they're breakable, but wow, things sure have changed, huh?

For instance, I knew the practice of spanking had gone the way of the dodo (we're timeout people and, as a veteran of the Generation X Spanking Wars, I'm surprised at how effective they really are) when it comes to child rearing, I think what has surprised me the most is how cerebral everything is. In my house, everything is a conversation. We explain in exacting detail our philosophy behind carrot consumption, the amount of Spongebob Squarepants viewing, and why she can't use scissors near the curtains. And we're not the only ones in my daughter's life like this. I swear, the preschool teachers spend more time justifying their approach to finger painting than they do actually painting. The same goes for our experiences with swimming, soccer, and gymnastics. As a result, I can count the number of times I've used the standard phrase from my childhood, "Because I said so," as a response. Everyone in my child's life, as well as in the lives of her peers, just reasons with kids. And we all do it fairly calmly.

This all new to me because I'm a big fan of the yelling. Oh, everybody yelled at me growing up. My parents yelled, my teachers yelled, baseball, soccer, and basketball coaches yelled, scoutmasters yelled. And the stuff they yelled! I'm talking about "Because I said so," but hell, you were lucky if that's all you got! "What's wrong with you?" "Have you lost your mind?" "You don't have the sense the Good Lord gave a mule!"

Frankly, part of the reason there was so much yelling in my life, and so much in this ballet class, is because it's some ol' black stuff. So much of the intensity from my own parents and their peers was wrapped in one of them telling me to "act like I come from something" and, if it was my mother saying it, adding a surprisingly specific litany of the generations of family members who had sacrificed and scrapped and scuffled just so I could (fill in the blank with silly thing I had just done). As that first generation of post-civil rights movement integrated kids, many of us were chastised and critiqued and, yes, yelled at within the unspoken context that we had to be an example to the wider world, that we represented those of us who weren't there.

In some ways, it's a testament to changing times that many of the girls in my daughter's dance class have never experiencing bike riding without a helmet or a swimming pool without swim shoes or being in an atmosphere like that. Thus, when these instructors, many of them either from the first generation of integrated dancers or alumnae of African-American dance troupes who had to fight to be taken seriously, come at their metaphorical throats like the Destiny of the Race depends on them hitting their mark, it's a whole new experience. And while I'm learning the difference between first, second, third, etc. position myself, you can be damn sure my daughter knows them already. After all, it's certainly been loudly drilled into her head in a way nothing else ever has been before.

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