“Mom!” He’s sitting mere inches from me but still feels the need to shout like I’m 500 yards away in a circus tent.
“Yes.” I respond as calm as a cucumber.
“This girl at school asked me if my ‘ash’ hurts. Then she said that my breath stinks.” His mouth is full of goldfish crackers and he’s telling me this list of insults with the same passion he reports there are no more clean underwear but with less urgency. So I was surprised when he added, “My friends think she likes me.”
I did a double take and gave my favorite kiddo the once over. I thought he’s such a handsome fellow all elbows, knees, and buck teeth. I took off my ‘mom glasses’ and tried looking at him with the eyes of a 3rd grade girl. I noticed his skin is dry and cracked at the elbows. And he does have build up on his teeth. But he doesn’t have halitosis and his eczema is under control so…
“I don’t know if she likes you babe. I think she’s worried about your skin care.”
His mouth dropped open and he is completely outdone that he’d be judged as anything less than perfect. “What do you mean?!” He demanded.
“Well…it should take you longer than 20 seconds to lotion your body. And putting a toothbrush in your mouth isn’t the same as brushing your teeth.”
Now we’ve had this conversation about 12 bazillion times but oh the magic of a little girl’s judgment on his hygienic practices. I wanted to capitalize on the impact this little girl’s judgment had but at the same time I recognized it was a slippery slope.
See…I made a conscious decision on my son’s 8th birthday to put him in charge of his body. I was very purposeful about it too. We had a ceremony. He got body care products, comb, brush, lotion, hair oil…I put it all in a special toiletry bag and told him, “Here are the keys to your self care.”
Some parents would be surprised that I handed the keys over at 8, while others are probably thinking that’s too soon.
But when I say I handed over the keys, I handed them all the way over. He gets to decide what haircut he gets. He picks his clothes and decides if he needs a big coat or jacket, even if it’s snowing and below freezing. I fix his plate, but he decides how much of what he eats.
He’s in charge of his body.
Historically, black boys have not been in charge of their bodies. They don’t have opportunities to manage their self care and incidentally as adults they have no clue how to care for themselves. They learn that their bodies are articles, tools for use. They have been taught by circumstance, situation, environment, or direct instruction that their bodies are not their own. They can be searched without reason. They can be involuntarily held down or brutalized against their will. They learn to live in bodies that do not belong to them and this requires a split or break…a disconnection with the body they are born in.
They are taught they are not in control of their bodies.
They are taught that they do not own their bodies.
So, radical that I am…I put my 8 year old in control of his body.
This means there are days when he’s wearing cutoff shorts and a hoodie with high tops and no socks.
This means there are days when he’s received a full breakfast but only eaten 2 bites.
This means at times his hair goes uncombed and his skin without lotion.
This means he doesn’t use the floss twice a day or the mouthwash ever.
But when you are black…
When you are male…
When you happen to be asthmatic…
And you feel like your body could betray you at any moment…
And you see how your body is judged as a tool to be used by others…
You’ve earned the right to the keys to your own self care.
Mind you, I guide. I direct. I delegate. I coach. I support. But I allow ever decision to be finalized by him. After all shouldn’t we all be in charge of our bodies?