The Parenting Tactic That Protected Enslaved Black Children

woman sitting in front of child sitting beside trees
Briona Lamback
June 7, 2024

It’s natural for parents to be proud when they hear nice things about their children.  But some parents might deflect praise with a comment like "he's a mess." Some parents may also insist their children not leave their sight whenever they leave home together. These reactions could be the result of generational trauma.

According to Dr. Joy DeGruy, clinical psychologist and author of Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, enslaved parents belittled children as a form of protection. When an enslaver complimented their child, parents saw it as a threat of harm or separation. Parents minimized their children's intelligence and strength so that enslavers wouldn’t consider them worth selling away from their families.

In the Jim Crow era, Black children weren't allowed to wander because any encounter with a white person could kill them. Systemic racism forces us to adapt to survive, so hypervigilance is a reflex. Epigenetics research shows that trauma can be passed on genetically.

Today, Black parents might hesitate to praise their children or encourage their natural curiosity. These are trauma responses that could harm children’s mental health and self-esteem.

We've always done whatever is necessary to protect our children, but it's time to abandon the behaviors that no longer serve us or them.