A few years ago I remember reading a scathing New York Post op-ed entitled, “Any reasonable parent would be ashamed of Will Smith’s kids” and in the piece, author Kyle Smith (no relation) reads Will and wife Jada Pinkett-Smith for filth on what he believed were their incredibly lacking child rearing abilities.
“We don’t know for sure that Will and Jada Pinkett Smith are the most horrible parents on Earth. But the case for that seems strong when you consider their überentitled, brainless, self-adoring, twaddle-spewing little munchkins,” begins the author.
“These kids are nuclear narcissists. The elder Smiths may have boycotted the Oscars because they weren’t nominated, but they boycotted parenting because they couldn’t be bothered to raise kids with any grounding in reality.”
Clearly Kyle Smith is not a fan of this family with which he shares a name. But while it may be easy to dismiss the opinions of a 53-year-old white man about what Black parenting should look like, the truth is, around the time that post was written in 2016 many Black people on social media were saying the exact same thing.
We (as a collective) called the Smith kids weird and rolled our eyes at them as they mused about history, science and metaphysics. Old school folks were irate that the children weren’t spanked and actually allowed to voice strong opinions. Conspiracy theorists were convinced they were being raised in a Scientology institution surrounded by other cult members. And when Jaden decided to start wearing gender neutral clothing, the homophobes and misogynists — both male and female — lost their minds.
We may applaud Jada as a mother now that Red Table Talk is a bonafide hit and cultural phenomenon, but let’s not get amnesia and forget that it was just a few years ago that many of you were hinting not so subtly that she was barely raising her own kids.
Yet after all that smack talking, three or so years later, when Willow has grown into a beautiful and articulate young woman with the emotional intelligence of a healthy 40 year old, and Jaden is out here bringing water to the residents of Flint, Mich., faster than the government and erecting free mobile restaurants to feed the homeless community in Los Angeles — I can’t help but ask myself, “Do we need more Black parents like Will and Jada?”
And before anyone speaks up with that tired and dismissive response of, “Well if I was filthy rich, I could raise my kids like that too,” let me stop you. That statement is a lazy cop out because there are plenty of rich people whose families are still a hot mess, and dare I say it, the most impressive parts of the Smith’s parenting philosophies don’t cost a penny.
Let’s start off with the fact that they chose not to force the gender binary or most other limiting societal norms down their kid’s throats.
Your child is still their own person
Many Black people are raised by parents who they know are going to probably be more strict with them than the guardians of their white school mates. Black mothers and fathers ask a million questions, demand to see receipts and are quick to give out side-eyes when “one of your little friends” seems to be involved in some shady business.
To be a Black parent means to navigate the world as if you have trust issues. And historically speaking, that has always been a prudent practice. It has been widely acknowledged at this point that Black children are often not seen or treated as children and are subsequently targeted and disciplined at rates much higher than white children who exhibit the exact same behaviors.
But somehow while not trusting society, we also stopped learning how to build trust with our children as well. This is a trapping of parenthood that often creates relationships where instead of avoiding dangerous activities, Black children just learn how to lie to their families about who there — be it directly or through lies of omission. And the next thing you know, that kid grows up to be a 35-year-old adult complaining to a therapist about how they’ve never been able to confide in their parents.
The Smiths are far from perfect (honestly, who isn’t?) but one thing even their biggest critics have to admit is that the open dialogue that they’ve cultivated with their children is exceptional.
Case in point, just last month during an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live! Pinkett Smith revealed that Red Table Talk would be exploring the topic of polyamory in an upcoming episode, and shared that her daughter Willow booked the guests due to a personal interest in the topic.
“It’s a throuple that Willow was actually following on Instagram,” Pinkett Smith told E News. “That’s how it all came to be. She became very curious about this whole polyamory thing.”
Kimmel then asked the 47 year old if a polyamorous relationship was something that Willow might be interested in pursuing, to which the actress responded, “Possibly. I don’t know. Listen, she’s 18…who the heck knows what’s going to go down.”
Lets take a moment to really marinate on that moment. Can you imagine how much more fulfilling the lives of so many of us would have been if we had parents we could sincerely come to with that sort of thing without fear of being shamed, disowned or even worse?
There are literally Black children running into arms of the unknown just to escape the oppressive expectations of mothers and fathers who are too busy wagging their fingers to open their eyes and acknowledge who they’re really raising. The fact that the Smith children have never had to deal with the crippling weight of that sort of trauma is reason in itself for parents to consider taking a page, or maybe even a paragraph from their book.
Put your own safety mask on first
Aside from the freedom that Will and Jada have given their children to discover themselves, another thing they’ve been accused of doing is allowing their children to be “selfish.” Back in the day, no critique or slander against the Smiths ever seemed complete without someone making a quip about what “spoiled brats” the A-list couple was raising.
In our community we seem to give out gold stars for people who play martyr and put everyone ahead of themselves. We applaud women for enabling their men and building up their self esteem from scratch while receiving nothing in return. We tell men to not be “soft” and suck up their feelings in order to uphold the standards of stoic — and at times toxic — masculinity. We repeatedly tell ourselves, and our children, in millions of little ways, to de-prioritize their own needs for “the greater good” even if it means completely ignoring their own gut instincts.
Then after generations of that we wonder why mental health issues, anxiety disorders, and stress related ailments such as hypertension are still rampant in our community. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that there are direct correlations between our normalized unhealthy coping behaviors and the physical and psychological symptoms we exhibit because of them.
But just like when you’re in an airplane the flight attendant tells you that you must put on your own oxygen mask on first before seeking to help any other passengers, the Smiths have somehow taught their children the exact same thing about self care.
The reason why Jaden Smith at just 21 is such an amazing and thoughtful philanthropist, is because as a child he was empowered to be amazing and thoughtful towards himself, first.
He was told to explore what worked for him and what didn’t. He was encouraged to figure out how he felt about things and focus on what really mattered to him despite what others thought. And as a result, once he became an adult, his own sense of worth was so stabilized, he had a surplus of compassion left over to extend to others. And that compassion is literally now feeding and providing relief to whole communities in desperate need of resources.
That’s not a spoiled rich kid story, its a universal statement on humanity and what happens when we guide our children without overzealously squashing their dreams. How can anyone, especially in our current political climate, not see the value in raising more kids who navigate the world this way?
I think all those people who set up those “The Smith kids are weird as hell” message boards back in the day, officially owe Will and Jada an apology. The world tends to mock what it doesn’t understand, but in this case, the results speak for themselves.
Follow writer Blue Telusma on Instagram at @bluecentric