Rod MacKenzie
Rod MacKenzie

‘Get the f**k over here!’ Baltimore mom teaches respect

My ‘instinctive’ response

Whammo! I loved it as this Baltimore mother gave her delinquent son a few snotklaps to teach him respect. Basic manners. Ja, bliksem him, the little bugger. He and his homies were stomping on and trashing them cars a few minutes ago, I betcha. I chortled as her tall, skinny son in his mean black hoodie got his well-deserved hiding as he meekly walked away and the crowds roared. Toya Graham became the inevitable overnight sensation the media needed to bring the Baltimore crisis down to earth and make it human: something we can make sense of. That it’s damn well time parents did some hard core “parenting”. That kids need to learn and earn respect and self-respect at home and elsewhere. Right on mom, give him another slap. I can see someone bringing out the T-shirts and mugs with slogans: “Don’t wait for the POH-LICE. Sort your son the TOYA way.” “TOYA. Teaching kids RESPECT.” “TOYA. Bringing up kids PROPER.” “I toya’d my kids today. Have you?” Wooden spoons and paddles with Toya’s monogrammed autograph would sell like hotcakes. The marketers could play on George Foreman’s famous line and try: “It’s so effective I put my name on it.”

My ‘moral’ response

Bear in mind that, like many, I was disgusted by the images of thuggish behaviour in Baltimore. Vandalism and other crimes have nothing to do with a civilised protest against police brutality. The “brat” Michael was a perhaps unfortunate (mis)representation of the looting and criminal behaviour Fox News and other channels would have us see. So I watched the clips of Toya a few times, grinning, shaking my head and egging her on each time. But I also wanted to examine more closely how uncomfortable I was with my glee. My enjoyment (yes, repugnant word in context) was based on a “serves the cheeky brat right” satisfaction. It was a satisfaction based on hating seeing innocent people’s lives threatened and seeing their property and livelihoods smashed by “hoodlums” who, as Barack Obama puts it, “need to be treated like criminals”.

My morality took over and I stopped laughing. This was my middle-aged sense of responsibility showing. But responsibility to what? Keeping children wrapped in layers of wool? I live in New Zealand where a big concern is that children are mollycoddled by laws against punishment of all kinds (you cannot even lightly slap a child’s bottom). Here even library fines are reduced for kids. So the children are simply not prepared for the necessarily strict and even draconian Kiwi rules that come into force for any misdemeanours once they are no longer minors … yet somehow suddenly expected to behave like adults. Toya’s actions invite us to consider the perennial question of how to punish and if one should punish one’s children. It invites us to consider the consequences of not teaching discipline and what the “line” is when one does discipline children. Toya Graham did indeed give her son more than a bottom warming. In public. “Oh,” the social workers might tut, “the emotional scarring for her poor little boy down the line”. “The humiliation of her tender mite in public. How will he ever heal?” The thought occurred to me that if she is this violent towards her son in public, well, imagine how she has dealt with him in private, especially when he was a lot younger. In fact, this is quite possibly why he is behaving this way. We could say there is a fair chance he had gratuitous, violent behaviour modelled for him at home. For on screen Toya humiliates her son Michael in public and, since then has perhaps been making the most of lucrative chances to appear as a guest speaker on host shows.

However, I also know it is not for me to judge Toya Graham. What I do see is a bewildered, frightened, angry mother trying to get her son to behave in a “civilised” way. While every citizen in Baltimore, black or otherwise, has the right to question authority and demand change, this should not be at the cost of losing respect for others.

But what if, instead of publically punishing him, Toya had walked on, ignored her son and what he was doing? What message would that send? How would that invite us to consider our moral compasses?

Home truths

Toya, as a vulnerable, working-class mother, teaches us that learning respect, self-respect and cherishing others’ dignity starts at home. What is “home” these days for most people? What is now resumed by the word, different to what it meant twenty or fifty years ago? Ours is a fragmented society which seeks comfort and escape in a vast array of online products and “apps”. So emblems of what a home “should” mean, such as the Family Table, the Family Outing or Project, or Parents Modelling for their children relationships, are increasingly at risk of becoming keepsakes in a museum.

WhatsApp and the like can never emulate the spiritual connection that takes place when people look at each other when they talk, and honour the other’s presence as they do so, even kiss and hug and reflect this love in front of their children. Instead of this, we have a beleaguered mother trying to correct her son in public, and her desperate actions are too late, far too late. This is what Toya and her son Michael’s actions symbolise: in the world of WhatsApp and other frosty pixilations, the collocation of family, home, hearth and intimate, nurturing relationships are so yesterday.

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