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Ylonda Caviness Headshot

Parenting Like FLOTUS--Raising Black Women in Training

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"Ain't no half-stepping!" Long before Big Daddy Kane -- or even the Seventies band, Heatwave -- put them to music, these were my mother's favorite words. Slacking was not tolerated in our house. And while I can't say she ever put it out there explicitly, mama clearly wanted us to know that as Blacks we had to work harder than everyone else. She was training us for the real world.

I am guessing from the way Michelle Obama is raising Sasha and Malia, she and I share similar backgrounds. I find nothing remarkably strict in her parenting. It mirrors my own. My daughters are 11 and 14, same as the First Daughters. Like FLOTUS I know my brown girls likely look forward to a wealth of slights and prejudgments on the basis of both their race and gender.

I am drawn to Mrs. O's mix of unwavering power and grace. And at last week's DNC as she stood next to her mom, the potent lineage came shining through. I caught something in the wise gaze of Marian Robinson that also dwells behind the elegant strength in my own mother's eyes. The two matriarchs are about the same and, I would guess, grew up with similar suffering -- including harsh prejudice and segregation -- and learned to make a way out of no way. My motherhood model seems similar to the First Lady's. See, when your mama and her mama before her come from hardship, tough love is the rule -- not the exception. Like 'Chelle (I'm sure she would let me call her that -- homegirls that we are) I know that raising black women-in-training calls for nothing less than the highest of expectations. I'm not bitter or cynical -- just realistic. My girls cannot count on a pass. The world may sometimes look upon them unkindly. I have to prepare them for that reality.

My 14-year-old daughter has no love for soccer. I force her to play -- hard. Not the town recreational league. She and her sister play on the travel team -- with a heavier regimen of clinics and regional tournaments. In preparation for fall play, my 11-year-old spent six weeks of the summer in special training. And I "nudged" her big sister to join the high school freshman team. It meant committing to twice-a-day, pre-season training in the August heat and daily afterschool practices.

During the week, the girls' screen time is limited. They are to strive for "A's" each marking period. More than a "B" or two and they need a plan for the next marking period. A "C" calls for a serious conversation. Every day they are tasked with making their beds as soon as they wake and cleaning the kitchen before I walk in the door from work. They've known how to do laundry for about two years now -- making sure to line-dry their (training) bras and camis. Although I usually handle the family wash, it's their responsibility to make sure they have clean uniforms and socks for game day. My five-year-old son doesn't get a free ride. He has to make his bed -- as best he can -- and organize the shoes on the door mat.

All of this seems pretty normal to me. But I know from my mom friends, both black and white, that what I regard as common-sense rules are not all that common. Most of them say things like, "I don't have the energy," "Good for you" and "I wish my kids would do that." Let's be clear: Like normal kids, mine whine and complain about how much easier their friends have it. They are not always compliant which means sometimes I take away privileges; other times, I go off on them. With a full-time job, three children and more bills than money my time and energy are in short supply. But the way I see it, this is basic stuff -- no more optional than teaching them to poop in the potty or say "please" and "thank you."

I do try not to be all hardcore all the time. Unlike my mother, I've only once or twice roused them from sleep to do their chores the "right" way. Although they are supposed to do as I say, I thank them as often as possible and praise them for a job (really) well done. There's a time for structure and there's a time for silly -- like watching recaps of the VMA's and ragging on the stars ("No she didn't just kiss Chris Brown!" and "Emma Watson looks Hogwarts hot mess in that get up?") Still, the girls probably feel as though I am riding them like a cheap pair of panties. Even my husband suggests that I am "too hard on them." I say I will believe him when they're 30 years old and they turn to me and say, "You know mom, you were tripping. Life is so easy."

Until then, we're going do things my way. No half stepping up in here!