By NICK CHILES
As black men, we spend a significant part of our early days making testosterone-infused snap judgments about how we think we’d fare in physical encounters with other brothers. “I think I could take him.” “Look at that little guy over there—I know I could take him.” “Whoa, that’s a big dude. But I could still take him long as I had a baseball bat.”
If you had walked up to me about 20 years ago and told me that two decades hence, the person in the world I’d be most frightened of would stand about three feet tall and tip the scales at 34 lbs., I would have checked your forehead for signs of fever. But there I was, more than four decades on this planet, and I could state without hesitation that the person who frightened me most went by the name of Lila Chiles and she fit exactly those height and weight measurements. Yes, as you might have guessed by now, my terrifying antagonist was my four-year-old daughter.
Before you prepare your laundry list of harsh judgments, let me establish a few things up front:
1. I love the girl more than I ever thought imaginable. My wife does too.
2. The girl is six now, and not nearly as bad. But she’s still a little scary.
3. If, as you read this, you find your tongue curling around the word “punk,” you won’t get any argument from me.
4. Yes, I am, indeed, quite a bit bigger than she.
5. No, she has never threatened me with any firearms. I don’t believe she’s threatened my wife either. If she had, I assume my wife would have told me.
When we’re out in public, standing in the checkout line at the grocery store or the Wal-Mart, watching some crazy white child tear the store apart while his mother helplessly wrings her hands, Black parents like to talk a lot of smack about how thoroughly we have our kids in check. You should notice that the ones usually doing the talking had the wisdom to leave their kids at home while they shopped. Those of us whose kids are somewhere nearby are almost always silent at these moments, pretending we’re busy loading our groceries onto the conveyor belt, secretly praying that our offspring, our seeds, as my rap friends like to call them, will not choose this particular moment to act a fool, perhaps inspired by the impressive havoc created by her white colleague over yonder. I know how much many of us brag about the damage we inflict on our kids if they deign to breathe at the wrong time, the serious beatings we dish out. But it has never escaped my notice that (1) the ones who brag the loudest usually have the worst-behaving kids, and (2) the oft-beaten kids are still messing up on the regular.
This is all to say that my wife and I had tried just about every disciplinary tool we could think of to tame the wild and free spirit that is my precious little Lila, but she remained thoroughly unbroken. Shoot, she wasn’t even bent. I had to admit to a certain amount of grudging admiration for her strength of will and an abiding curiosity about what this child will grow up to be. But first we all had to get through her childhood. Lila is six now, and not nearly as out there, but two years ago, when she entered the room, the family—me, my wife, our then-seven-year-old daughter and my then-14-year-old son— all would take a collective breath, each of us praying that her gaze settled on someone else. Her focus moved slowly around the space and, too often, it stopped at me.
“Daddy, can you throw me on the bed?” she’d ask, her eyes dancing at the hours of rough-house fun she believed she was about to have with good ol’ Dad.
Gently, I’d try to turn her in another direction. “Well, no, Lila, it’s already well past nine and you and your sister should already be in bed. Perhaps you’d like for me to read from your favorite book?”
One of Lila’s most noteworthy characteristics was her ability to go from zero to 60 in about two or three seconds flat, like an exquisitely engineered Ferrari. In other words, with no build-up, no warning, no slow burn, the girl could and still can go from smiling to a full-bore scream in about the time it takes for the words “well” and “no” to pass my lips. The bedtime routine some nights could last as long as two hours as the little one attempted every trick she could think of to avoid closing her eyes. “My tummy hurts.” “I’m scared.” “I have to pee.” “I’m thirsty.” “I heard something.” “I have to pee again.” (Of course).
All night long.
And if the wife and I had any designs on intimacy? Like a plait-wearing, brown-skinned bloodhound, she seems able to sniff any amorous intentions in the air. Add another hour.
For many decades now, the scientific community has been engaged in a ferocious debate about the process by which we become the people that we are. They call it nature vs. nurture. Are boys born with a predilection to rough-and-tumble physical behavior or do they come to us as virtual blank slates and we make them more violent and physical by the way we parent boys? Are our personalities pre-formed in the womb, or do the parents coddle one child and ignore the next, creating a clinger and a rebel?
Well, Heaven has to be missing an angel because my nine-year-old is the sweetest thing God has ever produced—always willing to help out Mommy and Daddy, writing poems in her spare time to tell us how much she loves us, bringing home drawings from school that depict her having fun with her family, always with a bright sun shining above our heads. Did we do something special to make her that way? I really don’t think so. Or, more appropriately, did we do anything differently with her little sister? I am certain we did not.
So I don’t want to hear another word about nurture, not while I still have vivid memories of cowering in the corner, hoping my beautiful, demonic little 4-year-old daughter would think of something else to do besides come looking for me.
For the record, let me say this once more: I love her more than I ever thought imaginable.
Wait! I think I hear her coming. God help me.