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Coloring Outside the Lines

Denene Millner of MyBrownBaby

About this, I’m really clear: If Lila, my littlest one, were left to her own devices (and her parents had more time, cash, connections and people), she’d be off somewhere fancy, ordering up room service, sipping a Sprite with lime, twirling about in her favorite sparkly black and hot pink Twinkle Toes sneakers and a wild, flashy dress that would make Lady Gaga look demure, talking ‘bout, “Can somebody turn my mic up high when I hit the stage Mommy?”

Yes, Lila is that kid.

Full of spirit—wild and free.

Oh trust: Nick and I have tried just about every disciplinary tool we could think of to tame that kid, but she remains thoroughly unbroken. Shoot, she isn’t even bent. And on our good days, we admit to a certain amount of grudging admiration for her strength of will and busy ourselves with an deep curiosity about what this child will grow up to be. The fact of the matter is that she is who she is and, tempted as we may be to want her to tamp down the 500-watt sparkle and shine, we’re working really hard to let our babies—even, and especially, the wild one—be exactly who they are.

This is a new concept around my way because my parents’ generation and the generations of African Americans who came before that ruled their homes with iron fists, thick, fresh, prickly switches and The Code: Children are to walk the line—to be seen, not heard. Coloring outside the lines—whether it be the way we dress, talk, act or just are—was a huge no bueno.

Which, I guess, worked for our parents. But not always for us. I’m passionate about instilling confidence in my kids and write about it often, simply because I know firsthand what being forced to color in the lines can do to a girl’s self-esteem—how being quiet and tragically deferential and afraid to express one’s self out of an abiding belief that you have no right to speak up can get you walked on. Make you miss out on your blessings.

On what you could be.

It was this I was thinking about when, earlier this week, the e-streets were clucking about Willow Smith, daughter of Hollywood power couple Will and Jada, becoming a pop star. In case you’ve been living under a rock/in a coma/stubbornly resistant to staying up on pop culture, I’ll recap: Willow, at the tender age of 9, became an overnight rap/singing sensation when her new single, “Whip My Hair,” became a viral smash, getting more than 100,000 hits in its first day of release on the YouTube yard. Since then, rapper/producer/world dominator Jay-Z has signed Lil’ Ms. Smith to a recording deal with his Roc Nation label and compared her to a young Michael Jackson.

Willow follows in the footsteps of her brother, Jaden, who got an early jump on his career when he made his film debut in “The Pursuit of Happyness”—at the tender age of 8.

And, in typical fashion, folks were all over the internet, bashing the song, questioning Will and Jada’s judgement as parents, breaking on Jay-Z for signing a 9-year-old to a record label that boasts provocative rappers, launching mean-spirited comments about the girl’s shaved hair and clothing choices. I mean, you’da thunk the girl knocked back a fifth of bourbon for breakfast, ate small children for lunch and then strolled the red carpet with Satan.

Like, come on, folks: Willow Smith is the child of a rapper-turned-actor who is, perhaps, one of the most well-respected, famous, and loved performers of his generation. His wife is no slouch in front of the camera, either, and their son is an official international heartthrob in his own right after his star turn earlier this year in the new “Karate Kid.” The Smith Family entertains. And it does it well. And a huge part of the world they live in has an obvious belief that you let your kids express themselves—that you don’t stifle their creativity. Isn’t it only natural, then, that Willow wants to follow in those footsteps? And that her parents oblige her by letting her be exactly who she is—shaved hair, shades, glitter, animal print knee-high boots, microphone, rap career and all?

I won’t even get into the sexism of it all—how nobody had a problem when The Smiths let Jaden become a child actor and wear his hair wild and wooly and be exactly who he wants to be. That’s for another post. No, this post is about how Will and Jada’s decision to let their daughter be who she is—full of spirit and wild and free—smacks up against the conventional wisdom of black America that children—especially girl children—are to live by The Code: Sit back. Be quiet. Play the rear. And always—always!—color within the lines.

I’d like to remind the naysayers that had Jay-Z’s mom not given him a boom box to encourage his love of music, he may not have grown up to be one of America’s most successful artists and entrepreneurs. If someone would have taken the violin out of Esperanza Spaulding’s hands when she was 6, we would have never hear this virtuoso’s incredible gift to modern-day jazz. What if Picasso hadn’t picked up that paintbrush? What if Tracey Reese never felt the whiz of a sewing machine beneath her feet? Or Quincy Jones never saw Michael Jackson spin on his toes and sing James Brown’s “I Got That Feeling” with all his might?

What if your parents had just encouraged you to pursue your passion—no matter what everyone else had to say about it, no matter how outside of the “norm” it was?

I’m not suggesting things will be perfect for this child. The road to Hollywood is littered with the bodies of child start who couldn’t handle the success, money and fame, and had quite a time of making the hard transition from kid darling to adult zero. And if what’s going on with Laurence Fishburne’s daughter is any indication, there’s no great guarantee that keeping your child from rocking a Mohawk at age 9 will keep her from spreading her legs for the camera at 19 (side-eye at Montana Fishburne and her burgeoning porn career, Lindsay Lohan and her various drug and alcohol-fueled penitentiary stints, and Kim Kardashian for just being that chick). But there’s no evidence that allowing Willow Smith to be creative as a youngster is the first step down the road to drug and alcohol-abusive, loud-mouthed, over-exposed hooker hell.

Nope, something tells me that Will and Jada won’t have a problem keeping top eye out for their baby girl—won’t hesitate to send her butt on home if it doesn’t look/smell/feel right for their kid. Of course, I don’t have any kind of evidence to support or back me up on their parental abilities—just a bunch of glittery, shiny pictures of their beautiful family, intact and in love, paving a new way for the rest of us mere mortals trying to parent our kids with a little bit more savvy than the parenting generations before us.

And this is what we all aspire to, isn’t it? To be better than our parents? To raise happy, creative, aggressive, unafraid, bold, smart, interesting children who see what they want and just, like, go for it? While everyone else shakes their heads and demands that child sit down, I’ll be over here, cheering on Willow being—and her parents for letting their daughter be—exactly who she is.

Who she wants to be.

My kid draws pictures of horses on her notebook, slays them on the soccer field, fancies herself a flutist, and wears Statue of Liberty outfits to the dinner table just because. Willow Smith shaves her hair and raps. By 14, both of them—my Lila and their Willow—will be on to new passions, forging new frontiers. Happy where they feel they belong. And coloring outside the lines. And we parents, if we’re worth our salt, will be right there with them, cheering them on and providing the safety net they need as they find their way down their own paths. Doing our jobs.

So dance your dance, Lila.

And sing your song, Willow.

Whip your hair and sang it.

To see more of Denene Millner's thoughts on parenting, visit her personal blog, MyBrownBaby.

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