On Monday, April 27, Tonya Graham looked on as her Baltimore neighborhood erupted in riots. As her eyes scanned a crowd of brick-throwing young men, she recognized something only a mother could.
Behind a black mask and hoodie, she recognized the eyes of her son as he joined in the mayhem and threw a brick toward police.
What happened next has played hundreds, perhaps thousands of times on cable news, with millions more views over the internet. The frantic mom ran into the midst of the rioters and grabbed her son. She pulled the 16 year old from the mob while repeatedly hitting him about his head. Along the way, several salty “exhortations” escaped her lips as well. As he tried to walk away from her, she chased him down the street, away from the action.
As the video went viral over the next days, millions of parents looked at their TV screens and broke out into spontaneous applause.
I’ve asked myself why this connected with so many parents. It most certainly wasn’t what Salon columnist Joan Walsh tried to suggest, that Michael Graham’s mother was the surrogate abuser for “white America” who gladly cheered her on. I understand there’s racism in our culture, but Walsh’s comments were too tone deaf to deserve a response.
Neither was it abusive as some have suggested. Even if her actions weren’t anyone’s text book idea of perfect parenting, this small woman did no permanent damage to her son’s body or psyche. While most of us might not have done things the same way, there were two things about her that struck a chord with parents.
First, we connected with her because each of us faces the hard truth that our parenting is often messy as well, as we face our own insurmountable challenges in raising our kids. We share her sense of desperation to save her son from a worse fate than her anger.
Each day, parents are confronted with no-win scenarios – single parent families, a teen culture of disrespect, school systems often thinking they know better how to parent our kids than we do, limited financial resources and few good options. We began with babies and our own limitless idealism. thinking we’d give our kids “only the very best”. Then life jolts us into reality, and we begin to realize we may have to settle for simply doing “the best we can”.
We’re often overwhelmed with a sense that nothing we do makes any difference in their lives. So we see this lady caught on a catastrophically violent page in our nation’s history, and we feel for her. Our struggle may not be as epic, yet all good parents are fighting the same fight.
Second, this mother didn’t just stand by and watch her son self-destruct. She did something, unlike many parents of teenagers today.
At least for the moment, she seems to have succeeded. Her son Michael later told the media that while it was embarrassing having a video of your mom slapping you go viral, he now realizes it was for the best. “I know she really cares about me”. Yes, Michael, she surely does.
What if she’d not intervened? Her son might have been arrested or God forbid injured, even killed. In that light, her desperate swats seem minor. This lady was fighting for her son, literally. In such an extreme circumstance, her blows might have in fact saved his life.
As the parent of 6, I’ve learned I need God’s grace to fill in the gaps where I fall short. But as a pastor, I’ve also watched parents stand by while their kids spun out of control. They laugh it off, saying “it’s just a phase”. But too often, those “phases” turned into habits that destroy kid’s lives.
When one single mom takes on her much taller son and says, “No, you’re not going to ruin your life”, I have to give her respect. She didn’t just stand by like the parents of all those other rioters. No, she took action and did the best she could.
So here’s to all the moms today with sons and problems bigger than them. To the parents who struggle against impossible odds to raise their children.
We’re all thankful cameras haven’t caught us in our worst moments. But it’s in those times we prove what real parenting is: sloppy, over-emotional, often embarrassing…
Just like a mother’s kiss.