bell hooks Wasn't a Parent, but She Taught Us How To Love Children

The beloved writer, activist, and feminist scholar taught us enduring lessons that we're passing on to the next generation of children.

Portrait ofBlack feminist bell hooks during interview for her new book
Photo: Margaret Thomas/The Washington Post/Getty Images

It's rare to encounter someone who doesn't mind speaking the truth, even when others prefer they remain silent. It's more rare to find someone who uses that voice to advocate for the freedom of all groups—including those they don't belong to. bell hooks did both at every opportunity. Even when speaking up was controversial or when it was a criticism of important and beloved public figures, like Spike Lee and Beyonce, she was not afraid to stand up for what was right.

Born Gloria Jean Watkins, hooks dedicated her life to exploring feminism and identity. She was an expert on both love and justice and wrote 30 books, including All About Love: New Vision, which spoke boldly and unapologetically about the experiences of Black women.

Though not a parent, she taught us how to love ourselves and our children fiercely. By respecting children, empowering them, and teaching them to advocate for themselves, we can raise children who are authentically themselves and care for others as she did. Here are some of the many lessons hooks taught us about our relationships with children that we hope to pass down to the next generation.

"When we love children, we acknowledge by our every action that they are not property, that they have rights—that we respect and uphold their rights." -bell hooks

Respect for ourselves and others is the root of love. Our children aren't exceptions to this rule. Showing our children that they are worthy of respect is the best way to demonstrate our love for them. But to pass that lesson onto them, we have to start with radical self-love that affirms their autonomy and dignity at every step. This is especially true for Black kids and other children with marginalized identities.

"I think that a lot of times in children's books that are oriented toward Black kids, a lot of playfulness is taken out… It's as if the world says, 'Oh, their experience is harsh, and we've got to prepare them for the harsh reality.' In fact, if we give our children sound self-love, they will be able to deal with whatever life puts before them." -bell hooks

All children deserve to see joyful representations of characters that look like them. It shouldn't stop there. They should be able to experience that freedom in real life. Though it's true that there's much to be feared in the world, there's also so much to look towards with hope. Raising Black children in anticipation of the reality of racism doesn't make life easier. But giving them regular reminders of their value and the importance of self-love can.

"The 'gaze' has always been political in my life. Imagine the terror felt by the child who has come to understand through repeated punishments that one's gaze can be dangerous. The child who has learned so well to look the other way when necessary. Yet, when punished, the child is told by parents, 'Look at me when I talk to you.' Only, the child is afraid to look. Afraid to look, but fascinated by the gaze. There is power in looking." -bell hooks

It's hard to look boldly at those in a position of authority, especially when they've done something that hurt you. But it's necessary to bring us closer to the nurturing, love-filled world we deserve. And it's required to start the work of generational healing. Parents have the unique opportunity to give children a place to practice pushing back. It's up to us to hear them.

"True resistance begins with people confronting pain... and wanting to do something to change it." -bell hooks

Learning to go inward and do healing work before heading out to change the world is an invaluable lesson, and childhood is the perfect time to start. Children will learn that confronting pain is hard work, but it's OK to hurt. Pain is the roadmap that shows us what needs healing.

"One of the most vital ways we sustain ourselves is by building communities of resistance—places where we know we are not alone." -bell hooks

Community matters. It's a parent's duty to raise children who know the importance of building meaningful relationships. It's even more powerful if children are taught to empathetically build bridges across differences and find common goals through connectedness. No one can win the fight for justice alone.

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