The Baltimore “Mom of the Year,” as dubbed by Twitter, has received a lot of attention after a video of her disciplining her son at the riots circulated the internet. Toya Graham, the single mother of six, is speaking out now about why she responded the way she did.
Across the country, people have both celebrated and criticized her for physically disciplining – and publicly shaming – her teenage son for participating in the riots that erupted in Baltimore earlier this week.
Ms. Graham was watching the riots on the news when she went to pick up her son at Mondawmin Mall in northwest Baltimore on Monday afternoon. When she arrived, she saw her 16-year-old son, Michael, with a black hooded sweatshirt and mask. She said at the shocking sight of her son participating in the riots, she “lost it.”
“He gave me eye contact. And at that point, you know, not even thinking about cameras or anything like that. That's my only son and at the end of the day I don't want him to be a Freddie Gray,” Graham told CBS News.
In that moment, Graham unleashed her frustration on her son, repeatedly hitting him and telling him to take off his mask and go home. The boy tried to evade his mother, but ultimately gave up and left with her. Graham said that violence and rioting is not the way to go about achieving change, and her desire as a mother is to shield him from that.
“There's some days that I'll shield him in the house just so he won't go outside and I know that I can't do that for the rest of my life,” said Graham, reported CBS News.
When asked if she thinks other parents can rise up and prevent their children from participating in destructive behaviors, Graham said that sometimes it is not that simple. She told CBS News:
We don't know where those mothers are at, a lot of mothers have to provide for their children … You can talk blue in your face to your children, but at the end of the day they gonna make their own decisions. As parents we just have to follow through to make sure that's where they supposed to be at.
Mother Jones reported that while there were large numbers of teenagers who participated in the riots, the prevalence of the youngsters may have been exacerbated by police action that began before the riots. Police closed down many of the bus routes that left from Mondawmin Mall and the nearby high school, of which many of the teenagers depended upon for transportation home. Without the buses, or with parents capable of picking them up, many of the teenagers were stranded.
Many applauded Graham’s presence at the riot, and her ability to take charge of the situation as a strong parental figure. During a press conference, Baltimore police Commissioner Anthony Batts said: “I wish I had more parents who took charge of their kids tonight.”
But not everyone agreed with her approach. Two Cleveland activists, Telia Badu and Reginald Smith, said violence from a parent – especially in response to violence – does not help the situation.
“I feel like that was the wrong reaction to have as a parent,” Smith said, reported 19 Action News in Cleveland. Smith and Badu are raising a three-year-old daughter, and both said they would allow her to participate in peaceful protests and demonstrations when she is old enough to understand the consequences. They said that with everything happening in Baltimore, it provides parents a reason to discuss “civil responsibility” with their children.
“Sometimes you have to talk to your kids and figure out why they’re so angry,” said Badu, reported 19 Action News in Cleveland. Smith added the following advice: “Don’t let your emotions control you, try to think through them.”
Jonathan Capehart of the Washington Post said that in this case, he does not agree with Toya Graham's decision to smack her son but understands that sometimes parents face difficult decisions: let them freely engage in risky behavior, or put an end to it immediately.
“It is tough to watch another person being beaten,” Mr. Capehart wrote in a Washington Post blog. “If it’s a choice between her son rioting or her disciplining him so that he doesn’t, I’ll take the latter. It’s better for him. It’s better for Baltimore. It’s better for all of us.”
At the very least, Graham said she hopes her son learned something from the experience, even though he faced the wrath of her “no-tolerant” mothering style. She told CBS News:
“And by him seeing everything what's going on I just hope, I'm not sure, but I hope that he understands the seriousness of what was going on last night.”