On Monday, April 27, 2015, Tonya Graham looked on as her Baltimore neighborhood erupted in riots. As her eyes scanned a crowd of brick-throwing young men just a few feet in front of her, she saw 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 played hundreds, perhaps thousands of times on cable news, with millions more views over the internet. The frantic, diminutive mom ran into the midst of the rioters and forcibly grabbed her son.
She then began pulling the tall 16-year-old from the midst of the mob while repeatedly hitting him about his hooded head. Along the way, several salty “exhortations” escaped her lips as well. As he tried to walk away from her, she strategically 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. This wasn’t about impeding his right to protest, because what was going on had escalated into causing bodily harm to others.
Neither were her actions abusive as some have suggested. Though what she did was admittedly no one’s text book idea of perfect parenting, this small woman caused no permanent damage to her son’s body or psyche. While you and I 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, and her willingness to take extreme measures for our kid’s well-being.
Each day, parents are confronted with no-win scenarios. We are often facing single parenthood within a teen culture that celebrates disrespect. We deal daily with school systems who often think they know better how to parent our kids than we do. We face all this with limited financial resources and few easy options.
We began this parenting journey with babies in our arms, embracing them and a limitless idealism. We committed confidently to giving our kids “only the very best.” And then life jolted us into reality, and we faced the realization we may have to settle for simply doing “the best we can.”
We’re often overwhelmed with a nagging fear nothing we do makes any difference in their lives. So we see this lady caught up in a catastrophically violent page in our nation’s history, and we feel for her. Our own struggle may not be as epic, yet we recognize we are each of us fighting the same fight as hers.
Second, this mother didn’t just stand by and watch her son self-destruct. She did something, unlike many parents of teenagers around us.
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 kicking your butt down the street go viral, he now realizes it was for the best.
“I know she really cares about me,” he told them. Yes, Michael, she surely does.
And what if she’d not intervened? Her son might have been arrested or God forbid injured, even possibly killed. In that light, her desperate swats seem minor. This lady was literally fighting for her son.
In such an extreme circumstance, her blows might have in fact saved his very life.
As the parent of 5 and foster parent of many more, I’ve learned I need God’s grace to fill in the gaps where I fall short. I realize I am by no means a perfect parent, as if that species even existed.
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, and then permanent lifestyles that eventually destroyed their child’s life.
When one solitary little mother takes on her much taller son and says, “No, you’re not going to ruin your life,” I have to give her respect. I hope I’d have the courage to run into the midst of a rioting mob and do the same thing.
She didn’t just stand by like the parents of all those other rioters. No, she took action and did the best she could. And today her son, who was momentarily caught up in the immaturity of his youth, sincerely thanks her for it.
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, emotional, imperfect, and often embarrassing…
just like a mother’s kiss.