Malcolm Gladwell calls it the ‘Tipping Point’.  The critical moment where the smallest thing could make a huge difference.  That one moment that completely alters the trajectory of your life.

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In his book, The Tipping Point, Mr. Gladwell does not assert that childhood has a ‘tipping point’ but I believe childhood has an inexhaustible number of ‘tipping points’.  I’d be willing to bet anything that you totally agree with me.  I have little doubt that if you took a second to reflect on your own childhood you’d remember some seemingly trivial incident that undoubtedly impacted the course of your life.

Recently, I was asked to reflect on my life and my childhood.  Upon reflection, a couple of tipping point moments immediately came to mind.
During the summer between my fourth and fifth grade school years, I asked my parents for a Schwinn ten-speed bike.  My father’s resounding reply was that if I wanted the bike, I would have to pay for half of it myself.  That was the tipping point moment where I first understood the words “self-reliance” and “entrepreneur”.

So shortly before my tenth birthday, determined to purchase and ride my bicycle, I started a lawn care service partnership with my elder, ten-year-old friend, Michael.  Michael and I cut grass during the summer, raked leaves in the fall, and shoveled snow during the winter.

For all intents and purposes, Michael and I were expert lawn and landscapers long before lawn and landscaping became a professional industry.  If Michael and I only knew in 1975 what we know now.  Michael and I would have been co-owners of a billion dollar company like TruGreen.  C’est la vie!

Although I no longer operate a lawn care service partnership with my childhood friend, I’ve continued to embrace the word “self-reliance”.  I’ve also been self-employed the greater portion of my life.  Oh, and before I forget to tell you, I earned more than enough money to pay for the bike all by myself.  In fact, Michael and I made so much money that I was able to buy my red Schwinn ten-speed before the summer ended.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to ride my bicycle for very long.  It was stolen only a few weeks after I bought it and I was subsequently reduced to riding my sister’s pink girls Schwinn ten-speed.  Don’t laugh!  My stolen bike and my sister’s pink bike make up another great tipping point story that I will happily share some other time.
As a ninth grader, I tried out for the freshman basketball team.  Like so many African-American males, all I ever cared about was playing basketball.  I had what we called back in my day a “basketball jones”.  And just like today’s basketball junkies, I thought I was going pro too.

However, only days after making the final cut, I quit the team.  Actually, I just stopped going to practice.  During one of the first official practices, my coach made some horrifically inappropriate remarks.  Proclamations that not only shocked my conscience and offended me greatly but his behavior was completely contrary to my childhood foundation.

In retrospect, my coach’s outburst was the tipping point of my social consciousness.  My coach’s behavior and language made it unconscionable for me to remain on his team. Today, his utterances would have made it unconscionable for him to keep his job but things were very different in 1979.

I told my parents what had occurred at practice expecting outrage followed by action but there was only silence followed by passivity.  I sort of expected my mother to be meek.  It was 1979 after all and women, especially women steeped deeply in Christianity, left confrontation to their husbands.  But even my normally bombastic and self-professed militant father was unresponsive.  Neither of my parents had done what I had hoped they would do – ask to meet with the coach and/or his superiors.

The critical moment had come and gone without even a peep from my parents.  No longer on the team, all I could do was watch from the stands as my classmates chased their hoop dreams.  I was lost without the game I loved and my grades reflected my academic bewilderment.  I’m absolutely certain that this was another tipping point.

This moment was the tipping point that made it possible for me to understand that social activism is not without its cost.  That fateful day when my hoop dreams burst, I learned that more than often the only reward you get from doing the right thing is knowing for yourself that you did the right thing.  Moreover, I later understood that this was the critical moment where I first started to realize that I had to put education and sports in the proper perspective – academic achievement first, athletic prowess second.
As a parent, I have little doubt that my tipping point moments have greatly affected the way I raised my son.  There are probably few instances in his life where I didn’t contemplate the critical moments from my childhood and wonder how I could use my tipping points to improve the course of his life.  There were also very few moments in my son’s childhood where I wasn’t looking for his own tipping point moments to make sure that I didn’t undesirably alter the trajectory of his life.

I believe the tipping point moments that increase the likelihood that a child can reach their full potential are all around us.  And it’s the responsibility of parents to be both attentive and engaged so that we can recognize those tipping point moments as soon as they appear.  Being cognizant about tipping points and remaining alert when those critical moments happen is synonymous with great parenting.  I’ve said it many times before and it bears repeating – the sky is the limit for most children if parents just don’t mess up.

My parents didn’t confront my high school basketball coach.  For many years afterward, I felt let down by them.  Fortunately, by the time my mother dropped me off at college, I had moved past my disappointment.  Instead of regret, I started to imagine another scenario, a different tipping point.

As a college freshman attending a predominantly white institution, I imagined that perhaps, my parent’s inaction, four years prior, was what they saw as a critical moment in my life.  Maybe, my parents wanted me to focus on becoming a scholar and not just one more disillusioned 5’10 ½ inch African American male high school athlete unprepared to pursue a college degree.

Previously Published on The RS Project


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