Gabrielle Union on being a stickler for manners: 'Unleashing an undisciplined, ill-mannered child on the world? That's not fair.'

Gabrielle Union on giving back and the challenges of parenting a toddler and teens. (Photo: Getty; designed by Quinn Lemmers)
Gabrielle Union on giving back and the challenges of parenting a toddler and teens. (Photo: Getty; designed by Quinn Lemmers)

Welcome to So Mini Ways, Yahoo Life's parenting series on the joys and challenges of child rearing.

Toddler tantrums? Teenage power struggles? Bring it on. Between 3-year-old daughter Kaavia James — who counts movie stars, activists and supermodels among her 1.8 million followers — and husband Dwyane Wade's older children, including 14-year-old Zaya, Gabrielle Union knows first-hand why "there's nothing about parenting that isn't stressful."

But with the help of her "village," the star is making it work. Though Union admits she can be a "softie," she's strict when it comes to teaching good manners and sharing the importance of giving back in an authentic way. This year, that's meant teaming up with Ford to donate Maverick trucks to three charities close to her heart in what she calls an effort to "more practically give people exactly what they need."

Ahead, the actress, activist and author opens up about setting an example for the Wade brood, making time for therapy and trying to out-maneuver a toddler "who can smell the weakness on you."

What has motherhood taught you about yourself? Are there any firm ideas of how you thought of yourself as a person that have been challenged by becoming a mom?

What you realize very quickly is that any unhealed trauma from your life doesn't magically disappear because you love this little person. Your unhealed traumas will absolutely be passed on; your fears will be passed on. There's not a sudden separation from you and the things that you need to work on. And without even thinking, without knowing, you pass that s*** onto your kids. So it really made me realize that there was a lot of healing I needed to do in order to be the best mom I could be. It really goes into "you can't be everything to everybody else and nothing to yourself." All of those unhealed things will pop up fast, and in a hurry.

So word to the wise: Before you get married, before you have kids, before you form that dream brand or company, all of the things that you have buried and suppressed and not healed from and not acknowledged, it doesn't go anywhere. It will erupt. And there's nothing about parenting that isn't stressful. And when you're stressed, those unhealed things will bubble up. So, yeah: therapy [laughs]. Motherhood has revealed I don't go enough.

What is your parenting style? On social media, it seems like Kaavia is the boss, but are you actually a strict mom? Or a mix?

It depends on who else is home. If Dwyane is home, I'm the softie and he's the disciplinarian. If it's just me, I'm the disciplinarian. If the other kids are home, the dynamic changes again. So it really kind of depends on who's around. But I think because I have working mom guilt and I don't always have a lot of time with her, you're like, Well, I don't wanna spend the little bit of time I have disciplining her and her being upset with me. And so you tend to let things go that other people who are dealing with it more consistently are looking at you like, "You gotta put your foot down!" [laughs] and I have a hard time with that, especially if I've been away from the house.

So yeah, sometimes I'm a softie because I just don't want her to be mad at me, and that's a terrible way to parent [laughs]. But for the most part, I'm reasonable; I try not to lose it about every little thing. But she's also very observant ... like she can smell the weakness on you and she will take you for a ride. We're all — like, our whole village — trying to hold each other down so she can't divide and conquer. We're all the bad guy. That is our new goal: We're all gonna be the bad guy. Nobody gets to be the savior all the time. So I'm working on it.

So "Shady Baby" isn't just her alter ego. Is there any rule where do you put your foot down?

We don't play around with manners and disrespect and being polite. ... Unleashing an undisciplined, ill-mannered child on the world? That's not fair. So the village — and I say the village because it takes a whole group of us — we're all in alignment. We don't let really anything go when it comes to manners and being courteous and respectful. We're all always constantly correcting [Kaavia]. So yeah, we don't play about that. My parents didn't play about that, so it's not really something that's up for debate.

What is your biggest parenting challenge at the moment?

Teenage stuff [laughs]. There is a sense of being grown, you know — like they know everything, they've seen it all, they've done it all, they have access to every kind of information that you can imagine on their phones. And so when kids think they're grown but they're living with grown-ups, there's some butting of heads. You constantly have to [remind them]. It's not like, "I said it and that's it," like in my youth, where my dad said it one time. I didn't need constant reminders; these kids need constant reminders. You are going to repeat yourself a thousand times and it feels like you're just hitting your head against the wall, but whatever it takes to make sure that our kids are doing what they're supposed to be doing. And when they fall short, they are corrected quickly. But it's a challenge.

How did you get involved with Ford, and what about the three charities you've chosen to help resonated with you?

We're a Ford family. Most recently I bought a 1974 Ford Bronco and refurbished it and tricked it out for D. ... We're from Nebraska, so pick-up trucks are kind of a part of the fabric of society. So we've been a Ford family forever, so it was an organic extension to partner with Ford. But I chose these three organizations because they mean something to me and my husband and our hometowns and where we live, and just trying to figure out different ways of giving back. So it's like, well, Ford, they have amazing trucks. Why don't we give the gift of transportation?

All of these different organizations desperately need help, whether that's financial, whether that's services, whether that's transportation. We chose Deborah's Place, which is in Chicago, and they open their doors for homeless women. They are able to use the Maverick to take people to doctor's appointments, go shopping, run errands for the organization. You have that huge truck bed, so they're able to go get groceries.

Harvest Home L.A. is a residential program that serves unhoused pregnant women. Again, [it's about] having transportation, literally giving the gift of mobility for people who have been shut out of society and their babies to be able to get to doctor's appointments and shop and get around to job interviews. [We're] just trying to provide real help in a real way.

And then there's OutNebraska, which is in my hometown of Omaha, Neb. They advocate and of course celebrate and educate the lives of LGBTQ+ folks. They use the truck to get around the city — and of course, they can decorate the truck to go to Pride [laughs] and take folks to different Pride parades throughout the Midwest. To be able to use these amazing trucks that I actually own ... in a practical way [is meaningful]. I just encourage other companies, other brands, other folks, instead of just giving people what you think they need, what they need. And what we kept hearing from so many of the organizations around the country that we work with is they needed mobility. They needed to be able to have the freedom to move and chase their dreams and to try to change their circumstances. So we just thought that was kind of an idiot-proof way of giving back, and luckily Ford agreed. People say this kind of thing is like a Midwest value, but it should be a value for all of us everywhere.

Your family has been involved in philanthropy for a long time, but as parents, how do you instill those values in the kids?

As a family we have the Wade Family Foundation and for a long time in Miami, we would do things throughout the year, but our biggest giveaways were around Thanksgiving and Christmas. ... And so we showed [the kids]; they participated with us. And it's not just feeding people; it's not just writing a check. It's [asking] Who are these people? Oh, they're just like me, and they just have different circumstances. But to understand the humanity of your fellow man and woman, that starts at home. And that starts with showing people and leading by example. So everything that we're trying to teach them, we try to show them and we get them to participate with us.

Here it's been a little different since we moved from Miami to L.A., and it's been a pandemic, but that just means you have to get a little bit more creative in reaching people where they're at, and that's kind of what we do. But it's really about leading by example. We know a lot of people who talk a big game and all they do is write checks, but there's no connection; there's no humanity. There's no acknowledging of somebody else's humanity. So actually getting to know people and creating mentorships where there have been none [and making] real connection.s And I think that's kind of what's missing from a lot of giving is really recognizing the humanity of folks and that they're not unlike you. We're all a few steps away from being in the same boat, and we just never prioritize stuff.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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