Leigh Anne Tuohy, Mom Who Inspired 'The Blind Side,' Talks Parenting
Most women would feel a bit intimidated if, upon opening their front door, they found movie star Sandra Bullock standing there. But not Leigh Anne Tuohy. The Memphis, Tenn., mom found herself in that exact situation, but, in fact, it was Bullock's knees that were knocking when the two women first laid eyes on one another.
"Leigh Anne scared me from the minute she opened the door," Bullock writes in an interlude chapter of the new memoir "In a Heartbeat: Sharing the Power of Cheerful Giving," by the husband and wife team of Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy.
Described in the book as a "petite, talkative, outwardly soft woman with an inner ferocity," Tuohy is perhaps most famous for adopting Michael Oher, a homeless teenager turned Baltimore Ravens offensive tackle. Bullock's portrayal of Tuohy in the movie "The Blind Side " won the actress her first Oscar.
In their book, the Tuohys add personal insight to their story (before it was a movie, it was a bestselling book of the same title by Michael Lewis) about their generosity of spirit and how even the smallest act of kindest can forever alter someone else's life. ParentDish talked with Leigh Anne Tuohy, and an edited version of the interview follows.
ParentDish: In the book, you mention that in high school you once enraged your father by breaking one of his cardinal rules: Never, ever ride a motorcycle. But other than that incident, you seem to be pretty near perfect. Is there anything you can share with ParentDish readers to make us feel better about ourselves?
Leigh Ann Tuohy: I really was a goody-two-shoes growing up. I don't know if it was out of fear or respect for my dad. (My daughter) Collins is sort of the same way. I get tickled because, even at 23, she is still sort of the designated driver. I liked to go out and had a great time in high school and college and she did, too. But, like everybody else, I got caught cheating on a test. I did all those kinds of mischievous things. I rolled people's yards ...
PD: What does that mean, "rolled people's yards"?
LAT: You know, go out and put toilet paper all in their trees and stuff. I did all those kinds of things you do as a teenager, but I didn't have a bad-girl moment of any (significance). I had a lot of respect for both of my parents.
PD: Speaking of respect, do you think parents need to earn their kids' respect, or should it be implicit?
LAT: I think you definitely have to earn your kids' respect. You have little eyes watching you and every little thing that you do. You can't be absent, and not there, and not caring, and not providing, and not mentoring, and then expect them to respect you and turn out textbook (perfect). It's not going to happen. They're like little sponges.
Michael is such evidence of this because his needs were so obvious and we were starting out with a blank slate. There was just this constant teaching and look how (well) it turned out. You sit and talk to Michael and he has all the confidence in the world. You would think he could perform brain surgery; he thinks he can perform brain surgery on you. And this kid wouldn't even look you in the face when he was 15 years old. His chin never came within two inches off his chest because he wouldn't look up. Kids are just so teachable. Michael can tell you what a par in golf is, what color a Tiffany box is, what Chanel is and I can tell you what Fubu is, so it's a two-way street.
PD: In thinking about the whole nature vs. nurture concept, Michael came to you guys at 15, already very resilient and strong-minded, but he also got the nurturing from you and your family that allowed him to blossom and ...
LAT: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. I think that loving a kid and providing them comfort and security is step one. You just have to love them, love them, love them! That's what I tell all these school teachers I talk to all the time. I tell them, notice your kids first. You've got to develop a relationship with these students before you can begin to expect them to start listening to you, to respect you, to do what you tell them to do. It's not just going to start because you say so.
PD: A lot of your parenting rules really come through in the book. One of them is that children shouldn't be the center of the family but rather a part of the family. Now that two of the three have left the nest, what do you think has been most successful?
LAT: I hate to give advice because what works for one group of people doesn't necessarily work for everybody else. I used to get so mad at our pediatrician because he'd always quote me and tell stories about us to his other patients and then I would see them out in the real world and they would say, "Well, Dr. Bill says this and this." And I'd talk to Bill, and I'd say, "Don't tell people (about my parenting style). Just because this is how I do this doesn't mean that it's right and that it's going to be right for other people."
PD: OK. Fair enough. But tell us anyway.
LAT: I'm an (interior) designer. Our house is very warm and very comfortable. It's not like it's some museum or anything, but I still never put my stuff up (and out of reach of the kids). I had certain rooms with things that were mine and were not for the kids to play with. I would go into a lot of people's houses and they would have everything up on the shelf when they had little kids and I'm going, "No! Children are the most teachable little creatures in the whole entire world."
Honestly, I believe in discipline. I don't believe in beating a child. I can't tell you how many times I've stopped someone in a store and said, "If I see you touch that child again, I'll have your ass." But I believe in spanking their hands: "These are my things and they're not yours to play with." It only required three or four (hand spankings) because, after that, they didn't bother my stuff anymore. I've got a table in the living room that probably has 30 little Limoges boxes on it and they know that those are my things. You just have to set rules and regulations and then enforce them. You can't have rules and then not enforce them. But just because those kinds of things work for me, doesn't mean they'll work for everybody else. But they certainly have done well for me.
Just like Michael and Collins didn't have a curfew, SJ (Sean Jr.) doesn't have a curfew. Until you make me give you a curfew, I'm not going to impose unnecessary rules on you unless you make me do it. SJ knows that he's not 21, so he's not allowed to drink (alcohol). "When you're 21, if you and I want to go out and just get plastered together, let's go, then you can do it. But until then, it is not legal for you to drink." I'm also big on "not a lot of good happens after midnight," so if you're going to be out, you better be doing something that needs to be done. Because if you're just out tootin' around, then something bad's going to happen.
PD: What happens when you call people out on hitting or berating their child in public? And, do these people ever recognize you?
LAT: Yes, I'm recognized everywhere I go, pretty much -- I mean it's pretty hard not to be. This has happened to me at least half a dozen times. I have been in a T.J. Maxx or something, and I've seen an African-American mother jerk a child around, and I'll look at her and say, "Really? Was that necessary?"
Some of them have gotten defensive, and I say to them, "You're just getting pissed off because you know you did the wrong thing. Don't get mad at me because you screwed up!" Sean says somebody's going to shoot me one day, and I tell him, "You know what, that's OK. I'll have died doing something that I felt was worthwhile." One lady pushed me and I said, "You push me once more and the child won't be with you."
PD: What was that woman doing?
LAT: You know, she was just talking smack: "What are you going to do, cracker? Are you going to come over here and do something?" And I said, "Yeah, well, actually I am."
PD: In the book, you say your father, a decorated Korean War veteran and Deputy U.S. Marshall under President John F. Kennedy, "thought nothing of using the n-word." He died before Michael came into your life. What do you think would have happened if they had met?
LAT: I don't know is my best answer to that. I truly don't. I have some relatives who were close-minded and (now) they worship the ground Michael walks on and have taken him in with open arms. And I would hope with all my heart that's exactly how my father would have been, but that's just wishful thinking because I really don't have any idea. I think Daddy would have been fine with it. Michael would have adored him. But I don't know.
PD: Does Michael call you Mom?
LAT: Ninety-nine point nine percent of the time he calls me Mom. But if I've done something like yelled at one of his teammates or something like that I'll get this, "LEIGH ANNE!" I know when it's that tone that I've done something that he doesn't like. SJ does that too.
PD: In your book, you say your grandmother taught you that "Things are not important, people are." So, the prototypical question: What one thing would you grab if your house was on fire?
LAT: I would never think about one thing in my house. Being an interior designer, I've had clients whose entire homes have burned down and I've had to go through the entire restoration process with them. It's interesting to hear what people say. It's easy to say what you think would be the appropriate answer, but then you sit there and actually talk to people who have been through it, and they all look back at it and say, "Well, I really kind of wish I had taken this or that."
I've always thought to myself about this in a private moment and, well, I just don't see it. I don't think I'd take a chance and go back in if I knew the three kids and Sean and I were out. The heck with everything else! Even an animal's not that important to me. I mean, I love them and we've had great pets, but I just don't think it's worth risking if you get your family out safely. Everything can be replaced. I've learned that from Michael. We had to start from scratch with his stuff. I mean, we had nothing; we had no Social Security card, we had no birth certificate. We had nothing. You can unearth all that stuff. Those are just things; they're not important. I feel real strongly about that.
PD: In the book, you talk about how you rarely cook, but when, on the odd occasion you do, you cover every surface in the kitchen with Saran wrap and tinfoil ...
LAT: Now, now, we don't have to talk about that ...
PD: But it's in the book! People talk about OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) like it's a bad thing but, you know, it keep things in order.
LAT: I know! Exactly. I just don't like a big mess. It makes it easy for me clean up-wise, quickly, and it just works for me.
PD: OK, last question: What are you hoping people will take away from the book?
LAT: When we were all sitting around brainstorming for the title of the book, Sean said, "Hey, what about 'In a Heartbeat'?" And I said, "That's it! That's it," because that's how quickly our lives changed. It wasn't like we woke up that morning and said, "OK. We're going to go out and find a 6-foot, 300-pound African-American boy and give him a ride." It just happened. In that instant. And that quickly.
My challenge to people is, "Turn around. Look to your left. Look to your right." That quickly, there can be somebody under your nose that needs your help and even the smallest bit of kindness -- not necessarily bringing them into your home and adopting them, but you know, give a coat to a shelter, and take it yourself. You will get immense satisfaction out of seeing what it does for someone else.
And if you do those sorts of things on a regular basis, it becomes second nature to you. And that's what I hope that people do. Small acts of kindness. If we all do that it will have a profound effect on this country and I really believe that. I truly do.
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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.