There are those hovering helicopter parents who, like the wisdom-dispensing patriarchs of yesteryear, lecture their children with impunity about schools or friendships or what to wear out to dinner. Kaavia James Union-Wade’s parents, Dwyane Wade and Gabrielle Union have taken the opposite approach.
“First and foremost, we’re loving parents but we’re also humble parents. We lead with what we don’t know. We get things wrong,” says Union.
When Wade’s daughter Zaya Wade (from an earlier relationship) came out as transgender last year, her folks stepped back and let her find her way while also unwaveringly supporting her; they’re now vocal and engaged activists in the LGBTQ+ community through their Wade Family Foundation.
And when Kaavia’s very singular personality began emerging, with the toddler dubiously appraising most things in her life with suspicion and trepidation, Union and Wade wrote a book about it. The result is Shady Baby, a thoughtful and sweet, but also on-point, picture book detailing the tot’s park outing and interactions with kids who aren’t being nice.
In a joint interview, Wade and Union talk to Fatherly about encouraging their youngest daughter’s self-expression, supporting their oldest daughter through her transition, and why for them it’s better to shut up and listen.
Dwyane, your wife is a badass and one of my most favorite interviews.
DW: She’s kind of awesome.
Who does Kaavia take after?
DW: You know, her mother.
GU: We started to see her personality come through and we realized she’s very consistent. She’s very clear about what she likes and doesn’t like and what her boundaries are. When her boundaries aren’t respected, you’d see these very shady looks. So we thought, what if we created a children’s book about our own child’s boundaries?
Shade is a superpower. Shade, if it comes from a Black girl or woman, it’s seen as negative. Shade doesn’t come out of thin air. It’s a reaction to something. It can be our superpower. It can be a perfect aid of correcting poor behavior. We set this in the world of our toddler and her little friends. You can see these little Black girls lead, and lead the charge for behavior modification and accountability through shade. It’s celebrated. It’s not positioned as a negative. It’s a great learning tool.
After being picked on during a park outing, Shady Baby uses her signature side-eye to teach unkind kids a lesson about playing nice.
DW: We wanted to show that she can do anything she wants to do and show the diversity in her friend group. There’s lessons within this book that we hope kids can take away from it as well.
GU: We wanted to show that she doesn’t have to be the leader all the time. She’s vulnerable. Her friends are equally as empowered. We just wanted to show the full range of freedom: The freedom to lead, the freedom to be vulnerable, the freedom to just exist and be celebrated because you’re on the planet.
When did you first notice her very distinct personality?
DW: From birth.
GU: First it was this baby making funny faces and then it stuck. She came into the world like an old soul that was over it, as a newborn.
DW: She’s giving me looks like, ‘What are you doing?’
Dwyane, how do you feel seeing your wife raise your daughter?
DW: I love it. One of my favorite parts of the day is when Kaav comes in and grabs her mother’s hand. ‘Mom, let’s go outside.’ That warms my heart so much. My wife has a busy life, a busy career. When Kaav comes and picks her, that means everything to her because I know it means everything to me. She’s an amazing person. To know that my daughter is going to grow up having a mother to be a role model in so many aspects of life, that’s everything.
How do the two of you support each other as parents, with multiple kids in the house?
GU: We tend to be pretty in sync. We’ll have a look if it’s happening in the moment in front of the kids. We’ll discuss this later and circle back. We don’t contradict each other. And certainly not in front of the kids. We have those discussions away from the kids. What they see is a united front. There are days when he’s bad cop or I’m bad cop. We alternate.
You’re also very vocal in the LGBTQ+ community. How do you view yourselves in that context?
DW: I view myself as a student. I’m learning. I’m a father trying to support his child in every aspect of life. I’m here to learn and to listen. My experiences growing up are different than the world today. I understand the platform that I have. Our child is part of this community. It’s important for our child to understand that we support them in every aspect of life. I don’t know it all.
GU: There’s a separation in how other people see us and how we see ourselves. First and foremost, we’re loving parents but we’re also humble parents. We lead with what we don’t know. We get things wrong. The best allies lead with humility. We try to use our time and resources, and our platform to decenter ourselves. I think where people can get it messed up is when you start believing you are saviors versus allies who are there to lend assistance. It should never be about us. The best leaders know when to move the hell out of the way.
You’re also part of a program advocating for vaccines. Thank you for that.
GU: We both come from families where we lost a lot of people because folks didn’t want to go to the doctor. We wanted to address the inequity in healthcare but also encourage folks to get their recommended vaccines.
DW: We also understand that throughout this pandemic, we’ve tried to stay away and stay in. Doctors are doing everything they can for us. It means a lot, especially for me, coming from inner-city Chicago where health wasn’t a priority.
How has being a dad changed you, Dwyane?
DW: I would hope it continues to change me and keep going. It started with Zaire. I had him when I was 19. At that point, it was all about doing something so my son and my family could have a different experience in life than my family before had or that I had. You get another crack at it and another crack it and another crack at it. Approaching fatherhood and parenthood is about really seeing our kids and paying attention to them. Parents like to talk. We’ve taken the approach of, let’s close our mouths and let’s watch. I feel that today I’m a way better parent because my ears are open and my mouth is closed. I have a lot of purpose in this world but that’s my main purpose, what I’m able to accomplish as a father to my kids.
Gabrielle, you’re very outspoken. What triggers your inner mama bear to come out?
GU: What doesn’t? Injustice. An uneven application of rules – that’s a quick one. You’re going to apply a standard to my child that doesn’t apply to white kids or other kids? Harsh judging of our children. A lack of fairness. The list could go on and on. It’s our job to protect their peace. I protect their peace. Our kids to be free and innocent and their peace should be protected.
How do you see this whole Shady Baby line growing?
DW: We don’t know. We’re creating Shady Baby Universe. What that looks like, for us — we want to continue telling their stories. Not just about our daughter but about other families. You are unique to who you are.
GU: Kaav is watching a lot of manner videos. Don’t know how she found it. It’s about what to do in a restaurant. She’s having different experiences. And we’ll find that inspiration. We want to make sure these books are as universal as possible. There are certain things in Kaav’s life that are not exactly universal but most things are.
Who’s Kaavia most like, in her day-to-day?
GU: Usually when she’s falling out and throwing a tantrum, you’ll be like, ‘She’s just like you.’ When she’s on her potty with her iPad, she’s just like you! Her personality is not unlike mine. She looks just like D.
DW: She looks like me. Her personality is definitely her mother’s. She’s got that down. I’ll be in the kitchen and I’ll look to my left and to my right and both of them are staring. I look at both of them — look at those two individuals and they’re so much alike.