Taraji P. Henson became a Hollywood household name when she was nominated for an Academy Award for her role opposite Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Her most recent film – a remake of The Karate Kid alongside Jackie Chan and Jaden Smith – is a bit more kid-friendly and generating a lot of buzz. We sat down with the single mom (she has a sixteen-year old son, Marcel) to chat about working with Will & Jada’s son, the importance of the family unit, and why she won’t let her son use Twitter.
What was it like working with Will Smith’s son, Jaden, in the Karate Kid remake?
Amazing. He reminds me a lot of my son: polite, charismatic, strong-willed and just a charm to work with. The Smith family and their values and morals are the same as mine. It was a pleasure; he’s such a good kid.
What can we expect from the remake?
The only thing that’s the same is the theme: fish out of water gets bullied and wants to learn martial arts to defend himself. That’s the only thing that’s consistent. It’s really a different film.
Tell us about your role in the film.
I play [Jaden’s character’s] mother. She’s like me in real life-when I read the script, I could really relate to her. She moves from her job in Detroit to China because she needed to bring home the bacon. And that’s how it was for me when I moved to L.A. I left everything I knew in Washington D.C. and moved 3,000 miles away, so L.A. is like my China. [I moved because I thought,] How can I show my son the dream if I don’t dream, and live to make my dreams come true?
Biggest pregnancy craving: Crabs. I’m from Washington D. C, and when I was in college, we’d always have blue crabs and beer. When I got pregnant, I couldn’t have beer, so I substituted it with watermelon!
Favorite vacation spot: I’m on my way to Morocco this summer for the World Music Festival, so I have a feeling that might be my favorite. Also, Tulum, Mexico. It’s friendly, they turn off the electricity at a certain times, and the food is really fresh. And it’s very quaint and quiet, because it’s not overpopulated.
Favorite exercise? Lunges because they tighten everything up really quick.
What makes you cringe? Hate. In any shape, form or fashion. Love is so much more powerful.
Weirdest habit: My dad used to take his thumb and rub it under his nose. And I used to suck my thumb, but when I stopped, I started doing that.
Which is harder: parenting a newborn or a teenager?
It’s all the same. Parenting starts when your child’s in the womb. My son is well-behaved, but there’s a dynamic between male-female. Once I show him that I know what I’m talking about, he’s willing to listen and learn. Kids are like puppies; they just want to please you. They don’t want to do bad, especially if you parent from the womb and let them know, “You’re not manipulating me. I’m the boss.” And the first time they start crying when you say, “It’s time to go to bed,” you have to let them cry it out.
Are you preparing yourself for when he starts dating?
I have to. He’s sixteen. I’m teaching him how to pick really good women, but he knows because he’s around really incredible women: his family, friends, me. We take it in stride and don’t let [the fact that I’m famous] get ahead of us. We’re human just like everybody else, and I’m not better than anybody because of what I do.
What is your parenting philosophy?
Listen to your children and communicate with them. You have to be there 100 percent for them. You have to pay attention to what they’re doing/reading/watching because this world is a very different world than when I grew up. They have all this information at their fingertips, and you have to pay attention-with eyes wide open.
Is there anything that’s off-limits to your son?
Twitter and sex stuff-anything that deals with things he’s not ready for yet. And we communicate. I don’t just say, “Do what I said”; I give him a reason for it. I told him, as far as sex, I understand your hormones are raging, but you can barely keep up with your extracurricular work and school work. There’s a time and place and reason for certain things, and while I’m not trying to take anything from him, with sex comes responsibility, and you have to be mature enough to handle it.
If you could teach your son one lesson, what would it be?
To trust his own voice. When I leave him and can’t always be with him to say, “Do this, do that,” I hope he can hear my voice and God’s voice. There are times when you don’t listen to those voices, and then you find yourself in a world of trouble. But if you start training yourself to listen and obey that voice, you’ll find yourself [avoiding] dumb choices.
What shocked you the most about parenting?
How expensive school is!
What do you wish you knew as a first-time parent?
How expensive school is! I would have started saving back then!
What’s your biggest parenting challenge?
Doing it alone. I’m a single mom, so I have to do everything.
Were you concerned about your son not having a male figure in his life?
We have a really big family, and he’s always had male camaraderie. He plays basketball and he’s close with his coaches. I allow him to be with the fellas. I also let him know that [raising your child solo] is right, but at the same time, he needs a woman beside him [when he has kids.] The family unit is better than one parent.
What parenting advice did your mom give you?
Do unto others what they do unto you. Whatever you put out in the universe, you’re going to get back.