NY's Finest Dad
In terms of life experience, odds are that Philip Banks Jr. has got you beat. This retired NYC Police Lieutenant spent more than 27 years on the force before becoming the supervisor of criminal investigations in the Westchester County District Attorney's office. On the home front, he and his wife have raised three grown and successful sons - a school principal, an MTA supervisor, and a policeman who just happens to be the highest ranking black officer in the NYPD.
Nowadays, Phil serves as the President of the New York City chapter of the One Hundred Black Men, Inc., an organization that aims to improve the education and economic level of the African-American community and its youth. When he agreed to share his unique perspective as a seasoned and exemplary NYC dad, we jumped at the chance to sit down with him. Here's what he told us about his own childhood, his hopes for his children, and how policing the streets of New York helped to influence the way he parented.
When you were a young boy, were you close to your own dad?
Yes. As a youngster, we got along very well and he was a very providing father, but I had even more respect for him as I became older and had my own family. That's when we became very tight. I only had one other brother, and my mother and father had separated early in my life. I went to go live with my father from the age of nine and I stayed with him until I was an adult.
What did you like to do with your dad when you were growing up?
He had a wide social circle and we'd all come together and we'd go on picnics a lot. My dad was from North Carolina, so every summer we'd take a trip down there to visit his sisters and brothers. Those are my fondest memories, when he'd take me and my brother in those car rides. We'd also go upstate to Saratoga. He was a truck driver by trade, so he didn't mind driving all over the place!
So you're a true blue NYC native?
Yes. I was born in Harlem and I stayed there until the age of 9, when I moved to Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. I lived in Bed-Stuy until I was grown, got married, and eventually moved out. So, yes, New York City is my home town.
What was the most important life lesson that you learned from your father?
He never really discussed how hard he worked. He had a real dedication to his family and to being a provider for his family. That's something I picked up from him in my teenage years. He'd always provide for my brother and me. By comparison, my brother and I always seemed to be one step ahead of a lot of our friends in terms of our clothing needs or in being able to go away on trips. My father was a very hard worker. Whatever we needed, he insured that we had. And he insisted that we go to school.
So when you became a father yourself, what was the biggest shock for you?
My wife and I married very young; I think we were both 18. And the first year or two, we lived in my parents' house. By the time I was just shy of 22 years old, my wife and I had three kids. I just tried to keep up with the babies and tried to work very closely with my wife. I wasn't one of those fathers who left everything to her, you know, in terms of getting up and changing diapers and things of that nature. So just dealing with young kids at the time was a shock to me. I didn't know all the care that it took to go into it! That's when I started appreciating my parents even more for what they must've done for me.
You have more than 30 years of experience in law enforcement. How did you get into that line of work?
As I said, I got married early and had kids early. It never dawned on me that I shouldn't be a provider because I had my father as an example. His example was that I had to work hard and I had to make sure that I took care of my responsibilities. And so I started to take civil service exams. A policeman, at that time in my community, was like a top-of-the-line job in terms of income, so I went into the police department. And I went back to school and got my college education while I was on the force. I did 26 and half years in the NYC police department. I got promoted to Sergeant, then Sergeant Detective, and then Lieutenant. When I retired from the NYC police department, I went up to the Westchester County district attorney's office and I was a supervisor of investigation for their unit there. So I was in the police field for at least 35 years. Now, one of my sons now is a chief in the NYC police department so I'd like to think he followed in my footsteps! He's doing very well.
The police force probably kept you pretty busy. Did you have any trouble finding time to spend with your kids while they were growing up?
Between going to school and then looking for part-time jobs to supplement the income, yeah, I did. But again, with my father's example, I stayed very close to my kids. My father didn't play that much ball with me, but I was able to play ball with my sons because I was a young dad. I was still in a position where I could play football, baseball, or whatever they were doing. I made sure I found the time because I made a conscious effort to bond with my sons. That didn't just happen. I wanted them to be the men they've actually become. I recognized the importance of family at an early age and my sons are all family-oriented, responsible young men. That's the bottom line in my family: Take responsibility for what's yours.
What did you find was the toughest part of being a father?
Nothing, really, is easy. All I remember is that I knew I had to keep my sons occupied. On the force, I worked in the Brownsville area, which was designated at the time probably one of the two roughest parts of the whole city. Just seeing the crime and watching kids not going to school and how they fell into certain traps, I was very concerned about how I was going to keep my kids out of the same kind of dangers. So the toughest part for me was to make sure that my sons stayed focused on who they were and what they were about, and getting them to understand that just because you're pals with someone doesn't mean you have to do everything they're doing. I was always telling them, "You're going someplace in this world and in this country. There are opportunities for you. But you can't cut it short by doing things that are going to stop you." I tried to get them to understand that.
Were there any moments in which you thought, "Oh, no. I'm in over my head"?
I never really felt overwhelmed with them. They were good because they had to be. I had a pretty stern father so I was pretty stern with my sons. I rewarded them when they did well and if they came home from school with great reports, they got a great reward. If they got bad reports, then they were penalized for not doing what they were supposed to be doing. I remember I had to chastise one of my sons right up at the school. I got such a bad report on him that I had to discipline him right in front of his whole entire class. He never forgot that, but I never got another call from the teacher again. I thought that you had to be stern because if you weren't, you could lose them. And I didn't want to lose them. I never had to discipline my kids past the age of 12. After 12 or 13 years old, we became quick friends. And we're friends today. We're very close-knit. I'm so happy and I feel so blessed.
How often do you all keep in touch?
There isn't a whole week that goes by that I don't get at least two or three phone calls from all of my sons, so I feel truly blessed. I think discipline had a lot to do with that. Discipline and being fair, all at the same time, which kind of balances things out. I was conscious of that when they were growing up. I think working in the police department had a lot to do with my perspective. I realized early on that there's a balancing act that you have to do. And a lot of praying! We always had religion. God was always in our house. And they had a good mother, so it wasn't all me. My wife and I got along very well, and we worked on that together.
Did you read a lot to your sons when they were little?
I insured that they read. I made sure they read the newspaper and knew current events. We talked a lot. We'd speak about all different kinds of subjects, like sports, current events, and world leaders. I didn't do too much reading to them but, even now, we talk an awful lot. They don't mind my talking now, but they used to try to turn it off when they were kids. I'd speak to them about everything - about the crime in the streets. And I'd take them for a ride around the area in which I worked, just keeping them focused on the fact that they had to do the right thing.
It's hard to successfully stress the importance of school. How were you able to do it?
Like I said, I had conversations with them and took them out to see things. We did a lot of moving around not only in the city, but outside of the city too. I got them to understand that there was life outside of their immediate environment. I realized that too many people get stuck into thinking that this is it and that they're not going to have anything other than what they have. So I used to take them to various events to meet other people. Just by getting outside of themselves, it helped them realize that all of the things that we were looking to happen to them and for them don't come without the proper education. And I'm glad they took me up on that.
Did you keep after them about their school work?
My wife and I were always connected to the school. It wasn't just that we sent them off to babysit for our kids. We introduced ourselves to the teachers and to the principal of the school, and then we'd visit the school every now and then. We were very strict about them doing what they were supposed to do in school. That was non negotiable. We couldn't make them become doctors or whatnot, but we could give them the opportunity to be. My son David graduated from law school and is the founding principal of the Eagle Academy schools. Another son is a police chief and the other one is a supervisor. They're all public servants, but they're all leaders in their own endeavors. I've been very blessed. They've all got their own homes and have been out of my pocket a long time!
How did you keep track of who your kids were hanging out with when they were young?
I got involved with the community. I started to coordinate our block in terms of having a block association. I made sure that I introduced myself to all the parents on the block. That was conscious on my part. I made sure to communicate with the other parents that, hey, this is my son and if he's not doing what he's supposed to do, here's my telephone number. When Hillary Clinton says, "It takes a village to raise a child," I agree with that. I'm not calling our one block a village, but the atmosphere and the chemistry amongst the people, I think, helped a great deal. Beyond that, I was very particular about which of my personal friends I'd allow around my kids. I never wanted a slacker around. You had to be somebody who was somewhat progressive, or else you couldn't visit my house.
So for the Banks boys, what were some of your family's favorite NYC activities?
Central Park. We also liked to go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Hayden Planetarium. We used to go to the theater a little and we used to take the kids out to restaurants a lot. That's a habit they picked up on. They know a good restaurant when they see one!
Now that your sons are all grown, what types of things do you like to do when you hang out?
We normally come together around Thanksgiving or Christmas. But oftentimes, because of their own scheduling, it's kind of difficult to get all three together. Two of them took me down to the Bahamas once. They had a friend who was having some sort of tournament down there that Michael Jordan was involved in and they said, "Dad, you want to go?" I said, "Sure I want to go!" Two of my sons live close by and the third is in Jersey. But one lives practically in my backyard! His house is right across the street and the other lives in the same community, just a few blocks away.
Do you all ever have a good natured laugh about stuff you used to put them through?
You've got to realize, my guys are really up there in age. My youngest son is nearly 43 years old, so they've been adults for a long time. They'll make fun of me about how stern I used to be. My youngest son will start mimicking the way I talk. And some of the positions I take, they'll kind of animate that. But it's done in good nature, and we all understand that. But, yeah, they poke fun at me from time to time and if they thought they got punished for not a good enough reason at some point, they'll bring that up.
Are you a grandfather?
I have nine grandkids. We're moving right along! David has four; he's got a set of twins, and his oldest son is graduating from college. My second son, Phil, has two boys and one daughter. And then my youngest son has two daughters. My sons have been very productive! With so many kids, Christmas gets kind of tough. We have a tradition where we go to my middle son's house. Of course it's a little difficult for David to make it over there every year because he's in New Jersey and he's got his whole family, but my two sons here living in the community, we all pile up at Phil's house for the entire day.
Do your sons still come to you for advice?
When they come for advice - each one of them - that's what makes it all worthwhile for me. It gets to me that they still feel that way about me where they'll come to ask me something sensitive or ask me, "What do you think?"
What advice would you give to all the young NYC Dads out there visiting the site?
Whether you have sons or daughters, keep an open line of communication with them. They can't be afraid to come to you no matter what they think the outcome is going to be. If they did something bad, it's best for them to be able to know that they can come to you with it. Not being able to talk to you, in the end, will hurt you both. If they don't talk to you, that means they're going to someone else. Being in the police department and seeing the youth out there in the street, I know there are a lot of gangs out there and these gangs have an attraction for these kids. It becomes a battle, really, between the parent and the youth gangs out there on the streets. And if their communication level surmounts yours, you're going to lose your kid. The attraction of a gang is that they make kids think that they're family, that they're the only ones that care. So your kid has got to know that you care about him. If he doesn't know that and if he doesn't believe that, then you're going to be in trouble. And it's not enough just to tell it to them; you've got to show them. They've got to know that you're looking out for their best interests. If they ain't feeling that, then their allegiance goes someplace else. And once you lose them, it ain't easy to get them back. They've got to go through that whole cycle before they realize that he got it wrong. And by that time, it just might be too late.