Sonya Curry likens her family to The Big Machine. Every member of the family plays a part in helping the household run at maximum efficiency, with chores and activities on schedule for each. So when her eldest son Stephen Curry—who would go on to become the basketball star Steph Curry—failed to do the dishes one week during his high school sophomore year, there was no question that he would not be allowed to go to basketball practice—despite it being before an important game. Curry told her son’s basketball coach that he would be missing practice, which, according to the coach’s rules, meant he would not be starting the next game.
“I reminded Stephen so many times to do the dishes that I realized he was starting to rely on me to manage him. That’s not going to work. I have to train my kids to manage themselves. That’s what this is about. Yes, everyone has to do their part to keep the Big Machine running. At the same time, they have to learn to be their own managers,” Curry wrote in her recent book, “Fierce Love: A Memoir of Family, Faith, and Purpose.”
Parenting for Curry meant having her children learn by making mistakes and learning that actions have consequences. Being the head of a private school in Charlotte, North Carolina, where she raised her three children, Steph, Seth, and Sydel, Curry knew that children must figure out the process themselves while parents guide them to the conclusion. Her approach is similar to the schooling philosophy she embraced as an educator: the Montessori method. Named after Italian educator Dr. Maria Montessori, the philosophy embraces a system of learning that measures success based on the creative potentiality of a child. According to Montessori, it would “activate the child’s own natural desire to learn.”
Curry first enrolled her two sons at a Montessori school when they were 3 and 5 years old. She was immediately impressed with how her sons, with different personalities, thrived in the same classroom while developing separate groups of friends. One day, the owner of the school approached Curry and asked her if she would be interested in running the school’s new satellite program for toddlers and kindergarten. Curry, with a degree in family studies and child development, agreed. She set up the new school on a piece of farmland.
This, she recalled, was the defining moment that led to her career in education.
After more than two decades at the school, she retired in 2017 and devoted her time to writing her book. Curry feels compelled to reach out to parents with sage advice: how to parent with ultimate success according to each individual child and his or her gifts. The bigger picture for Curry now is encouraging other parents in their roles of nurturing their children. “Hopefully the book keeps people talking about what they are doing as parents, to find support, and to offer support to others as a community.”
Her journey into the realm of teaching began at an early age. She had a natural gift for teaching. At the ripe age of 10, she taught lessons to several neighborhood children in the trailer park in which she lived. Whether it was math, spelling, or reading, she commanded the class and the children respected her—like a real teacher. One particular experience led Curry to witness how education could transform someone. A neighborhood teen named Philip had developmental disabilities and did not know how to read. Curry took the initiative to teach him. Seeing someone struggle, she was drawn to be that teacher or coach who encouraged success. In retrospect, Curry says this was the only career she dreamed about and opportunities just presented themselves throughout the course of her life.
When she got the opportunity to open her own Montessori school, she didn’t need the Montessori certification to be an administrator. “But it is really hard to lead teachers and parents authentically unless you have had the training,” she added. She enrolled in an intensive training program for nine straight weeks in Baltimore, Maryland. Though it was difficult leaving her children behind, this was her opportunity to learn the Montessori method. “In Montessori, teachers are guides who allow the unfolding of the child that God created. Create an environment where the child will learn and then take ownership of that learning. Here we don’t tell them what the answer is; instead, we encourage them to find the answers.”
Raising a Family
Curry places a heavy emphasis on faith and spirituality, such as by giving God the first part of the day through praying devotions. The family attends church on Sundays and participates in the church community.
Training successfully for spiritual growth also means talking openly about hardships. Instead of sweeping problems under the rug, parents should have important conversations with children about the kind of impact any decision will have on others, she said. “Learn to give yourself some grace, and give grace to other people—and then try to correct or make things right,” she said.
The Curry household frequently held family meetings to discuss schedules or hash out those tricky topics. Sometimes, the weekly meetings were replaced with a fun family outing. Family bonding is key for enduring difficult moments. She is grateful for them. “Fundamental life experiences are more about looking deeper under the surface so that you can glimpse down the road to the bigger picture.”
She recounts one such tough conversation when her daughter Sydel, at 14, wanted to attend a party where her crush was expected to show up. But the family rule was no dating until the age of 16. In an emotional outburst, Sydel told her she was the worst mother in the world. Curry then gave Sydel a choice. Could Sydel continue to live with her mother who respects her and protects her—or does she want to move out? It was a defining moment of parenting with fierce love. “Sydel needed to learn the valuable lesson of understanding her worth. She had to learn to protect her value because the world and other people aren’t going to,” Curry said.
Ultimately, Sydel apologized. Curry let her know that words are powerful and can hurt. It was a reconciling moment for the mother-daughter duo.
Her children also taught her the importance of writing your own story—instead of listening to others tell you what your story should be. This teachable moment came with her middle son, Seth. At practice and in school, he would just go with the flow, wondering why he should put in extra effort. But Curry insisted that children should be challenged to do better, to do their very best. Despite her pleadings and many discussions with Seth, he would not take this to heart, until it came time for him to realize it on his own. Through high school and college, Seth learned to overcome the challenge of being in his brother’s shadow, and he came into his own through hard work. At Duke University, his basketball career thrived, and eventually, he made his way into the NBA. With Sydel too, Curry decided not to be pushy when she wanted to pursue volleyball and drop basketball—the known family sport—from her high school schedule. As Curry wrote in the book, “Make yourself the hero.”
Curry admits to not being a perfect parent. But she contends that that is part of the process. “My advice to parents is to give it 100 percent with intentionality every day. Nobody is going to do it perfectly,” she said.
This article was originally published in American Essence magazine.