Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Tantrum trauma

While Caleb is not yet two, he's firmly in the "terrible toddler" stage and can already throw a mean tantrum.  Now, a powerful tantrum is not easy to deal with in any context, but when you're in another culture that doesn't necessarily see children and child rearing in the same way, you can add self consciousness to your frayed nerves during these outbursts. 

Maybe I'm missing something but I've never seen a Kenyan child throw a tantrum approaching the duration and fierceness of Caleb's, or a tantrum at all for that matter.  So, while we already attract an inordinate amount of attention simply because of our skin color, when Caleb is being ornery there's an even brighter spotlight on us.  Usually Kenyans are incredibly gracious and forgiving of his little outbursts.  When I apologize or try to make light of his behavior, I get: "It's normal" or "It's only this age," and surprisingly most Kenyans will just urge me to give in to whatever he's whining about.  "Oh, just give him the cookie" and even "Don't harass the child. Let him have the soda." 

All this indulgence comes as kind of a surprise as all my experience with children in Africa led me to believe that parents generally dealt with them rather harshly.  Maybe this comes at an older age or maybe they're making an exception for someone else's kid, or a mzungu in particular. But I've been led to believe that the seeming uncomplaining and obedient behavior among Kenyan children is the direct result of a healthy fear of a thwacking at home. Though I know from teaching in a Liberian school that this obediency unravels as soon as that threat is removed.

In any event, last night Caleb and I had dinner at a Kenyan friend's house, during which time Caleb threw a record amount of tantrums culminating in our early departure.  The only time he wasn't whining or complaining about something or telling a well meaning Kenyan adult "NO!!" as they tried to engage him was when he had nipple in his mouth.  To be fair, the poor kid was exhausted from an epically bad night and in no mood to socialize. But amid my attempts to quiet him and redirect his tantrums, it finally came.  This comment: "Is it true that in the US, people don't spank their children?"

So, I get it.  The implication being that if I simply "laid down the law" once in a while I'd have a much better behaved child on my hands.  Who knows? Maybe that's even true, but it's not the kind of relationship I want to have with my son or the lesson I want to teach him.  Coming from a culture that supports that decision and provides all kinds of advice and validation to one that seems to question it is disorienting to say the least.

And I'm really not judging the occasional thwacking. Hey, my own folks spanked us and we turned out pretty well adjusted.  And I'm sure there are plenty of American child rearing practices that probably seem cruel to Kenyans - like sleeping alone, letting them cry themselves to sleep or forcing them into a schedule.

To be fair, I'm not even sure if my main supposition is even true.  Maybe Kenyan toddlers misbehave just as much as Caleb - especially when they, like he is now, are sleeping badly and living in a new environment, and maybe I'm just not seeing it. 

I guess this whole experience is forcing me to finally, at the end of the day, tune out what everyone else might think about think about how I raise my little boy and trust my instincts.  That's a truly invaluable lesson.

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