This is the first in a my "Raising Little Foreigners" blog series. It's simply my observations about raising children in a different culture. I firmly believe that no one way of bringing up kids is superior to the next, and that we all have a lot to learn from one another. I feel privileged (and often confused) to experience multiple answers to the question of how to bring up humans.
Caleb and I walk down the craggly Kenyan road, one of his little hands in mine and the other clutching his prized soccer ball.
A man is coming our way, looking at Caleb, his ball, and smiling. I brace myself for the inevitable, and he says it:
“Habari mtoto. Give me that ball.”
“No!!” screams Caleb and clutches his ball even closer.
“It’s mine, I want that ball.” Counters the stranger.
“No!! Ni yangu!!” (it’s mine) Caleb asserts, hoping the Kiswahili will make his message clearer, because this man is not quite getting it. He runs behind me, frustrated and a bit scared.
The stranger laughs good-naturedly at this display and chases after him saying, “I don’t have a ball. Give me yours.”
“NOOOOO. It’s MIINNE!!!” Caleb screams, completely at his wits end.
“Ok, Ok.” concedes the stranger and walks off laughing at what he perceives to be a funny exchange.
I’m not kidding when I say that this interaction has repeated itself near daily, as if there’s a federally required script. We cannot pass a Kenyan with Caleb holding something and NOT hear “Give me that ….”
Since Emmet’s been with us, it’s been “Give me that baby.”
This “give me your ball” exchange used to unnerve not only Caleb, but his mom. I was stuck between feeling simultaneously exposed and protective. Clearly, this game is part of typical adult-child daiologue, and Caleb, screaming vitriol at the unsuspecting person, is going way off script. It marks us as more foreign than is already obvious, the objects of laughter. I sometimes end up apologizing or explaining that “he’s just shy.”
At the same time, STOP TAUNTING MY CHILD!!
Every country has rules (written and unwritten) about how to interact with other people’s children.
In the US, teachers used to be able to whack your kids’ bottoms with a ruler. Now a hug from a teacher could prompt a sexual abuse allegation and a stern warning from a neighbor to “quiet down!” could lead to a Hatfields vs. McCoys situation.
Point is, other than a benign game of peek-a-boo, in the US, there’s pretty much an unspoken “hands off” policy, when dealing with other people’s children.
In my experience, it’s pretty much the opposite here in Kenya.
There’s a sense here that every kid is everyone’s responsibility. The old “it takes a village” cliché permeates everything. I’ve seen virtual strangers pick up each other’s children to comfort them when they fall, grab babies from each other’s arms without asking, and admonish (and even physically punish) other people’s kids when they misbehave. It’s seems expected and even appreciated. It’s certainly a way to share the burden of childrearing.
So, what does all this have to do with the whole, “give me your ball” exchange?
I think “give me your ball” from a stranger here is much like the “I’ve got your nose” taunt from a favorite uncle at home. There’s no reason to be scared of a little gentle teasing from a loving uncle. The teasing is just a way to relate, to interact.
I’m guessing that the “give me your ball” game serves the exact same purpose, and works because adults are viewed by children, in some ways, as extended family.
I’m happy to report that Caleb finally seems to get this dynamic.
Just the other day, Caleb was playing on his toy motorbike, and a visitor to the compound asked him to “give me your bike.”
Instead of feeling threatened, Caleb simply coyly hunched up his shoulders, smiled a “noooo” – the kind of a “no” that is followed by a silent “you silly man”- and even let out a playful laugh. And it felt really nice to finally be a bit more a part of this web of playful aunts and uncles.
|OK. This is NOT the motorbike he was riding. In that case, the "give me your motorbike" might have been more of a stick up than a taunt. It's the guard of our compound's bike that he lets Caleb play on. Kind of makes the same point though.|