Saturday, June 9, 2012

Raising Little Foreigners: What's a Time Out?

This is the second post 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. 


************************************************************************

"Ashley if you throw sand one more time, it's going to be a time out!"

It was last Sunday morning during my visit to D.C., and I sat on the fringe of the playground rocking Emmet in his stroller and watching the moms and dads chatting to each other as they sipped their grande mochas and periodically stepped into the toddler fray to break up a fight, wipe a tear or beg little Ian, for the love of god, to give someone else a turn on the train.

Ashley, forgetting or willfully defying her mother's warnings, threw that sand again.  She joined me in the park periphery but served her time out with a quiet dignity.

Ahhh....  the time outs, the 5 minute warnings, the slow counting "one......twwooo.....threeeee" for a last chance before a punishment that's more threat than reality, the"if I have to tell you again, there's going to be no more...."

Like it or not, this is my tribe.  They were speaking my toddler negotiation language.  I know these battles are the bane of parents' existence, but it felt like music to my ears to hear this stuff repeated by nearly every parent in that park.
My people's credo

This is why: where we live in Kenya, there are not a lot of time outs, loss of "privileges" or three strikes you're out schemes.  This is based solely on my limited observations and conversations with Kenyans, but it seems that toddlers are generally indulged.

Why battle with a tiny person who has a lot less to lose and nothing but time?  Just give them what they want when possible or distract them with something else, but for the love of god, do not engage in protracted battle of will and reason.  It's like Socrates arguing with Jessica Simpson.  Socrates may "win," but Jessica won't care.  

[The mystery for me is that children in Kenya do not act the least bit spoiled. In my experience, they are incredibly obedient, well mannered and respectful of adults.  I've been told that's because at about 3 years old, the gauntlet is layed down, but that's a subject for another post.....]

And when I have tried to insert some boundaries in the face of a "I WANT THAT SWEETIE MAMAAAAA!!!!!" public tantrum throw down, I'm generally admonished by Kenyan strangers to "Just give the boy the treat" or even "Don't harass the child, mama."   So, I sometimes just sheepishly give in, avert the tantrum and further public humiliation, and go home to wonder simultaneously where my spine went and what the right response should have been anyway.

As ambivalent as I was about my own discipline techniques, Mary*, Caleb's caregiver, was sure of hers.   In that she didn't have any.  She would never hit Caleb but was also loathe to tell him 'no' or give him any consequence for bad behavior. I became worried that he would, unlike his Kenyan playmates, ultimately become irrevocably spoiled.

I know this is typical of nannies around the world.  Why discipline the child and risk incurring their wrath when you are mainly judged by how the kid reacts to you on mom's departure to work?  You need to be the softy. There's little incentive to discipline no matter the cultural norms.

So, we had a lot of discussions with Mary about not wanting to spoil him and wanting Caleb to grow up with humility and discipline and to basically be a "good guy," and she would always fully agree.  But given she had grown up in a context in which behavior was generally corrected by a thwack or the threat of a thwacking, she'd need to learn about "time outs," and the only way was to model what they's look like.

So, one day before I left for work but after Mary arrived, Caleb did something I told him not to.  I can't even remember what it was.  He probably threw his food or refused to get dressed.  After a warning or two was issued, it was time for our newly instituted "time out."

Caleb HATED time outs at that particular time.  A thwacking would have probably been more welcome.  I had to carry him kicking and screaming into the corner.  He was writhing and protesting so much in my arms that he almost threw me off balance, and I had to turn my head away to avoid ear damage. When he got in the corner, he tried to run away several times after which I repeated my fireman's carry back to the corner.  I was firm and consistent, and, finally, he was defeated.  He served his "time out" with bitterness and defiance, but ultimately apologized and settled down.  Nanny 911 would have been proud.

I felt mildly triumphant until I looked over at Mary doing all she could to suppress laughter.  I could almost hear her internal dialogue "You want me to do that!?!?  You've exhausted yourself fighting over god knows what started this whole thing in the first place."   I saw the whole exchange through her eyes and could almost agree.  It was a ridiculous spectacle totally out of proportion with whatever petty offense started the whole thing.

And I can see why a village mama, raising 12 kids (Mary was one of 12), while also busy with a daily regimen of fetching water, fire wood, washing clothes by hand, and tending the shamba would chose the path of least resistance when it came to discipline.  Indulge the little ones, whack the bigger ones and don't negotiate.  Spending 30 minutes sticking your ground on a point of principle to teach a lesson would seem absurd.

I know. I know.  I've read the books too.  Time outs are hard at first and it takes time, but then they learn.  It's kind of what we have if we want to discipline our kids without hitting them.  And Caleb now responds, most of the time, to warnings, time outs and 1....2....3s making our lives easier while avoiding physical punishment.  

So, we'll still discipline our toddlers the way the latte drinking yuppies at the DC park would.  But I won't be as dogmatic about it.  I won't feel like a failure if I have to give up and try again.  I'll laugh at the absurdity of it all even as I know about the eventual pay off.  And I'll recognize that there's more than one way to tame a toddler

---------------
Hooking up with yeah write this week after a brief hiatus. Go check out the site, read some awesome blog posts and vote for your favorite.  You won't regret it!

44 comments:

  1. You bring up a fantastic point -- How do you discipline outside the culture you are living among? It's even more difficult to stick to your plan! I enjoyed this post!

    Jen :)

    ReplyDelete
  2. I think the Hispanic culture is a lot like the Kenyan culture as well. Very indulgent of their kiddos. My 20 year old's grandmother would let her get away with everything! It would drive me crazy. Now that I have a 3 month old, I'm not looking forward to the toddler tantrums. I'm hoping he's not as willfull as my 20 year old.

    You should read Bringing up Bebe if you haven't yet. It's about an American raising her child in Paris and how the French raise them very differently than we do in the states.

    Great post, I enjoyed it!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Funny, how similar cultures non-Western cultures are in raising children. I think a lot is out of necessity when there tend to be a lot of kids, a lot of work, but also a lot of extended family to help out.

      Delete
  3. I found you on Yeah Write. I love this post and your blog. You are so right about the discipline issue being such a lightening rod. I have no idea what to do. I can't imagine doing it in another culture. I don't even like going to Wisconsin. Great writing.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's hilarious! Yeah, there are probably a ton of differences regionally in the US and house to house as well. I think most parents are not totally confident in their parenting choices because there is just too much choice out there in this country. It's not like in Kenya (or 50 years ago here) where you just do what your mom, cousins, aunts grandparents did and don't question it. Maybe we are more "humane" parents today, but it seems a lot simpler the other way...

      Delete
  4. Ha, that's interesting. It kind of makes sense -- to not battle a toddler who is going to forget about it by that night anyways. Then again...how do you keep them from being spoiled?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's the million dollar question. Probably by having those same battles and being firm when the child is out of the tantrum age? But who knows?

      Delete
  5. It is SO interesting to me how you've observed that children in Kenya are so respectful and obedient. I wonder what it is in our culture - entitlement? ourselves as parents? American capitalism? Bratz movies? - that makes American children need those time outs. Hmm.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ado, I think about EXACTLY this issue all. the. time!! In fact, I'm a bit obsessed with it. I still don't totally understand it but all the things you mention probably play into it.

      Delete
  6. Great post, this gives us all a lot to think about! Definitely makes me think about the bigger picture and choosing battles. Not only with toddlers, but with everyone in life. Exploring different cultures is a great way to give you a new perspective on life.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Totally agree! I find new perspective on life maybe too often. It's enriching and also disorienting, but keeps things interesting. Thanks for stopping by!

      Delete
  7. That is so interesting, from what I have read Chinese people also indulge their toddlers. When they turn 7 they are expected to tow the line. I wonder if it would be disaster if we were to do the same.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think that is so fascinating. Maybe it's just a matter of at what age we think our kids can process a lesson. We in the West tend to think very small children (18 months and up) can understand consequences and modify their behavior. Maybe they can with a lot of training, but is it worth it? Maybe if we just delayed all this reward/punishment stuff until they were 4 we'd save everyone a lot of headaches...

      Delete
  8. You bring up some excellent points. I often wonder if kids don't learn more by our example than by our parenting strategies. Having a discipline system makes us feel in control but if kids actually learn by watching how we behave ourselves, perhaps we need to give ourselves the timeouts and cut the toddlers some slack. Thank you for this though-provoking and well-written post. Good stuff.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Very good point!! If instituting a strict discipline routine for a toddler makes me crazy and crabby and frustrated is it worth it? I end up modeling being a anxious asshole, and the kids are sure to notice. Not good!

      Delete
  9. Well this made me feel better about my consistent threats and little follow through. LOL. I do follow through if the offence is especially bad (hitting a sibling and causing injury). But most of the time I just count, or walk over and enforce what it is they need to do, like "share".

    My children don't act spoiled so I think you may be right. At this age when they understand so little it's easier sometimes to give in than it is to stand their and fight with a toddler.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Carrie, I do the exact same thing. I totally fail at the consistency thing, so maybe this post was an attempt to make myself feel better about it. ;) But really, I do think there's some wisdom in letting some of the toddler discipline go sometimes.

    ReplyDelete
  11. This post made me think.
    It also made me grateful my children are almost 13 and 15...

    Discipline is much easier when they are older and in love with their cell phones - ha!

    p.s. For what it's worth, you sound like you've got the right balance...and good intentions, which is the most important step.

    ReplyDelete
  12. I think you just have to find what works for your child and stick with it. Every child is so different. It's very interesting to hear about other cultures and what is viewed as socially acceptable parenting.

    ReplyDelete
  13. I think it's all about knowing which battles to pick with our kids. (Kids of all ages)

    ReplyDelete
  14. When you discover the secret of the well behaved Kenyan children, please share. Please. My toddler is so willful, I swear ever single thing is a battle every day. I'm exhausted by the time Husband comes home in the evenings!

    ReplyDelete
  15. I am losing the battle with my toddler who insists on thwacking his baby brother on the head DAILY and willfully. We've tried time outs, talking nicely but firmly, showing him how to touch gently, saying No in various tones, distracting - nothing works. He's determined to hit the baby on the head and then looks at us defiantly.

    When you discover the right balance of time-outing and indulging, pray, tell me.

    ReplyDelete
  16. "Why battle with a tiny person who has a lot less to lose and nothing but time? "<--Yes.

    I have two toddlers at home, so I need this written so that I can see it from all points in my house. Time outs do nothing and while I'm making sure one is sitting in time out, the other is dropping cans into the toilet.

    I'm all for waiting until they are 3 then letting the hammer fall. The Kenyans have a point...

    ReplyDelete
  17. This was a really interesting perspective to read about...I find myself giving in to my kids more and more lately. I don't like it, but with a new baby to tend to, I'd rather choose my battles (i.e. not have any!). My twins are 6 and the baby is 7 months. Most days are considered good if each child only has one time out. Which doesn't mean there hasn't been a ton of threatening!

    ReplyDelete
  18. I wondered about this often when mine were toddlers and children and now that they are teens. There is no affluenza in my household, yet still they often act like princesses.

    I don't ever remember my parents being harsh - but I do remember having a strong desire to please them.

    ReplyDelete
  19. Oh I love your cultural comparisons! You do it in such a balanced and thought-provoking way.

    Maybe why we can't totally indulge our toddlers is that we never really tow the line with our kids. While it sounds like the Kenyans give a smackdown by age 4, by the time our kids reach their teens they seem positively coddled. I don't know. Ellen

    ReplyDelete
  20. "Indulge the little ones, whack the bigger ones and don't negotiate." I'm not a village mama, but this applies in my home.
    Enjoyed this post!!!

    ReplyDelete
  21. This was a really interesting perspective to think of discipline from.

    ReplyDelete
  22. There is most certainly more than one way! Every child is different. That's why I hate reading parenting books. I read them, because that's my lot in life-read about how other people raise their kids...but I don't like them. ;)

    ReplyDelete
  23. This is really well written and you bring up very valid points, especially about culture. Discipline is relative to culture, of course, and it's difficult enough to discipline in a culture we are accustomed to. That being said, I find any discipline that is handed out in a punitive manner to be off-putting, for lack of a better word. However, culturally, we seem to have trouble finding balance between punitive and 'giving-in' or foregoing discipline all-together. I've made it passed the toddler years and am now trying to discipline teens. It's very strange. Very strange indeed.

    ReplyDelete
  24. This was great. I loved it, especially because it sort of mirrored my own hodge-podge discipline philosophy. That's what I do - the challenge is moving from the indulge/distract to actually getting them to understand NO.

    ReplyDelete
  25. There's another reason for not engaging "in protracted battle of will and reason." The appearance of reason in a child is only an illusion. If they were truly rational creatures, they would bend to our will after being presented with the first logical reason for doing so. This never happens.

    ReplyDelete
  26. Great, thought-provoking post. So happy to have linked here from Yeah Write.

    ReplyDelete
  27. Great post! Really made me think. And, I loved the Socrates vs. Jessica line! :)

    ReplyDelete
  28. of course the other side of things is a culture where teen-agers and grownups act like toddlers: wanting bigger, brighter, shinier, faster, and then...bored with that, want another. But that's where I live, not where you live :)
    Time outs and that stuff seem fine to me, mostly, unless yes, you find yourself (as I see a lot of those playground latte drinkers doing) going overboard to "explain" to a 3, 4, 5 year old why she has to sit quietly on the bench now darling because throwing sand really isn't how we want to behave now, is it blabhblabblah...the whole too much information, too much backstory, just stop talking, sit the kid down, and done. Boundaries are good, and necessary, and okay, but endless negotiating with kids just confuses everyone, especially the kids. I think that being indulged as a toddler, if you're one of 12 - the chances of being spoiled are nil. There are too many other people competing for resources! Whereas being an only, or one of 2...greater chance for spoilage.

    ReplyDelete
  29. I believe in time-outs too. They work for us and my parenting mantra is to go with what works for you (well, within reason of course).
    I've had a hiatus, too. It's nice to be back and great to see you here.

    ReplyDelete
  30. I always wonder about this too. I've really tried to limit when I say "no" or enforce rules to the stuff I really care about. Sometimes just mild stuff that bugs me though puts me over the edge and I find us in a monumental battle over something that didn't really matter in the first place, and is now just a control game of who will give up first. Love the reaction of the Kenyan woman - just befuddled at it :)

    ReplyDelete
  31. Welcome back, Kim. Very interesting perspective. I love the Jessica Simpson/Socrates analogy and I bet those two don't get paired up often.

    The Little Dude is now into self-assigning time outs, often for no good reason (i.e just for fun). I wonder if they have lost their luster when we assign them. Hmmmm.

    ReplyDelete
  32. Excellent points! I wonder how much of the different kind of discipline is the different needs. It's definitely very interesting. I almost envy it - but then I remember I only have one and I have a washing machine!

    ReplyDelete
  33. Excellent points! I feel a little envious of the "ability" to indulge a little one, but then I remember that I don't have 12 kids and I do have a washing machine!

    ReplyDelete
  34. Welcome back!
    I've been so indoctrinated into Western Parenting and Child Development through my years in education, I do believe my head might just spin in your local village or...It just might be that epiphany I need! We do time outs too and now a sticker chart. I'm not above bribing :)

    ReplyDelete
  35. Great post! Having 3 boys at home (9, 4 & 2) I realized an important distinction from US culture vs African--my boys would love to chop wood & fetch water, giving them physical activity that helps them feel useful. Instead, I ask them to set the table or help fold laundry. I wonder if being in part of a total community, where all members have a "job" helps them to have more respect & less entitlement. The more robust the chores, the less spoiled the children?

    ReplyDelete
  36. We should ask "what kind of adult is produced from childrearing practices such as small children getting whatever they demand, then being beaten or forced into obedience a few years later, because a parent doesn't have the energy, time or education to do otherwise? This type of child rearing can be found in any culture. Just because a child can do something eg.6 year olds taking responsibility for the welfare of their younger brothers and sisters, doesn't mean it is morally right that they should do so. Children can hold AK47's and shoot people too, with less hesitation that an adult according to the experiences of child soldiers, but that doesnt mean it is acceptable or appropriate. Could it be that this type of child rearing produces adults who lack consideration for other's feelings (just a couple of small examples being the crammed matatus in the rural areas with people squashed together to the point of physical pain,and loud music that almost bursts the ear drums), and does it also produce adults who base their emotional control on external factors rather than internalised self regulation and rational thinking. Any one who has witnessed the riots and savage violence that can suddenly erupt, the soldiers who use their rifle butts to beat mother's with babies on their backs,the fundamental lack of human rights in Kenya must seriously question the childrearing factors that produce such a society. Yes there is resilience, tolerance and sharing to a point but it doesn't take much for all of that to snap given the conditions that many Kenyans have to live in and the child rearing practices they have had to endure.

    ReplyDelete
  37. "It's like Socrates arguing with Jessica Simpson. Socrates may "win," but Jessica won't care." Brilliance.

    ReplyDelete

There was an error in this gadget