Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Village Stay: How to get your kid to wash dishes


Silhouetted in the doorway, a group of about seven or eight kids were playing with the few toy cars Caleb had brought along, while Wilkister and I chatted about the day to come.  At some point she offered me chai (tea), looked over the children and told them to go wash some cups for us.  The boys remained, as they girls hurried off without an argument. (Wilkister explained to me that people believe that if the boys are given "girl" tasks, they will.. um... cough cough... be like a girl.)

And the kids, not much older than Caleb, washed those cups. And I'm not talking "Oh, thanks sweety for helping mama," pat on the head, plunk the still dirty cup back in the water for mom to wash thoroughly.  Those cups were washed clean and set out for use again.  Impressive.

Yeah... but Caleb does know the difference between a brontosaurus and a triceratops, so that's really usefu...  Um...  Yeah, I think I need to figure out how this happens.

None of this is new.  If you'e traveled to a village in a developing country you cannot escape noticing the incredible responsibility given to small children, who do their tasks seemingly without a complaint and with expert efficiency.  The 7 year old carrying her baby sister, the 6 year old peeling potatoes, the 10 year old boy chopping firewood.   All of this makes me wonder if safety scissors are not somehow insulting our children's innate ability.

This observation is not a revelation, but what I've never heard is how this actually "happens."

How do parents get their young children to take such serious household responsiblity, do it well, and do it without argument?   We have to bribe, threaten and cajole, and still our children, whine, "but mo...om!"  drag their feet and then do a half ass job quickly so that they can move on to playing with their toys.

Some theories:  First, there are not a lot of toys.  Their environment is a functional household.  There is no colorful playspace that implicitly tells a child, "Here.  Have fun!  You're a child."   They live in a space that's communal and functional and everyone plays their part.  But house work isn't just drudgery. I didn't see this as much, but I know anthropologists who have studied this often remark that small children take a certain pride and sense of accomplishment in their work and even ask for more.  Especially if the task is something they've seen their older children do.  Or maybe old Huck Finn got to them?

None of this is to say that children don't play.  It's just that play is social.  I mean, just look at this video....


And this brings me to my second point.  Chores are also often social, and maybe there's an inherent motivation in that.  I mean, if all the other kids are fetching water, you're kind of left out unless you join in.  In fact, at one point Caleb came screaming up to me because he wanted to do precisely that task -- go fetch water.  All his new friends were going, so he wanted to go.

But I can't discount that children do their chores because their parents tell them to, and parents are not disobeyed.  I didn't see any openly defiant behavior, but I can't rule out that this kind of rebellion has been whacked out of a kid.  Every single mother I spoke to told me she "beat" her child with a stick for discinpline.

Still, it's not as simple as that.

Children, generally, want to belong and be a part of things. They want to do what the other kids are doing. During our village stay, the family very generously prepared special food for us that was a cut above the greens and ugali they normally ate.  Caleb wanted nothing to do with it.  He wanted only to eat with "the kids."

Caleb, much happier sitting with the children outside than eating "special" food with mom inside.

So, if all the other kids are washing dishes, that's what Caleb wants to do.  If all the other kids are playing soccer, that too.  If they are all smoking meth, we're in trouble.

I'm happy to report that Caleb has, for the time being, carried this peer pressure-induced helpfulness home with him. Last night, as I was washing up after dinner, Caleb tugged on my leg and said the unprecedented: "Mom, can I help wash the dishes?"


19 comments:

  1. I feel like your post constantly cause me to open my eyes a little bit more. To leave my ethnocentric little bubble as I get a peak into your life around the world. For the record, even so, I don't think I'll be letting my 4 yo near the butcher knives just yet.

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    1. Yup. Me neither re: butcher knives. I think you need a whole culture to support the cutting potatoes with knives tasks. ; )

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  2. I think this post may very well be my favourite one that you've written. You're a very thoughtful observer and writer. I do think that the idea of kids learning from one another is really interesting. Makes me think of the Montessori philosophy, which teaches children in mixed age groups, for exactly that reason. Speaking as a teacher (who has fled the school system for an extended break), children here look to adults for everything, whether it's approval, instruction or entertainment. They very rarely have opportunities to be with other kids without being directly supervised by an adult.

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    1. Totally agree. Actually someone else made a similar comment re: montessori and waldorf on my fb page. I look at the way Caleb follows around his older cousin, (Jesse makes a left, Caleb makes a left. Jesse folds his arms, Caleb folds his arms) and I think now that's some powerful influence right there. I wish we could find a Montessori school here. Ironically, Caleb is attending a school that CALLS itself Montessori, but pretty much does the whole British colonial call and response kind of teaching. Oh well...

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    2. I'd love to talk more with you about the implications of these insights into formal education systems, Kim. I guess a summary of my starting point would be:

      o The Muslim hadith (tradition), as quoted in the Baha'i writings, that says, "All knowledge is but a single point, which the ignorance of man hath multiplied.

      o The work of American educational philosopher John Dewey, who wanted to reintegrate what he saw as a needlessly fractured curriculum – from math or science or language “subjects” to practical skills such as sewing, and the related efforts of the British Infant School/Integrated Day movement (which is how Deb taught).

      o An orientation lecture by Prof. Zac Matsela when we moved from Kenya to Lesotho in 1985, explaining that traditional educational systems in Africa integrated learning into life and increasing responsibilities with real consequences (a boy, not a girl of course, starting by herding goats and ending by herding cattle, learning to count and monitor animal health and describe the situation as he progresses).

      Please keep these posts coming!

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    3. Sounds like an the start of an interesting discussion Phil! Making education relevant to kids is crucial. I love the idea of learning everything (math, language, science) around a theme - it just makes so much sense. Unfortunately, even if that was at one point the way of learning here, it has since been supplanted by the early British call and response learning, that de-emphasizes critical thinking. But hopefully that is changing too...

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    4. Hope it can change, Kim. But is sounds pretty much like what we encountered when we moved to Kenya in 1980 and the boys started school there - although we were lucky enough to find Kestrel Manor for them in Nairobi and postpone the worst of it for a while.

      The good news is that you are Caleb's first educator, the family is the most important learning venue, and he's very lucky on both counts!

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  3. Your points are really interesting, and got me thinking about my childhood. My sister and I used to spend a lot of time (mostly weekends) at my grandmother's house, where all my cousins sisters used to go hang out too (it's like a communal drop off for my parents and aunts/ uncles!). And we did chores. Happily. Together. We weren't all that old either (I think I was the oldest), ranging in age from 3-10. So I agree, peer-induced pressure as well as taking pride in doing something well. We all wanted to please Grandma!

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    1. What an interesting memory. I'm always so intrigued when something I find here in Africa is true half way around the world! I often wonder what defines work anyway - if it's fun and a child wants to do it, is it still "work"?

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  4. This is such a thoughtful post.

    I was so immersed in your words, photos, videos. It gave me that itch to travel to *do* something more. {I needed that, thank you.}

    But I also love the points that you make about the culture of work, and how it differs there, and here.

    Inspiring, yes?

    {Absolutely love this post, girl.}

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    1. Thanks Galit! Now go scratch that itch!! ; )

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  5. there is so many cultures on our Planet and all of the have different way of rising kids. As much as we don't agree with many of them we should simply respect them.
    Many years back, in Poland, it was ok for teachers to physically punish students, and I am not talking about slapping but hitting with a stick or heave book or whatever the teacher had on hand. When my parents were young teachers would punish kids by putting them in a corner of a classroom where they had to kneel on a bag filled with beans with their hands above their head holding heave book...

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    1. SOOO interesting. It's a difficult conversation for me on a number of levels because as much as place a lot of value on respecting and understanding other cultures' way of doing things, it's hard to see children treated so harshly. I think there's a line somewhere between a spanking and pepper in the eyes where my cultural relativism ends. But very interesting to hear about how things were done in Poland - sounds very similar to here adn West Africa. I think it's probably been a very common way of disciplining children throughout human history.

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  6. Thank you for writing this wonderful and observant post. I think you are spot on. And what a great opportunity for your son to experience life in a village! Another thing I have observed in Africa is that small children will sit quietly without complaining for hours with their parents while they socialize with other adults (that is, if there are not other children around to play with). Have you observed that? Any insights? Thanks again!

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    1. Oh yes!! I have definitely observed that. The piece I wrote for WMB this week had that very example. I still haven't totally unraveled it, but there's definitely a lot more strict discipline enforced. There also might be an element of kids just being lower energy in general due to having more health and nutrition issues. Or maybe there's something about having more practice waiting for something since it's a lot less of a child-centered culture and children are made to wait for things more often? Who knows? I'd be interested to hear your thoughts!

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  7. I LOVE the window into life in the part of Kenya you are in!!! Another amazingly interesting post, Kim!

    Jen :)

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  8. The video is precious and your post is really amazing. This reminds me of my own childhood, we were always got chores and I mean real chores to do and it really made us to be more independent as adult later on. That picture of your son is just so beautiful.

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  9. I learn so much from your posts! I think children learn best from one another, especially from the older ones! Like my son wasn't keen to feed himself but he saw his older cousin (whom he admires) does it, he immediately does it and when he became lazy again, we just remind him about his cousin and it would motivate him again.

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