Those of you who follow this blog probably know I'm a bit obsessed with the differences in Western and Kenyan parenting styles. Raising my children in a different culture has opened my eyes at the same time it's thrown me off my axis.
But the single abiding conundrum - something I STILL, after years of observing and pondering can't quite explain is the following: Kenyans seem to do pretty much the opposite of most conventional US parenting wisdom when raising young children. There are no schedules (sleep, feeding or otherwise), parent-child play time is generally at a minimum and tantrums are generally indulged.
The pattern I've observed (and discussions with Kenyan mothers confirms) is: avert the tantrum at all costs. Distract the child, give in to the whining or walk away. Whereas Western mothers will often abide a tantrum and even accelerate it to teach a point or as a matter of principle.
Perfect example: Yesterday Caleb, apparently not still out of the "terrible threes" (is there a "formidable fours" or something? Please?), decided that it was simply beyond the pale to have to wear a jacket to pre-school. He screamed and vehemently refused to put on his coat. Neither threats nor logic nor sweet talk were getting us anywhere. He said he'd wear a long sleeve shirt, but NOT that jacket.
And here's where the American in us comes out. Sure, acquiescing and letting him wear a long sleeve shirt instead of a coat would meet everyone's goals. Caleb's arms would be warm AND he'd be happy. But we stuck our ground on a matter of principle. The principle: He's not the boss of us! So we dug our heals in, the tantrum escalated to decibels that elicited concern from our Kenyan neighbors. But, being the larger humans, eventually we won.
Americans are told it is important to establish lines of authority, that children thrive when they are given clear boundaries, that it's hard at first, but that children will learn from our loving, firm consistency.
Kenyans mothers do pretty much the opposite. In the coat situation, I get the impression that a Kenyan mother would probably just get the long sleeve shirt, avoid the shouting match and worried glances from neighbors, and be off to school.
I gather this because I've seen mothers regularly give candy in response to a child's incessant pleading and even admonish me when I refuse to indulge my own child's whining for sugary treats saying, "Why is he crying? Just give him the sweetie."
In a lot of ways, American parents are stricter with small children and set clearer boundaries. So, what baffles me is why Kenyan parents seem to be getting better results - meaning ostensibly more obedient, less defiant and more polite children. (It's worth noting that raising obedient children might not be the primary goal of parenthood. Still, it does make those hardest years of parenting a bit less exhausting.)
When I raise this paradox with my expat friends, it's met with silence. And then someone breaks it saying ... "Well.... you know they hit their kids."
Even the Kenyan friends whom I ask to explain this tell me, "It's true. We let the toddlers do what they want and then around school age they are expected to know better. If they don't fall in line they know the mother - or really any mother - will beat them."
[BTW: Kenyans use the word "beat" a bit differently than Americans. It's not like beatings result in black eyes and broken limbs. A "beating" is usually a thwack with a stick.]
But I truly believe this is not the whole story.
I have American expat friends in Nairobi who use spanking as a regular form of punishment. A mutual Kenyan friend was actually surprised after spending a weekend camping with them at how much "spanking or threat of spanking" was going on. It seemed unusual to her.
And most of the Kenyan children I've met do what their parents ask not because they are cowering in fear of a beating. They just don't appear to test the waters as much.
I was at lunch with a Kenyan friend and her daughter, who is the same age as Caleb. Caleb was running around the restaurant and throwing a fit about not wanting what he ordered when it came. Ashley sat politely and when she started to fidget a bit her mom looked over at her and said simply and without a trace of irritation or anger, "Kaa vizuri" (sit nicely). And Ashley complied. I was exhausting myself trying to contain my son, to no real affect. My Kenyan friends, as always, were polite about Caleb's rambunctiousness and advised me NOT to lay down the law, but to just "let him play."
So, it's confusing.
For a lot of reasons, I'm convinced that the politeness is not simply beaten into Kenyan children, though that could be part of it. But what are the other "parts of" it" Here are some thoughts, but I welcome,... scratch that, I would LOVE to hear what other people think might be happening here too:
1. In the American context moms and dads are often a child's primary source of affection. Here, it seems more spread out. There's often a more deeply interconnected extended family and grandmothers or aunts and uncles might give as much affection. Maybe that means mom can stick more fully to her role as disciplinarian, without it being undermined by also being a best friend.
2. Speaking of affection: It seems that Americans/westerners are a lot more demonstrably affectionate with school-aged children. I've seen a lot less snuggling and kissing and cuddling with small children here. Babies are barely let cry, nursed on demand and co-slept with (i.e. lots of snuggling), but older children are treated more as small members of the family, with real responsibilities. So, what's my point?
Here's a untested theory: Apparently kids "let down," regress, become emotional, etc... when they know they can come be cocooned in a loving embrace. Caleb used to cry every day when I picked him up from daycare, which made me feel horrible until the day care folks told me it was a good sign. "He holds it together all day at daycare and he knows he can 'let down' when he sees you." So, might it be that the longer period of the continual loving embrace by Western parents means that our children are "letting down" more? Maybe Kenyan children, severed from that maternal embrace a bit earlier, develop the coping skills that allow them the higher order control to calm themselves from a tantrum or do something they don't want to do. (I just made this up, so it could be bunk.)
3. You know how people say you can potty train kids early, but it will take a longer time? Maybe discipline works similarly. We Americans start with the discipline and consequences as early as 18 months. And then beat our heads against the wall for a few years before there's some real payoff. Maybe Kenyan parents just start the discipline later when kids are more able to quickly absorb the lessons. And then they have less worry that indulging a toddler will create some kind of entitled monster.
4. Some Kenyans have explained to me that Kenyan parents just choose fewer battles, so when the parent lays down a threat its more likely to be taken seriously. The kids get away with a lot, but when mom says "no "the child knows she means it because they haven't been hearing it all day.
5. Some people have surmised this is a problem of toys. American kids have too many of them and they take over every corner of the house. This ultimately makes kids more bored and cranky when they are in the absence of primary colored stimulation AND it sends the signal that the child is center of the family instead of a member of it, who must sometimes put his/her needs behind those of others. Kenyan homes, even the more affluent, are rarely overrun with toys.
6.. It's entirely possible (and would not be the first time) that my assumptions are simply wrong. Maybe Kenyan children are not as polite and respectful as it would seem. Maybe they are throwing tantrums and testing limits like a cranky little boss just not when I am around or I'm just not noticing it.
Truth is, I have seen Kenyan children act similarly to my own. But, then again, those children usually have parents who have adopted more Western parenting styles.
Most often, though, when Caleb throws a tantrum in front of most Kenyans I get a confused, "what's wrong with your child" look, as if his behavior is far out of the range of normal. Oftentimes, I'm asked, "What's wrong with the child?" When I say, "He's just upset because we ran out of juice," they scratch their heads at this out of proportion reaction. They seem genuinely bewildered. As am I.
This post has a lot more answers than questions And if I ever wanted comments on any post, this is it!! I know many of you are living an a culture that does things different or goes against the advice you've been inundated with and somehow miraculously results in well behaved children. And plenty of you out there are just smart parents with good insights. I'm dying to know: What do you think?