Sunday, March 24, 2013

How Do Kenyans Raise Tantrum-Free Toddlers? I'm asking.

* WARNING: This post is lousy with sweeping generalizations and unscientific observations.  Of course, ALL Kenyans do not parent the same way, and ALL Americans do not parent the same way.  But culture being culture, there are certain general trends and differences, which is why God invented anthropologists.  Which I am not.  But I have a blog.  And thoughts and musing and observations which I am attempting to string together into a coherent insight.  As always, feel free to challenge me on any of this.


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?


  1. Hi Kim, what a great post, and a topic I've been pondering about for months now. Here are my thoughts:
    1) I've heard a lot about how other cultures (especially India, African countries, etc are mentioned in this context) raise their children, and how we should do it the same way. But how are these children as adults? And how about the women's position in these countries? Is there a connection?
    2)Pamela Druckerman says Americans are too lenient, allow too much, and basically don't parent like the French whose children (of course) never have tantrums, eat everything that is served, you get it. Does it sound familiar? It's the same kind of thinking, just from the other side. I guess it's a matter of perspective.
    3) Can it be that as outsiders, we tend to romanticise non-Western cultures- we think technology is bad, and we should "go back to nature" (whatever that means), and so there are things that we may miss because all we see are happy children, and maybe we don't know what's going on at homes- it's almost always different without other people around!
    4) As for the extended families, I've always wondered why grandmothers, aunts an dother family are viewed as help and support. While I get lots of help when I go visit my family, I feel that raiisng children is my job- and my privilege. Each time we go to see my in-laws, the expectasions of how to raise my children are so high that they make breathing hard for me. How much better do I feel at home, with my husband and nobody to tell me how to do things? Also- lack of privacy- why is this never mentioned when talking about bigger families? Maybe again, since we often live away from our families, or our families are smaller, we tend to think that it used to be better when the families are bigger, and we forget that we wanted to move out for a reason. While I believe it takes more people to raise children than just parents, I am hapy with these other people being doctors, teachers, and daycare nannies. This, of course is just me, but this is what I think.
    5) O, in the end, while I agree that we can always look beyond our own cultures for inspirations and ideas, we should know that we'll never see the whole picture.
    6) Great blog, love your funny style! Just liked your facebook pages and will follow you on twitter once I'll fine you! :)

    1. I definitely hear you in terms of looking to hard outside our own culture and expecting some miracle solution! I think (hope) I've learned over the years to not fetishize how other people do things, but at the same to time to try and draw some lessons or just to remind myself that there is more than one way to do things, and it's OK.

      I certainly don't think raising obedient children is the primary goal of parenthood. I want my children to be considerate, moral, self confident, generous, inquisitive and a whole bunch of things more than obedient!

      This post is really just trying to dig at why we're told that you input A, B and C and get X and then you see other people inputting G, D and F and getting X too. I'm not exactly sure how this is happening in this particular situation, but it's probably a combination of evertying we've both mentioned!

      Lastly (this is turning into almost as much as a tome as my post, so I'll stop soon... ; ), I agree that as much as I long for the kind of extended family support I see here, I'm not sure if it would work in the American context. But that might also be because we're Americans adn not Kenyans. I think if you're used to extended families and close quareters you might learn ways to get along differently than we do in the US and so some of the tensions we have with extended family members in the US might not exist here. But I'm sure there's some family drama in every type of living arrangement!

      Thanks for such a thoughtful response. There are probably 6 other blog posts in there!

    2. You're very welcome! And, another thing that comes to my mind- maybe American (or Western children- as I am Polish, so European, and we seem to raise our children similarly- with the exception of the French, of course!) is that our children maybe express their dicomfort by crying, having temper tantrums, etc. Maybe African children also go through the same feelings, but express them differently, so they may be less visible to an outsider? I am also thinking- Westerners tend to have less children, are maybe more focused on them- while African mothers have more children, so are more relaxed with them?
      Oh, and I totally love how some people blame technology and toys for all the evil in the world!

  2. OK, I'll try and explain my point of view... There is no need for any child younger than 3.5years of life to be having a tantrum. The ones that happen before then are what I call Reaction Tantrums and they are a sign that something has mucked up the child's state of homeostasis. They can be caused by lack of food/sleep; too many choices/ not enough space to explore at child's own pace/not being able to smell (as a baby) or see (as a toddler) Mum/ too many toys/ electronic overload/rushing around etc. Hard to avoid in modern western life, but nevertheless the biology our kids are born with. At around 3.5 - 4.5 and during the teen years children become more conscious of their world and we are meant to get Processing Tantrums of some sort - the better Reaction Tantrums have been prevented the less intense and less frequent Processing Tantrums seem to be. PTs are a sign of the child finding the edge of their world - they can't climb the top branch of a tree because it's too weak to hold them; they will cut themselves if they use a knife incorrectly; they can't have ice-cream for breakfast or every toy in the store. I'll bet the Kenyan kids don't fuss as much when they are hurt either and I'll also bet their mothers can be pretty ferocious when they step over a cultural boundary - briefly, but definitely getting the point across. The other thing is that children communicate through their body language far far less than their words - so by the time a baby is crying they are already pretty distressed. It's a big topic, Kim and it took me 7 years to get my head around it!

    1. I love this comment so much! I think it's a problem of the narrative running through my head which tells me that their tantrum is somehow MY fault and a sign that I am not strict enough or too inconsistent. But I've hears this before that usually, it's a problem like those you mentioned (hungry, tired, overstimulated etc...) and I'm just making it worse by adding a battle to the equation. It's just that when he was young and threw a tantrum and I offered him something to drink my husband would accuse me of being "too soft" on him. So, I think it's a cultural problem too. But Kenyans do seem to have this right. In fact, when I was visiting a small village and Caleb was throwing a bit of a tantrum, the moms all suggested that he was probably hungry. There was NO accusatory looks at me about how I'm doing a crappy job setting limits or whatever... Yes. Big topic indeed. I'm really looking forward to reading your book!

  3. I love your humor and the way you put things - especially your disclaimers. I don't have any answers for you but you are kinder than a friend of mine with the "formidable fours." She says it's the terrible twos, the trying threes and the f'ing fours. Apparently five is a pretty awesome age though. I would say my observations in Zambia and Malawi have been similar to yours in Kenya.

    1. Holding on till 5... holding on till 5... I'm glad to hear these observations resonate with your experiences in east/southern africa!

  4. While living in France I felt like French children behaved better in public because they were expected to. Simply by entrusting the child to behave parents were putting the choice in the kid's hands. There was also a sense of letting kids do whatever, as long as it was within very strict outer boundaries that mostly concerned safety, eating, and adult-time. The biggest conclusion I drew was to choose battles, especially concerning myself. The French mother has a sense that she is still a woman, still sexy, still smart, even though she is a mom, and the child must respect her other personas. Often I think the American mother becomes just mom, and loses the person she was before baby. So what does this mean for my kids? I try to draw lines on adult- time, giving parents conversation uninterrupted, not giving into demands, having some alone time. How does this work out? Who knows, I'm still waiting for the day I can use the toilet without two kids hanging out with me. I think they grow up and move out, at least that's what my mom tells me...

    1. I read something similar to this in the bebe book and it does make a lot of sense. Don't pick every battle. Pick the ones that matter and be consistent about it. And I think there's definitely something to sending signals to your child (whether its how you dress, not letting them interrupt your or how much the toys take over the house) that they are not the center of the world! But the "expect more and your kids will rise to the occasion" baffles me a bit. I've tried that mental shift and it didn't seem to work for me. But maybe there's more to the way we "expect" more. I'd love to figure that one out!

  5. This is a really interesting topic, so I'm glad you've written about it. I am largely ignorant to parenting practices in Kenya, since I have never spent time there. A few things come to mind as I read what you've written, though.

    My husband and I are both Americans living in the US, but our parenting tends to be outside the mainstream simply because of our own beliefs and ideas. One thing that I value personally is mutual respect. I do expect that my children will show me respect, but not simply on the grounds that I'm their mother or that I'm an adult, but because I offer them the same, and we all function together as a team.

    I choose my battles, and when it comes to issues of safety, I'm insistent - you must hold my hand when we cross a busy street, and you absolutely may not hit your brother.

    When it comes to things like clothes, though, I offer guidance, but am otherwise very hands off. In my mind, these things have to do with my children's bodies, and so long as they and those around them are safe, these decisions belong to my children. Trusting my daughter when she says she's not cold, and does not need a jacket is, in my mind, demonstrating respect for her and trust in her ability to listen to her body and understand what she needs. Of course when it's truly cold, I bring a coat along, just in case she changes her mind, but to me, this is not an issue worth fighting over.

    I feel like, by modeling respect for her, I am more likely to get respect in return. I also hope that, having seen that I am empathetic to their needs and concerns and am open to discussion on many issues will make my children more able to relax and trust me when I do need to insist on a certain issue.

    We are by no means tantrum free around here, but I do feel like my daughter tends to behave pretty appropriately when it counts, so hopefully our approach continues to work for her and for us, and for our son as he approaches tantrum age ;) In all of my interactions as an adult, those with whom I have felt a mutual spirit of cooperation have been the easiest to work with, and the easiest to make compromises with and for, so that's the sort of person, and parent, I strive to be. I'm not sure if that has anything to do with Kenyan parenting, but since you asked for comments, there you go :) That's what works for us!

    1. I think your approach makes a lot sense and is certainly more humane. It can be hard though, when a child is testing your limits and you're exhausted and sleep deprived to find the empathy. though it's certainly worth practicing.

      It's also worth nothing that different approaches work better for different kids. So, maybe firm limits work better for one kid and mutual respect and patience work better for another. Oh, and then some of this probably ebbs and flows as they age. That's what makes parenting such a constant challenge!

      I do strive to be the kind of parent you describe and to foster an environment of mutual respect. But the key for me is "strive." It's hard!

  6. Well, you know, I'm with the Kenyans. I'm what they call an attachment parent, by accident. I didn't read books and make a choice to parent this way, it just seemed the logical way to go. Co sleeping, baby wearing and feeding on demand seemed the best thing to do. Now my kids are homeschooled, we are always together and it's great, and yes, they still sleep with me when they want to, it's lovely. I remember my Mum trying to force me to wear a dress and frilly knickers when I was tiny. I was horrified and had what some would call a tantrum. I just really didn't want to wear that horrific outfit. Kids have feelings and rights and personalities of their own, they need to be listened to or they'll get all sorts of messages about their ideas being worthless.

    1. I'm not an attachment "purist" but a lot of it certainly makes sense to me too! I love having all the kids in the bed with me in the morning but have totally failed at being able to co-sleep. (topic for antoher day...)

      My mother definitely forced me to wear things I didn't want to and do things I didn't want to. And of course I hated it at the time. But there's part of me that thinks this was good. It's important for kids to have their feelings and rights respected and it's also important for them to learn that they can't always get their way. I think finding the balance as a mother is the trick. That old cliche "pick your battles" seems to be reoccuring in this threat, but it's true. And it's tricky. And it's hard to exactly right.

  7. Such an interesting post! I am not sure I have any insights, but your comment: "This post is really just trying to dig at why we're told that you input A, B and C and get X and then you see other people inputting G, D and F and getting X too" - it reminds me of research on psychotherapy outcomes (i.e., comparing different types of therapy to see what is most effective) and the finding that there are multiple therapy approaches that work (also some that definitely do not). And sometimes what works depends on the situation (in therapy, the individual being treated, the particular problem they have) as well as how competent the therapist is (do they have a consistent guiding framework, or keep trying to change tactics?). And in the end, the client-therapy relationship is one of the most powerful predictors of progress in therapy. This came to mind as maybe being similar to parenting - many paths, depends on context, and in the end relationship is important?? I really enjoyed reading this!

    1. "many paths, depends on context, and in the end relationship is important" Yes. Yes. Yes! I do fear that I'm trying to simplify something that is ultimately so dependent on each child and each relationship. But I guess that's what you do when are trying to understand a trend. But in terms of drawing any useful lessons, I'm afraid I'll figure something out that will work beautifully for my first son and then have to reinvent another wheel for the second. It's just good to know that there's not only one way to get to X. : )

  8. I totally agree with Karyn from kloppenmum about tantrums. I'm a "European Mum", and I am also an "attachment" parent - like described by Alyson. My children had only a few tantrums. I didn't consider them as a problem or as "my fault", like some mums do. As Karyn says: children communicate through their body language, especially in the first years. And for me, the best way to react is to listen to them and react by empathy. Later on, they will tell us what's causing their discomfort (we might have to be very patient... some children need time to "get it out"). I have two very good friends who are Kenian and I see that they're simply very consistent. They set very clear boundaries with their children and treat them like "thinking persons" from a very early stage. From a pampering-mum-point-of-view this might seem strange and "too much" for a child, but I know that my friends are very loving mums and have quite indipendent and loving children. Ok, these are only two cases and in Kenya life is different. But still. I see the same thing with my French friends. Their children don't really always behave like described in the Bestseller-book..., especially not if in a private context (in a Restaurant maybe, but when at home with friends, you wouldn't see (or hear!) the difference). - But anyway, why should we bother about other children, how they behave? Why this urge to compare our way to raise our children to others? I think the problem is a lack of self confidence in some mothers who feel like they are doing something wrong. Maybe I never felt this way because I became mum very late or because I just do it my way? I never do allow anyone else to tell me what to do or say to my children. And I know that my Kenian friends react exactly the same way (and my French, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish friends too!): they would never allow anybody to question or criticise their way to treat or raise their children.

    1. I think the thought that the tantrum is our "fault" has a lot to do with why we (Americans) push so hard against them. We know that other mothers are likely judging us for our child's tantrum and possibly start to feel that we should be firmer, stronger and stricter. But I suppose this can also be self defeating? I wish I could be as confident as you in my parenting and maybe that's also part of the problem. In Kenya there is basically one way to raise kids (especially in the village context) there's not a wide array of parenting philosphies to pick from, doubt our choice and be judged by. It makes us (well, me at least) more neurotic as parents and less consistent and perhaps our kids are picking up on this?

  9. I'd like to confirm what most of the other moms have already said. I'm Italian but grew up in South Africa (and my children were born here, in Cape Town). My son is already 20 years old and my daughter is almost 17. I have an excellent relationship with both of them.

    What worked for us was definitely "pick your battles". What clothes to wear was not worth fighting over! :P Respect for each other was a big one - "your rights end as soon as they infringe on another person's rights!" I also believe that "expectations" play a big role. I always expected my kids to behave appropriately and (for the most part) they did. It was also enough for me to give them "the look" or quietly remind them of what behaviour was appropriate, to stop whatever they were doing. Maybe I was "lucky", but I believe that children are extremely sensitive to "vibes" and understand WAY more than we give them credit for! If they KNOW they're loved and that NO means NO, come hell or high water, they'll be fine! :)

    1. " If they KNOW they're loved and that NO means NO, come hell or high water, they'll be fine! :)" Love the simplicity and wisdom of this. And I agree that picking clothes is usually not a battle we should fight. But sometimes the battles we fight have more to do where we are emotionally than if it's actually worth fighting. I suppose that's something more for the parent to work on than the child though... I'm still baffled by the expectation issue though. I expect the kids to follow instructions and do what I ask and I even try and mentally send out that vibe and alter the way I talk so that it projects confidence and believe that they will follow through. Works sometimes. But maybe I'm missing something?

  10. Don't worry - four is still in the 'terrible' zone (whichever f-word you choose to use). My daughter was a lot more reasonable at four, so she did a lot less screaming but it was much more intense when she did! She kept it together so well most of the time that when she lost control she REALLY lost control. It was harder for us to deal with at that age because in Europe or North America (our regions) people EXPECT a two-year-old to throw the occasional tantrum, so you kind of figure it comes with the territory. The older the child gets, though, the more you think 'But we should be OVER this by now!' It'll get better, though. :)

    1. Yeah, and as they get older it gets louder!! Apparently the magic age is five. So, consider the goal posts moved. ; )

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  13. So many great comments and a great post. I say ditto to a lot. I've only got one 2 yr old so I'm not any kind of expert, but I think the biggest thing with "Western" parenting verses developing countries is that we worry about it a lot. We have a lot of guilt that we will "ruin" our children, they'll hate us forever and rack up psychiatrist bills (at least I worry about it). I bet that moms there don't think about it a lot (or maybe at all). Guilt causes stress. Stress moms I think have more stressed kids. Stressed kids have more tantrums. Maybe?

  14. I'm a Kenyan mother with a 17 month old daughter and she gets little fits when she doesn't get her way. I always wonder where she learnt this from especially since she is an only child and she hardly get the chance to interact with other toddlers. I have started being stern with her about such behavior and it seems to work. I am very impressed though with kids in rural Kenya they just seem well behaved and mature for their age. Personally I think kids adopt very fast to their environs and if you give your child EVERYTHING they want (not need) they become over demanding kids who demand more than their fair share - and once they don't get their way, well they demand it. I think rural Kenyan mothers are very similar to all other mothers living on bare essentials. I am sure an Amish child would react the same way as a child in Rural Kenya and vice versa. Its really what level of entitlement does a child grow-up believing they have.
    Great post Kim!

    1. Thanks Sila. I think you're right - probably a lot of this evolves out of necessity. Like you have to be stern when the kid is in danger o in danger of spoiling what little you have, but you can't pick a ton of battles because you're busy with the myriad demands of a rural life. Maybe that's the key?

  15. i remember being told that tantrums come from the child (toddler) realizing that they can have some control over their world, and not being able to understand when they can or should exercise that control. Also, when they are old enough not to be so easily distracted from disappointment, the disappointments (of not being about to control the world) really sting and they are too young to have any sense of proportionality (e.g. the disappointment of being delayed 3 minutes in going to the park is just as great as the disappointment would be if they didn't get to go to the park at all). And along with lacking proportionality, they lack the ability to calm themselves.

    so, as to the first point (control)... i don't know anything more about kenya than what i read in your blog, but it seems to me that many kenyan adults don't feel like they have much control (or choice) about their world. [for example, i remember you asking a kenyan mom what she liked most about being a mother and she looked at you like you were crazy... b/c she didn't feel like she had a choice as to whether or not to be a mom.] so, if adults don't feel like they have control or choice, then maybe this realization of sense of choice/control doesn't really occur in kenyan toddlers (or doesn't occur to the same extent as it does with our kids). kids do take their cues about the world from their parents.

    as to the second point, they learn proportionality from us teaching it to them. And, they need help regaining control with they have tantrums. Being out of control like that (during a tantrum) really scares them, but they don't know how to calm themselves down. So, when my kid has a tantrum, i hold them tight (literally). i physically restrain the flailing limbs, i talk in a quiet and calm voice. i hold them close to me so they can fell my breathing rythum and calm their own to mine. And as they start to calm down i talk about understanding their disappointment, about the proportionality and how the disappointment they are feeling isn't really that bad, etc...

    of course this doesn't ALWAYS work. i don't have the time to do this whole routine when i'm trying to catch a train.

    i'm sorry that kenyan parents judge you when caleb has a tantrum. But, here in the US, i never feel judged by other parents when my kid has a tantrum in public. and the only time i judge another parent during their child's tantrum, is if the parent reacts by completely losing control too. otherwise, i just feel empathy for the parent whose kid is having a tantrum. I just think to myself "tomorrow, that likely will be me and my kid. if not tomorrow, then next week." and i feel the empathetic glaces from other parents when my kid does have a tantrum in public. [this is not to say that other non-parents don't give me judgmental looks when my kid has a tantrum i public, but screw 'em.]

    And sam does what you describe caleb doing... he is an angel for his teachers at school, and also usually when he is being watched my babysitters or other kids' parents or by aunts, uncles, grandparents. he saves up all his negative energy and has tantrums for brian and me. i don't love the tantrums, but i do love that he is well behaved for everyone else.

    tantrums aren't your fault, they are part of development. And i guess there are many (but 3 main) ways to deal with them: 1) give in (like your description of what kenyans do), 2) turn it into a battle between parent and child, 3) the middle road... the tantrum starts by mom (me) yelling at the kid for disobeying. let the tantrum begin and go on for 30-60 seconds, then, help them kid calm down and THEN negotiate (where possible and appropriate) and explain/teach the proportionality issue, and to a certain extent the kid will be much happier to embrace mom's authority when mom has just helped kid regain control and come out of the scary out-of-control place.

  16. Just found your post and was tempted to comment - so apologies for being late.
    Answers to your questions can be found within each society's goals - generally speaking parenting can be divided into two different (not less than or better than) styles - individualistic v interdependent. In the US, its history and cultural fabric emphasises the individual which in turn influences theories in psychology, education etc. This is similar to other English speaking nations such as UK and Australia, and is what is seen as "modern parenting" in most early childhood books from 1950s onwards and therefore influences many parents worldwide.
    Interdependent parenting is awash with group values and cultural norms. Simply put, one parenting style seeks "to cut the apron strings" and the other to "tie them tighter". It does not matter which country you live in but perhaps is more related to your sense of self, of belonging and own cultural identity. Most behaviours of parents provide evidence to which parenting style they favour often without the parent even being conscious of their own goals and decision making prior to actions. The key is to observe the reciprocal nature of the relationship prior to the obvious behaviours - what I like to call the dance between mother and child.
    For example, the door bell rings unexpectedly and your baby has just settled on the floor playing....
    A. get cross as you have a sign on the door telling all visitors to go away or be quiet as your baby may be sleeping
    B. you don't want to disrupt him so put a few more toys within reach for him and hurry to check who it is before he notices you're gone
    C. you pick up your baby and together check on who it is
    D. baby was never on the floor playing with stuff, your mother grabs baby from your hip without even asking and someone else has already opened the door because visitors are an everyday occurrence

    Hope this helps,

    PS next time you're in Busia county...!!

  17. A lot of what we do in first world countries is against basic human nature. It is not normal to send toddlers away from their families all day, to be cared for by strangers. It is not normal for children to be educated out the home, in large groups of children, and then return home with more work (and not contributing to the running of the family. It is not normal for children to be carted around from one activity to the next before and after school. Our kids are born little 'native' humans, and then are forced into adapting to parenting/family styles that don't really jive with growing up naturally. No wonder they have meltdowns! Sad, really. I know that my two boys, as academic as they are, would absolutely love to just be out in the woods all day exploring. That is why we take ten weeks off school every year, and go do just that. It is SO good for them, but really hard when we have to come back to reality.

  18. I think it is the occasional real beating with a stick that looms in the memory of the kid population and they pick up the cues from other kids even if they don't know what the cue is for. See The psychological experiment done with monkeys where the group remembered a punishment of cold water spray even when eventually no one left in the group had ever been sprayed at all. So an occasional really hard punishment will be picked up collectively by the kids.

  19. Kim, thank you for your thoughts on this subject matter. I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Kenya 16 years ago and ever since I had kids here in the States, I have been pondering the differences in obedience and how Kenyans had kids that never cried (or so it seemed) over spilled milk (or maziwa lala) to speak. I never saw a child wine incessantly, pout or otherwise throw fits. I did observe a toddler refuse to swallow food once "Meza Kevin, Meza" was imprinted as my first cross-cultural comparison of a childhood protest. But otherwise the majority of kids were so super obedient. One observation though is that many Kenyan children, especially girls, were painfully shy. Given that I was Mzungu, they were even more timid. With time, most of the shy kids would begin to open up, but rarely did I meet a precocious child there. On the contrary many American kids seem a bit more confident and outgoing-but that may be cultural values we instill in our kids vs. rural life in Kenya. In any case, I'd like to see how I can implement some Kenyan wisdom as I am getting raked over the coals by my kids right now with whining, protests, begging, and defiance. Clearly, I am not doing something right.

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