It's happened so often I'm almost immune to it. Almost. Caleb is hanging out with some Kenyan kids and something happens that sets of his very typical American 4-year-old will to disobey or lodge a protest.
Yesterday, while playing at a friend's house, he was offered water. He wanted juice. I gave him the bad news that this was not an option, which upset him to the point of kicking his feat and vigorously whine-screaming. The Kenyan kids' reaction: One of them scrunched up his face as if to say "What's wrong with him?" The other one burst out laughing.
OK. Are you guys sick of me writing about this? Because, good news! I have come a full inch closer to decoding the conundrum of generally better obedience among Kenyan children, which I am convinced is not solely the result of a fear of a whacking. (And better news yet, if you want to go straight to the point, see the bolded below.)
It came to me when we were visiting Caleb's old friends in Busia. Like usual, they were aware of our arrival as soon as the car headed down the craggy road to the compound, the word spreading through the child-sized human grapevine. As usual, they started erroneously singing "Happy Birthday" when they saw the popcorn and juice we brought for them to share. And as usual, they obediently complied with our requests to sit politely and wait their turn to be served.
All that is, except Caleb, who, typical mzungu, fought us on some of these requests. Yes, we are his parents, and children, the conventional wisdom goes, fight their parents more than other kids' parents. Still, when his friends were called home by their own parents or older siblings they ran off without a fight. No one minute warning. No "If you don't listen there will be consequences."
But watching this mixed-age group of children playing together made me realize something: The younger kids were watching the older children - and constantly - for cues as how to behave. Most of their time is spent, really as soon as they are ambulatory, in the presence of older kids, not their mothers. Caleb, instead, was watching his parents for requests of what to do in order to define his independence in opposition to those requests.
The other day I wanted Caleb to step out of his bath. He wanted to play. I got frustrated and said "Caleb, I'm going to count to three and if you don't...." and then I noticed it: He had one foot out of the bath ready to exit until I issued the ultimatum. In that nanosecond of realizing there was a battle, he (literally) dug his foot back in the bath.
Like teenagers - that other developmental stage of internal chaos - toddlers and pre-schoolers rebel against authority at the same time they desperately want to fit in with their peers. The problem is that our Western kids are constantly pitted against an authority figure (mom) and Kenyan children generally spend more time with the crowd, learning what it's like to be a member of the group.
They are learning to wash their hands before they eat. They are learning to shake the hands of adults. They are learning to sit when asked to, without the threat of a consequence, all from older children who have already internalized this compliance. The simple imperative of "fitting in" appears to be a much more effective motivator than bribing with M&Ms or coercing with time outs. In this way Kenyan village parents can be a lot more "free range" and still end up with more compliant children.
This emphasis on being a "part of" instead of "independent from" may even define the differences in our child rearing from as early as infancy. More "traditional" communities value the collective and inter-dependency and more Western communities value independence and assertiveness.
Apparently this emphasis of the collective over the individual starts from infancy on. Nick Day, has recently wrote some fascinating posts (here and here) in Slate, highlighting research that shows some early differences in baby/child development due to slight differences in the way we approach our babies. For example, due to our greater eye-to-eye contact and play, Western children can actually recognize themselves in a mirror a lot earlier than West African children. We treat them as unique and separate individuals from day 1, and they internalize this.
In contrast, the Cameroonian children in the study were worn in slings close to their mothers and spent more time looking at the world from their mother's vantage point. They were not interacted with face-to-face or played with as often. But even at 18 months the Cameroonian children were a lot better than the Western children at following simple directions. The authors reason that these young toddlers had already internalized that they were part of the group and had better ability to put others' needs before their own.
Obviously neither way is superior in some absolute sense to the other. We are just fostering different attributes - the ones that make a successful adult in each context. Temper tantrums and obstinacy are no fun for parents, but they mean that our children are learning to assert themselves. Kenyan parents definitely look puzzled to see some of Caleb's defiance, but they are also amazed at and often charmed by how much he talks and the things he has to say. I guess, for better or worse and probably without conscious intention, I'm raising an American.