Thursday, May 2, 2013

Maybe THIS is why Kenyan children are more obedient...

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.

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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.  

23 comments:

  1. This is truly a fascinating insight, Kim. Wow! Hope you explore and build on it some more in future posts (and get back to Busia for many more visits)!

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    1. Thanks Phil! Look forward to hearing what you think about all of this given your time in Africa and education background. Nice to have an expert in the family!!

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  2. This is so interesting, Kim!

    I always had a feeling that being around other children would be good for kids in general, but didn't really think about the effect old ones would have on the younger ones. Good stuff!

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    1. Yeah, I guess this is behind the Montessori method, right?

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  3. Fantastic post, Kim. So much to think about here. Well done!

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  4. Wow! Great post. Sila

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  5. This was SUCH a great post! So very interesting to look at their contrasting behavior. Now what I am REALLY fascinated to know (after having lived in Africa myself for years) is, how does this communal world view translate into adulthood. Especially in young men. Something gets lost there.

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    1. Such an interesting question! Generally, and with no data to support me, I feel like this communal worldview creates smaller more resilient egos and more patience. The biggest question is how we can inculcate the best parts of this worldview into our American children...

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  6. Kim, I think you really are on to something here!! That is so true -- the young children are part of a mixed age group. My kids behave so much better when they are with their (older) cousins (not to mention, they are entertained constantly, which eliminates a lot of the need for parental interaction and thus potential conflict). I even notice this with S being much more obedient than N, because he watches N constantly to see what he does! (of course, there is a personality difference too, but like you said, he is constantly watching the older sibling for cues) You should run with this one and dig deeper!

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    1. I know! I noticed this last year when we were back in the US visiting cousins and Caleb would literally mimic every little move his big cousin Jesse did. Jesse would walk in the kitchen, Caleb would walk in the kitchen. Jesse would fold his arms, Caleb would fold his arms. SUCH a powerful influence. Now we just need to harness it for good! And thanks for your comments, I'm DEFINITELY going to be digging deeper here!

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  7. This is awesome- it seems you have found your explanation, and it seems very plausible to me! I love how many people seem to equate good behaviour with baby-wearing, nursing on demand, and co-sleeping, when it is just plain old good wanting to fit in and being like everybody else! Of course it is also harder on the children when they don't have cues from somebody who is closer to their age and their way of thinking- older children. I already see this in my second child how much better behaved she is than my first born- she has her big sister to teach her. But are Western parents authority figures? It doesn't seem so to me, on the contrary, to many researchers they seem to lax. And, I have never seen obedience as a good thing, except that it is easier on their parents...And yes, please continue to write about this, it is fascinating!!!

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    1. Oh, I can't even tell you how much I agree with this comment. I read somewhere that Dr. Sears based so much of his attachment parenting style on the work of an woman who spent years somewhere in South American and leapt to the unsubstantiated claim that children were better behaved simply because they were worm and breast fed on demand. She seemed to have simply attributed that behavior to the parenting practice that looked most different to her. Well, now we have (myself include) parents who have adopted those practices with babies and it is NOT the magic bullet the attachment parenting gurus have sold it as.

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  8. I really enjoy this article. You have a new reader here.

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  9. Wow & thanks. Need to share, in hopes that others (I'm thinking of our Cameroonian housemate) will, like me, find your observations helpful. Have you bumped into some recent western research indicating that our sibling relationships have far more impact than our relationships with parents? This is a concept that makes me (a single mom of a single son) somewhat nervous. However, it seems my son and his wife connect and nourish each other in ways that well-matched siblings or peers do. I guess for me the moral of your story is to really look at and learn from each other all our lives, to fill in wherever there are painful gaps in the personal history. Which you demonstrate, by mindfully watching Caleb's interactions with his Kenyan friends. It can be so very liberating (and wild), what we learn from the children ... Thanks again, Kim!

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    1. I'd love to check out that sibling research! I'm actually one of a set of fraternal triplets, so I wonder what the heck that means! ; ) I think there's also some research on how a close relationship with an aunt can be a real game changer for girls - especially those who have volatile relationships with their mothers. Sometimes things are simply better conveyed by people a few steps removed from mom. And we cannot be all these people to our children!!! If you have links to this stuff, I'd be really keen!!

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  10. Hi - I thought of you and this post when I listened to this radio program today. Hopefully the link will work so that you can hear it, too; it's the NPR TED Radio Hour from today called Unstoppable Learning.

    http://www.npr.org/programs/ted-radio-hour/

    Blessings to you and your family,

    Sherri van der Wege

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    1. Thanks Sherri. It's on my list of things to listen to when I have some uninterrupted time (maybe that'll be my mom's day gift. ; )! Can't wait to hear the take here.

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  11. Another interesting post Kim. I love reading your take on parenting in Africa because there are so many similarities between what you experience and what I see here. I don't know what this means but when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Zambia I used to marvel at how little crying there was in the village I lived in but now that we live in a wildlife reserve with only three families I can't believe how much crying I hear from the only other house that has kids similar ages to mine. Is it because they are living outside of the traditional community set up? I guess I can't come to a conclusion based on one family but your post has got me wondering.

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    1. I know what you mean! I actually hear quite a bit of crying around my house both here and when I lived in a smaller town. Maybe there is less crying in the village setting for a lot of reasons (in town moms work more, for example) or maybe the "african babies don't cry" was always an exaggerated claim...

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  12. I love these cross cultural comparisons. This one leaves me hungry to know more about what Kenyan children and adults think of Western behaviors!

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