Saturday, May 11, 2013

Not every culture forces their kids to share. And maybe that's not such a bad thing...

"Mo-oommm...  But it's not fair!!!" whines every pre-schooler from Fresno to Philadelphia.

"Well, sorry dear, life is not always fair."  replies every harried mother, settling the issue at least in her mind.

But the thing is, despite their proclamations, American parents work tremendously hard to try and make life as fair as possible for children.  They break up fights and force apologies.  They enforce the "take turns" policy.  They repeatedly implore their little charges to "share nicely," and they dole out consequences when someone is being too selfish. They ask "who had it first?"

I suppose this would be my modus operandi as well.  Though with only one kid there were less opportunities to enforce this system of fairness.  And by the time I went from having one child requiring entertainment to two children requiring a referee, I had been living in Kenya for the better part of two years, where such a regime of benign rights-based interventions does not so much exist.  So, I've, somewhat subconsciously, adopted the Kenyan system, which is this: Everyone defers to the noisiest (generally youngest) child.

When we first moved to Kenya and Caleb ran around with a mixed-aged group of friends, I observed this in practice.  Caleb and another child would want the same toy, and Rukia (his care giver) would almost always ask the other kid to give Caleb the toy.

It made me cringe.  I assumed she forced the other children to give him the toys because well... the toys were his... and I somewhere I suppose I feared that she deferred to his whims because he was the lone mzungu child.  When this happened I would always intervene, telling Caleb his friends were "guests" and we needed to give them a turn with the toy too. I'd force him to give the other child the toy.

This invariably resulted in a full scale temper tantrum.  After being told by Rukia that he could have the toy, I'd undo that, making it worse.  Everyone would stop and stare at his meltdown, and my lesson in sharing and being a good host would get drowned out by the screaming. I was left feeling like I did something wrong, but had at least imparted an important lesson that I hoped would eventually sink in.  I had restored life to a more "fair" balance, even if I created more chaos.

But my reaction was out of step with the culture.  For Kenyans, it seemed that preventing the chaos was what was most important. The child who is the least able to weather the disappointment of losing a toy, the one who is least capable of understanding mine/yours/who had it first, basically the youngest, is the one who wins. Because when he wins there's less noise for everyone.

What I had failed to realize was that Caleb was getting his way because he was the youngest child in his group of playmates.  When a child younger than Caleb entered his group of friends, even he was asked to defer to the littlest playmate.

To Americans, this probably seems supremely unfair, but it's really just a different set of rules and, amazingly, the older kids simply learn to sublimate their own needs.  And that's probably not such a bad thing to learn how to do.

Now that Emmet has grown to the age in which he has toy preferences, a strong will, and an impressive set of lungs, we've asked Caleb to generally defer to the baby.  I know that this is VERY much against American sibling rivalry advise, which says that if you don't want the older child to resent the baby, you can't always let the baby win.  But so far - and probably because the culture reinforces this different set of rules - Caleb is with the program.

The problem is that we are currently back in the US, where babies are expected to understand, or at least play along, with the take turns/who had it first policy.  Forgetting for a moment where I was, I recently asked Emmet's cousin to give up a toy Emmet was crying for.  His mom, carefully reminded me that her son had been playing with it first.

And that's when it hit me:  Here in the US we really do see each child, and even baby, as having particular individual rights. When those rights are violated we work to restore order and fairness.  We hope that our children learn to share, but they certainly learn that some justice is owed them.  Kenyans, by asking children to put others before themselves learn, not that they have rights, but that they have a responsibility to keeping the peace for the group.

I don't think one way is necessarily better than the other, but, like all parenting practices, they make sense given their context.  But, I have to say, having experienced both, the Kenyan way is definitely less noisy.


  1. Another interesting post, Kim and I enjoyed it.

    I have always huge issues with the way many westerners deal with sharing. But then, I have a habit of thinking sideways. :/

  2. This is very interesting, Kim. I think that even within Europe there are cultures that are somehow "kenyan". In my opinion it's not about NOT giving the individual right to the older child, but about teaching responsiblity towards the younger one. The younger ones often are treated as the "weaker" ones or the ones you have to look after and this is why the older children give in. Do you really think that older children in Kenya aren't teached to have rights? I have some Kenyan friends here and observe this "giving to the youngest" that you're describing, but I wouldn't say that they don't learn to have rights. – Or did I misunderstand what you said in the second to last paragraph?

    1. Yeah, I certainly didn't mean to imply that Kenyans are taught they have no rights! I guess the system of rights is just different. For example, when kids get older the younger children generally do what the older children ask. So, they are indulged when they can least be reasoned with and then asked to obey their elder siblings and then allowed to give orders to their younger siblings. I suppose you age into different "rights." But my point in the second to last paragraph was just to make the distinction between the very American message of individuals being owed justice no matter the age to the more Africa idea of a sense of responsibility to the collective. It was interesting to me that this difference is played out in how we manage interactions between our children.

  3. I also see this with elder people in Europe. Here's my explanation. We (and by "we" I mean Western cultures- whatever that means) see children and each other as individuals. Which means that they have to learn to share, as their individual rights are more or less protected. Our children will be able to chose their own ways when they're grown up. The way I undertand this works with the Kenyans is the fact that the child will be expected to give to the community, so they could have their way when they're young. I don't always ask or expect my children to share and they sometimes get along well, and sometimes they don't. As long as nobody kills anybody, I think they're just fine.