I hunched my back to fit through the doorway of the mud and thatch hut, my baby in my arms. The woman inside welcomed me with a “karibu,” her own baby suckling at her breast. The hut was dark with only light spilling in from two small windows but my eyes adjusted quickly. It was decorated with free calendars and unsmiling photos of family members hung high on the mud walls, like so many other homes I’d entered in my two years in Kenya. As we spoke, through a translator who knew the local Luyha dialect, chickens wandered in the hut and were shushed away without a thought.
I had spent the past two days living with a family in a rural village with my baby and 3 year old son talking with local woman about their experiences as mothers. My son was outside playing easily with the children in the compound despite the language barrier.
The conversation was going well. Her 2 small children had entered the hut and sat quietly during our discussion. But at some point my son came rushing in, insisting emphatically, in only the way a 3 year old can, that he was ready to go. His whining was incessant. “Mama mama mama. Can we go? Can we go? can we go?!” The conversation stopped and everyone turned to view the spectacle. Summoning my best “parenting in public” skills, I lovingly (with an undercurrent of “you are going to get it when we get home”) told him to stop and that we’d leave shortly. This was met only with louder and more insistent, back arching whining.
I was embarrassed. I had done all that I could to avoid this scenario. Before we left for this particular visit, I got down on Caleb’s level, looked him in the eye and made him promise to behave if he wanted to join me (he had begged to come along). We agreed that if he couldn’t behave he would not be coming with me again. All of this to no apparent effect.
But here was an opportunity. I had never seen a rural Kenyan child throw a tantrum or refuse a request by their mother, and I wondered why. So, I looked at the other mamas in the room, pointed to my son (still pulling my leg and whining that he wanted to go) and said, “What would you do in this situation?” They laughed good-naturedly and said, pointing to their own children sitting quietly and looking puzzled at Caleb’s behavior, “but our children don’t do that.”
And then someone kindly offered, “Maybe he’s hungry?”
It wasn’t translated for me, but at some point in the following exchange I heard it: “kiboko” – a word I knew in Swahili that meant the kind of stick you hit a child with when they misbehave. And I know this is surely part of the reason his Kenyan playmates were sitting so compliantly. In fact, every single woman I had spoken to “beats” (that’s their word) their children with a stick as a form of punishment.
It sits a bit uneasy with me – the endemic use of corporal punishment. But I also understand it, and I have to admit part of me longs for the easy results it gets. I understand that in a village setting in which all children must help run a busy household and a life-sustaining farm, a premium is placed on obedience. I understand that the conventions that have replaced corporal punishment in our world – three strikes, loss of privileges, time outs, grounding – are difficult to impossible here where there are no real toys to take away and mothers have little time or energy to fight with a child to stay in a time out corner. A thwacking is quick and effective.
Still, it sits uneasy with me. So, while I understand the practice, I have to admit I don’t love it.
Back in the hut, the interview continued, amid the slowly ebbing tantrum. We turned to the subject of sleep. This mother, like every other mother I spoke to and like most mothers on the planet, sleeps with her baby. I asked her what she thought about the idea of a baby sleeping in another bed. She replied, like the others did, that it was “impossible.” It simply “could not happen.” When I explained to her that this is precisely what most American mothers do, she shook her head in disbelief, saying “but the baby must feel the mother’s love.”
So, this idea – of putting a baby in another bed, one that might to an outsider even resemble a cage, to sleep alone – probably did not sit well with her. She might even understand it as some strange practice that Wazungu (foreigners) do, but it probably did not sit well. Just as the kiboko did not sit well with me.
No one has a monopoly on the “right” way to bring up children. We all, individual and as a culture, do what we think is right and what works best given our own realities. This small interaction was a stark and visceral reminder of that.
Have you ever found yourself judging another culture? What does not sit well with you? Have you tried to make sense of it?
This is an original post to World Moms Blog by our writer in Kenya, Mama Mzungu.
The photograph used in this post was taken by the author.
A thought-provoking post, Kim. It made me think of an article I read a while ago that said African babies don’t cry as much as other babies ( I guess the author meant ‘Western’ babies), because whenever they are on the verge of tears, they get offered the breast. They breastfed not just as a means of nourishing, it was nurturing.
It sort of blew my mind. Because that was what I was doing with my firstborn when he was a baby, instinctively (and I’m far from being African) and there were those who suggested I was ‘pandering’ to him. I continued to do what was natural to me, which was to boob him whenever.
So I guess what I’m trying to say is, whether we’re African, Chinese or ‘Western’, we do what WE consider to be the right thing, and what comes naturally. Whether it’s personally or for our community. I also think that times change. When I was a child, no one blinked if someone whipped out a ‘kiboko’ (where I live, it’s a bamboo cane) even just to wave it at a naughty child. What can I say, it works (from personal experience). But if someone were even to suggest it now? No way.
So true Alison. I fed both kids on demand, but kept getting messages that everything in my life would be easier (especially the sleep!) if I put them on a schedule. Ultimately, my life is a lot easier when I can pop a nipple in their mouths to soothe them. That works for me. And frankly has worked for women around the world since humans split off from ages. So, I’ll stick with it. ; )
Interesting that they used the bamboo cane in your community. I imagine that is also more the rule than the exception around the world (for better or worse). I also wonder if parents don’t actually use it as much as they threaten to. I remember my grandfather effectively threatened to get out “the belt” but I only remember him using it once, and it was on my brother. Still, it instilled some discipline (and fear).
The only advice I should have been given as a young mother (and the only piece of advice I was NEVER given) is “trust your instincts”! Every child is unique and what works for one doesn’t necessarily work for the other. The biggest “handicap” which “Western” women face is TOO MUCH (mostly contradictory) information and our fear of doing our offspring a disservice.
I would hazard a guess that most of us grew up with parents who regularly used corporal punishment. I, for one, clearly remember crying in my room after a hiding and swearing that I would NEVER treat a child the way I was treated. I have since learnt that if you say you’ll “never” do something either God or The Universe conspires to make you eat your words! That said, I never felt the need to really HURT my children (like I was hurt). A whack with an open hand on a bottom covered by a diaper doesn’t hurt but it does stop the bad behaviour! I have to also say that the whack was only in response to a potentially dangerous situation (like reaching for a pot on the stove). By the time they went to preschool they no longer needed smacks because things like time-out actually worked when they were older.
Totally agree re: the way too much and often contradictory information we are given as parents in the West. I hate that I have to pick a philosophy for everything and then second guess my decision once I hear new information. Sometimes I wish there were just no choice in the matter. You do it because you mom and all your neighbors do it and that settles it. But I guess that’s the basic paradox of the modern world – all the choice we have is as liberating as it is disorienting.
Seems to me, the Kenyans understand both Reactive Tantrums and Processing Tantrums and deal with them in ways the human brain understands. What have we lost and what do we need to relearn?
Karyn, I’m so interested to learn more about what you mean here!! I’m about to google “reactive tantrums and processing tantrums” but would love to hear more of your thoughts!
They’re terms I’ve coined, Kim, so they won’t be anywhere yet! The book is due out soon. Promise.
Thanks for another thoughtful post, Kim. The questions you raise are important, the answers elusive. Personally, I feel pretty clear on the principle of corporal punishment. No one should beat children. (It’s actually forbidden in the Baha’i Faith). Whether a “whack” rises to that standard or not can be debated. Like Simona, the universe – as manifested through our oldest son as a two-year-old – humbled my absolutism when he insisted on putting his finger in an electric socket. No amount of reasoning worked; a light slap on the wrist did.
That’s a slippery slope, though. It’s so easy to move from light slaps to painful, regular, physical punishment. Then what happens when there is no one stronger than the child to intimidate her? And is not corporal punishment why so many rural African children are so quiet and very well-behaved, yet remain silent in school and struggle with creative thinking there?
The root of the word “discipline” is the Latin word “discipulus,” or “disciple.” It’s about learning (“discere” in Latin, also related), about following, about wanting to be good. As a parent and educator I have no magic answers for how best to achieve this, but I’m certain that it can’t be based on fear of physical punishment – for practical as well as moral reasons.
All of this illustrates something I believe firmly about culture, our own and others and how we can learn from one another. Some things in any given culture are core principles that should be safeguarded. Some are variations that add diversity to the human family and should be appreciated as such, whether emulated or not. And some things, in every culture (certainly mine), must be re-examined and reformed.
For me, how we discipline our children without beating them falls squarely into the first category. In which bed should a child sleep? Now that’s a very interesting variation question.
Such an insightful comment Phil. I was worried about being too cultural relativist here. I don’t think it’s OK to whack kids with abandon and like I said “it doesn’t sit all that well wit me.” For a lot of the reasons you outlined.
I think I was just trying to understand the purpose of the use of corporal punishment in that context, not to condone it but to understand it. And as I was thinking about how deep inside I probably don’t “approve” at that same time I saw how when we put babies in separate beds and let them cry to train them could look pretty cruel to others. In fact, if cultural relativism stops when the most vulnerable people are in a population are hurt, babies are definitely some of the most vulnerable. And one could say that sleep training does not have a cost or impact, but the research is unclear (some says it hurts their nervous system) – just as it is with judicious use of mild spanking (the research is pretty inconclusive). I guess there’s still reason to care about these things from a “rights-based” moral standpoint regardless of the impact. But here too, I don’t think we necessarily have the higher ground. All just stuff I’m grappling with, but I love hearing your perspective! Gives me more to chew on. : )
Really great post, Kim. Very thought provoking indeed. I was raised where corporal punishments were well normal. When I was in China, I was so shocked to see these open crotch pants people put on their babies there. It’s called Kaidangku. They believe in teaching the babies to go potty from early on that’s why the open crotch. I saw one baby on a baby stroller with a diaper laid out on the bottom and the Kaidangku were well open. It was a shocking sight to see nannies/grandmother hold a baby above a garbage can and had the baby pee in there but that’s normal for them. It’s part of their cultures and after awhile I learned not to judge because that’s what works for them and I let my own son wore a diaper until he was 2 years old 😀
I just finished a book about cross-cultural parenting called “how eskimos keep their babies warm.” There was a whole chapter about those split-crotch pants and early potty training and how, despite all the medical advice we get about what age is appropriate, the Chinese are able to effectively train their kids early. It’s definitely worth a read!
I’m estatic about the fact that you just took us into a rural village in Kenya and reported on the merging of two cultures around a child’s tantrum and the different responses. Wow, Kim!
I take every spider I find in our house outside and let them go free. It’s what I do, but it also models a respect for nature to my children. Motherhood can get very frustrating at times, but I’ve avoided hitting. It’s not my thing, and I also have read, like Phil mentioned, that if you use hitting as your discipline the only way to strengthen the punishment is to hit harder (or more often).
I can say that I do a lot to anticipate situations. If they have another something sweet, I can expect them to act up. If I skipped a nap, I can expect them to act up. If I kept them up too late, I can expect them to have trouble going to bed. So, I try to prevent these actions from occurring as much as possible. But, regardless, acting up happens sometimes. Part of me feels that they need to experience these feelings, and let it out sometimes.
When you mention about the crib, it makes me cringe. My 18 mos. old sleeps in a crib. It sounds so medieval in those terms! I am so motivated to get my girls to sleep together in the same bed. The youngest is not quite ready yet, but we will try again soon.
I’ve tried to sleep with my kids. I read about the benefits. But, in the end, I would get awful sleep. And, I felt that I could be a better mom to them while they weren’t sleeping, if I slept well. I slept in a crib as a baby and toddler. It can’t be all that bad is what I tell myself!
Outstanding post, Kim!!!
I agree about the slippery slope of corporal punishment. I admit to being ambivalent about it but I know that I’d surely want to avoid that slippery slope!
And I TOTALLY agree about the sleep. I so badly wanted to co-sleep with my kids, reading probably the same stuff as you did. Still my favorite parts of hte day are in the morning when all 4 of us snuggle in bed together. But it just didn’t work for me. I’m too light of a sleeper and I was a miserable mom/person when I became so sleep deprived. So, we’re trying again wtih #2 next to the bed and ear plugs in my ear, but I’m not wedded to it. I tend to romanticize the “natural” way of doing things, but I also have to come to terms with the fact that those ways might not always work for me. And, you’re right, whatever makes you a more sane parent for your child is the way to go!!!
Judged another culture? Me? No… 🙂 I enjoyed this post a lot, Kim. When my son was born in Ghana, we were living with his Ghanaian grandparents. Though we had always gotten along beautifully before the baby came along, baby raising practices raised the awareness on cultural differences and certainly created some tensions. There were things that they did that made me suck in my breath, sometimes gasp audibly, and other times hold my baby tightly to me, certain I was protecting him from the imminent danger of Ghanaian traditions. Head shaping to make the head prettier and skin scrubbing to make the skin stronger were two things that made me watch my baby with an eagle eye when in Grandma’s hands. And then there were things that I did that made my hosts speak in hushed tones, probably dealing whether or not they should call child protective services on my Obruni child raising ways. They could not stand that I didn’t keep the baby strapped to my body- they felt that there were too many parasites, germs, and potential rodent dangers that came about when my son was left in a bed on his own. What I quickly came to realize was that a lot of the child rearing traditions we hold tightly to are those that originate out of the need to keep the baby healthy, safe, and protected from environmental (of THAT environment) hazards. Over time, these practices may seem archaic and unnecessary, and taken out of context, make no sense at all. Like you, this experience of international Mam-hood has made me pause and ask “why,” seeking understanding before judgement. Some of my parenting ways have come about by watching other moms in other cultures. Some of my parenting is from Mama instinct, trusting what works for my son, and some is just me stumbling along, hoping against hope that I get a little bit if it “right.” Thanks for the insightful post, Kim.
Erin, I find this so fascinating! I think it’s great to acknowledge when our fear of another culture’s practices is just cultural bias, but also be careful to draw the line when we think it could be harmful. SUCH a tricky balance, and I imagine must have been really difficult with in-laws. Good grief!! I absolutely love everything you wrote!!
Very insightful post! Thank you so much for sharing. I loved reading the comments too!
I am from Zimbabwe and just happened upon this post while browsing the Internet. I grew up being smacked by my mum and all of my primary school teachers. One of the teachers even kept a hose pipe to hit us quite hard with when she felt we were out of line.
The hitting hurt and we cried… but we also learnt our lessons well. There was no communication between the teachers and parents about the smacking, ie. there was no consent granted or denied. The teachers simply acted as they needed to to instill order.
It may sound brutal to you, but what I found extremely frustrating is when I see parents trying to reason with a child. I have seen it many times as I have had the privilege to travel to Europe and America quite a lot. Parents give children a timeout or try to reason with them about things their little minds cannot compute. How do you make a promise or pledge or vow of obedience with a child when adults fail dismally to keep their own? What are the consequences of a bad action if, once more, the solution is to try to reason with the same child you attempted – unsuccessfully – to reason with to begin with?
I simply don’t understand that and feel this is the reason so many children have excessive power over their parents from the word go. The power deferentials aren’t made clear and too many children think they are their parents’ equals…
Of course, after a point, I don’t think that smacking or hitting a child is the answer. And this should not be used a remedy for all things, as that is abuse. But a smack does get the message across.
Disclaimer: I do not mean for this message to be used in the armour of wife bashers. ADULT women and children are not one in the same. And children should not be hit until the lesson is more about the pleasure of inflicting pain than the act of teaching a life lesson.
I’m so glad you commented and I very much see the logic behind your arguments – that’s what makes raising my own kids here so disorienting. Yes. The threat of physical punishment gets attention in the way little else does. And I think reason does not always work with developing minds. The research also seems to indicate that children spanked (judiciously) between the ages of 2-6 have no long-term ill effects. I sometimes feel so powerless and even spineless amid my son’s obstinancy and long for the quick effects of corporal punishment.
But I also see the arguments to the contrary – that it can become a slippery slope leading to hitting too often or out of anger, that you are teaching a child that violence is an appropriate tool for coercion and even the moral argument that effectiveness aside it’s simply not OK to “lay your hands” on a child.
Still… I have a collection of friends and relatives who are against hitting but who have found themselves doing it when all else fails – the child is in danger, running out of the house, sticking their fingers in an outlet, or hurting a sibling.
Anyway… probably the best way to keep your child behaving and respecting your authority is to be consistent, and the punishment might not have to be physical (though it might be the easiest and quickest for the parent) but a system of rewards and consequences. I think that’s where I land on the issue. This week. 😉
But thanks again for your perspective. You are certainly not alone!
What a fascinating post Kim. It must be such an amazing opportunity to spend time with your children living in the village for a few days. I am sure many customs are different and what works for some, doesn’t for others. The best thing about life as a mother is it is your call. I look forward to reading more of your posts!
What a wonderfully balanced post, reminding us the importance in taking in cultural perspective before passing judgement on another’s parenting.
I don’t use corporal punishment…ever, but I did do tough-love sleep training with my 2nd son so that he would sleep in his own room, independently. So lots for me to think on with this post. Thanks for sharing your experience!