Are there ‘obvious’ skills and ways to raise children?

parenting

As parents (and guardians), there are obvious things we are meant to know and implement without question, or hesitation.

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Speaking on a LinkedIn video clip, Personal and Career Coach Rachel Nyaradzo Adams spoke of the ‘obvious’ things that people are just meant to know and adhere to in life, and this got me thinking.

There are certain things that we are supposed to know, things that are supposed to have been ‘passed down’ to us organically through our own parents, or guardians, or the supposed ‘village’ in the course of our growth, and by the time we get to that magical adulthood down, we are supposed to be well-versed and conversant with these things.

 For example, we all know, surely, how to brush our teeth and wash our bodies. Appearing in public with body odour, or unwashed mouths, tends to draw stares and attitudes of derision, because, why are we walking around with stinky armpits and other unmentionable parts? Why open your mouth to spew saliva and other DNA samples that are unclean all over hapless workmates and friends?

In these musings is a certain impatience with the person who does not seem to understand these ‘obvious’ facts. We do not stop to think, in that moment, that there may be exigent circumstances involved – perhaps the person has no water, or cannot afford all-day lasting deodorant, or is surviving on a thin diet that does not support the cleansing of the gut, and therefore bad odours become the order of existence.

This is the same case with parenting.

I remember a nurse asking me, at the birth of my first child, if I knew how to bathe a baby, and my automatic answer had been a very enthusiastic “yes!”. After all, being a first-born girl with three siblings following, had I not changed nappies, given baths and learnt, at the firm hand of my own mother, how to take care of a baby? When the nurse had said “haya, hebu kuja nione vile utaosha mtoto”, I stepped forward, my confidence rather uncertain.

The tiny human in my hands was so – tiny – and I had no idea what to do. Worse, the tiny human was so slippery, I thought I was going to kill him as he wriggled, his raw belly-button stump, with its blue, plastic clamp, staring at me like an accusation. At that moment, I realised that I had no idea how to perform this ‘obvious’ task, this task that I, a whole woman, should have automatically learned from my mother, or from whoever.

There, faced with the knowledge that this child was mine, and that every bath was a chance at which the baby could potentially drown, left me with feelings of extreme inadequacy and unpreparedness, a feeling I continue to feel even today.

As parents (and guardians), there are obvious things we are meant to know and implement without question, or hesitation. For mothers, the first thing after the birth of a baby is breastfeeding. We are supposed to instinctively and automatically know how to make a baby latch into the breast and start feeding.

 When new mothers express frustration with a baby who refuses to latch properly, or milk let-down that is low, stares of derision and doubt often ensue. Many mums with babies who take formula are frowned upon, and the adage that “breast is best” thrown their way without consideration that breastfeeding is not automatic, and that any stress, emotional pressure, or wounds acquired from the birthing process can impede milk let-down.

Sometimes, the milk just does not come at all no matter how much water, tea, uji or njahī a mother injects into her stomach, and she is forced to take other measures to keep a baby fed.

 Fathers are another lot that come into this equation. Because of a certain kind of socialisation from our own generation of parents, many new dads from GenX to GenZ have no idea how to change diapers, burp a new-born, put a baby to sleep, or bath one.

These tasks are not only alien to them because they have been feminised, but they are alien to them as they would be alien to new mums as well. These skills are not ‘obvious’. As many say, a baby does not come with a user’s manual. Unfortunately, the bulk of these tasks and skills are left to women in most part due to the patriarchal system in which we exist, one that leaves parenting care work to women.

This is not to suggest that no men can change diapers – far from it. There are many men who do the parenting care work – but even for these, the skill was not ‘automatic’ or obvious. There was a learning curve.

And that is the point here. The parenting journey is a lifelong one, with a steep, never-ending curve. In many cases, it is informed by the ways every individual was parented, or not.

 I recall one good friend telling me how he had decided he never wanted children because his parents had passed on in his teens, leaving him with five siblings he had to care for, find fees for, raise, even as he struggled to comprehend the life he had found himself in.

By the time his siblings were all grown and in university, he found rest for the first time in his life, in his early 40s, and had no intention of going back to, in his own words, “Square Zero” to begin caring for a new life all over again.

I also know a close friend who was orphaned from age 8, and grew up basically teaching himself how to just be human, having been left in the care of neglectful relatives. Many things do not come easy or obvious to these folk.

 Further, there are those who had both parents in their lives, but said parents were cruel, neglectful, perhaps suffering from addiction, or other undiagnosed mental health problems, and were just horrible at parenting. When they become parents themselves, if they choose to be parents, or if they have the ability to choose to be parents, their parenting will be influenced heavily by their own experiences through life.

From a perspective of an observer, some things will appear obvious even when they are not. I will give two examples.

Discipline

Discipline is one area of parenting that comes under a lot of surveillance, commentary, and endless, heated debate on various social forums. Is discipline even necessary, is usually the first question posed. Indeed, what is “discipline” outside the ways the term was used to punish, cause physical pain, and entrench control over us as children?

The term “discipline” itself is very triggering for many adults, parents included. In the 1975 James Clavell novel Shogun is a quote that says “to think good thoughts requires effort. This is one of the things that discipline – training – is about”.

This leads us to the textbook definition of discipline, which is a ‘system of training people to obey rules or a code of behaviour, using punishment to correct disobedience’. While we grew up, this form of discipline was a standard practice to get us to, ideally, be the kind of people that obeyed rules in the home, in school, and eventually, the workplace as productive members of society, whatever that looks like. Punishments took the form of spanking, to the more ominous beatings, and other insidious methods such as being denied food and going to bed hungry.

 Some older children seen as vichwa ngumu would be taken the police stations to spend the night there in the hope that the scary experience would snap them back into discipline and good behaviour for infringements that ranged from talking back at parents (or teachers), staying out late, not doing chores, going to spend time in friends’ houses (many of our parents were perhaps rightly suspicious of other parents and what went on behind closed doors), to having girlfriends/boyfriends, ingesting alcohol and smoking.

While these may have worked in the past, and indeed, some parents swear that majority of these methods still work to-date, there are emergent schools of thought that are rejecting these forms of parenting in toto.

We are more aware today that these methods inflicted undue pain, suffering and trauma on us as children. Advocates of soft parenting are suggesting less punishment, and more patient forms of ‘discipline’, treating children like human beings with rights that deserve a hearing, and understanding, taking into account their growing brains. Many parents are shunning, beating and berating children – and there are those in the middle who advocate for some spanking as a last resort, more concerned with the general well-being and mental health of children.

These new forms are also debated in social forums, with many older folk suggesting that bringing children up without discipline is going to create a generation of entitled brats who lack resilience and spine with which to face life.

While these debates continue in the public sphere, there are many parents who are not privy to these emerging debates taking root in the discourses around parenting. This is to say, these debates and shifts in an issue such as discipline are not circulating to everyone.

This is why when a Tweep found two children who had run away from home because of a mother who was overly harsh and who meted out daily beatings to them, Kenyans on Twitter called for her arrest. Some suggested they should be told where she lived because they, ironically, wanted to have a ‘soft word’ with her, a euphemism for giving her an equal beating.

Many said that it was obvious that parents should not be beating their children for ‘small’ mistakes in the house after the mother revealed that she was frustrated at her children breaking the few scarce dishes that existed in the house. But is it obvious? Who is imparting these obvious wisdoms to parents? Or are they just almost helplessly replicating what they experienced and witnessed in their own homes growing up?

These are the questions to ponder especially when it comes to this triggering question of raising children who are ‘disciplined’. In a society that hyper-surveilles and judges parents of children who are rude, wayward, drinking, or who appear to have ‘failed’ at being successful, and where the threat ‘asiyefunzwa na mamaye hufunzwa na ulimwengu’ looms large (and places the failure of children at the feet of their mothers), nothing is ‘obvious’.

 Conversations around discipline need to be inclusive and allowed to permeate all social strata, and tools given to parents to manage – including socio-political tools that ensure equitable distribution of resources so that parents are not suffering under the load of a capitalistic system that leaves them no room to breathe.

Communication and apology

This is another one where the ‘obvious’ isn’t as obvious. How did our parents communicate with us, especially during or after periods of conflict?

 In an interesting Twitter thread where one Tweep asked GenX to GenY folk how their parents did this, many posted hilarious responses that resonated across the board. Many of our parents never apologised, or taught us to apologise.

When a parent scolded or punished their child, they would either bring something to eat and declare ‘nimeweka nyama hapo kama unataka’ as a way of clearing tension and absolving themselves of guilt. Some would call you and announce that your favourite television programme was about to start. Rarely, if ever, would the words “I am sorry” or “I love you” leave the lips of our fathers for example.

And this is reflected in the current parenting. It is obvious that clear communication that includes expression of feelings is something integral in relationships with children (and each other) so that we teach them to express their feelings instead of throwing tantrums until they are adults. It is also obvious that children especially do not do what we say, rather, do what we do.

But is it obvious? Who is teaching us these obvious things? Are our children, following our examples, able to say things like ‘I feel a bit frustrated please may I have some time out to cool down a little’? Or do they, following in our example, throw tantrums by shouting, screaming, throwing things, breaking things in the house, and generally resorting to physical violence when experiencing overwhelming feelings?

Are we as parents able to examine and recognise our own overwhelming feelings beyond anger and sadness and happiness? Google tells us there are deeper and more nuanced feelings beyond a feeling like ‘sad’, including bored, lost, troubled, isolated, hurt, unhappy, grieved, low, or disappointed.

Someone who is ‘happy’ could be feeling joy, peace, inspiration, contentment, safe, confident, relief, proud, excited, hopeful, or amused. All these are dependent on the context that the person is in.

Are we teaching our children to feel and express these different levels and layers of feelings? Where are we getting these ‘obvious’ skills?

Parenting as modelling

The truth is, parenting is not just about saying things. It is about modelling different behaviours, responses, and reactions to different stimuli. But as the saying goes, no one is teaching us about parenting. Our parents may not have had the chance to learn these things, having been brought up by parents who experienced the cultural and socio-political violence of the colonial period, including the emergency period.

Majority of our parents brought us up during a regime where political disappearances, loyalty to the one-party state, Nyati House and Nyayo House torture chambers, land clashes, and other atrocities coloured (or uncoloured) their imaginations.

Those were the days of no internet, no mobile phone telephony, no smart gadgets, and no social media that propagated knowledge far and wide. Our parents may have parented the best they could. Some of them were downright bad parents, and even in the light of access to parenting resources, did not care to learn how to parent.

We now live in a different age – though, for some people, access to the knowledge some of us have is not obvious, or guaranteed. Still, in this generation, it is our responsibility, in large part, to be more informed.

How do we achieve this? It is easy to assume everyone has access to free Zoom seminars hosted by this or the other, teaching mothers how to bring up sons better, or how to parent with less violence and more understanding.

It is easy to assume that in this age of therapy, that our responsibility to re-parent ourselves, and to deal with the traumas our parents meted out on us. But where do we find these resources? How do we fund them? How do we ensure that some of the ‘obvious’ commandments of parenting, including the idea of parenting as modelling, are spread throughout a highly stratified society?

How do we arm the poor single mother in Korogocho with emotional tools that prevent her from unleashing frustration and violence upon her children when they break a cup in the house?

These are the big challenges of parenting – arming parents with this ‘obvious’ knowledge without telling them not to have children if they have not ‘healed’.

Yes, there is, and should be, obvious ways of doing things. But not everyone has access to these, and even those with access may not know how to implement them successfully.

These, to me, are the challenges of our age. There are no easy answers in the age of high cost of living and a certain fatigue and impatience that life has injected into the social fabric. But we need to talk about these things and find ways to parent safely, with knowledge, and bring up a generation of less traumatised and emotionally damaged children. I submit.

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