Thursday, July 28th, 2011

Developing Social Customs in Young Children


In Kenya, like many other African countries, greetings are incredibly important. Handshaking is customary as are kisses on the cheeks and hugs for people one is closer to. The very least of the greetings is to ask after someone’s news. It is a moment of connection in the day and carries far more weight than just a social pleasantry. Even in busy Nairobi City (unlike upcountry where greetings are an integral part of the social fabric), people will take the time to tell you what is going on and the to and fro of a greeting can be like a social call and response.


At my daughter’s kindergarten, for example, the teachers hug all the children and parents ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ every morning and lunchtime. It creates a special community atmosphere that is bound in a welcoming embrace. Sometimes greetings are elaborate, enquiring about the person’s family and possibly even friends and neighbours. My own personal greeting tends to ask about two things: how the person is and also how things are in their life. The answers do not always equate.


I like to think that living with two cultures—Kenyan and British—means that my daughter and I can get the best of both worlds. But as she is growing older, I am beginning to realise that some social customs require more than children’s natural imitation to develop. My friends in the U.K. regularly used to pass comment on the time I took to greet, even strangers, African style. It made me realize just how much I valued greeting. I wanted to pass on the social custom to my daughter. (It has to be said that in Kenya there is no choice on the matter).


Some adults might be quick to label my daughter shy. I see it more that she prefers to receive your resume, review it at her pleasure and get back to you. Some people strike her more quickly and friendships are formed instantly while others take her weeks on end to pour over. Whichever her approach, in Kenya she is expected to greet whomever she meets regardless of their age, status or social background. I think it is a wonderful custom.


When she was much younger, around two or just about three, excuses were made on her behalf (by both myself and also strangers) as adults tried to engage her in this social custom. In fact, at one point I was relieved to be spending some time in the U.K. where greetings were not expected of her. There was also lots of explaining on my part. We would have chats about why greetings were important and whenever a situation allowed, I would try to find a way to explore her feelings about the individual encounters.


Then suddenly and unexpectedly (much like walking or talking), it all seemed to fall into place. There we were at our local supermarket when I ran into an old school friend I had not seen in years. My friend and I exchanged the usual Kenyan greetings then my friend went to shake my daughter’s hand. It must have only taken a few seconds (which stretched to minutes in my mind) for my daughter to return the handshake. They both said, “Hi.” The consistent gentle perseverance had been worth it.


Now (at aged four and a quarter), it is unusual for my daughter not to shake hands or greet someone. Sometimes her voice is louder, sometimes it is quieter. There are days that she doesn’t quite manage to look the person in the eye that she is greeting and others when she offers her left hand instead of her right. Mainly, however, she is much better at making the connection and I think she might even be beginning to understand the value of the custom. It got me thinking about social customs in general. Which customs have you had to work on developing with your children and why were they so important to you?



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JC Niala is a mother, writer and creative who enjoys exploring the differences that thankfully still exist between various cultures around the world. She was born in Kenya and grew up in Kenya, Cote d'Ivoire and the UK. She has worked and lived on three continents and has visited at least one new country every year since she was 12 years old. Her favorite travel companions are her mother and daughter whose stories and interest in others bring her to engage with the world in ways she would have never imagined. She is the author of Beyond Motherhood: A guide to being a great working mother while living your dream.

Leave us a comment!

  1. Commentslilkunta   |  Sunday, 31 March 2013 at 12:34 am

    I am confused that you want your daughter to know kenya customs because in your other blog you said you dont want her to say please and thank you.

  2. CommentsTara   |  Saturday, 20 April 2013 at 2:47 pm

    In India children are taught from infancy and repeatedly reminded to greet everyone with folded hands or hands to feet and a namaste or salam or good day. Even as they get to be young adults and it has become a habit they are reminded “did you greet uncle?” “have you said hello to aunty?” “did you ask your friend about school?” I was and am a shy person and was greatly helped by this matter of fact, non embaressing coaching to learn to be graceful in social situations. I say keep up the coachin and reminding even as a teenager 🙂 I’m so glad I have the habit!

  3. CommentsJC Niala   |  Friday, 21 June 2013 at 11:43 am

    @lilkunta – i didn’t say that i don’t want my daughter to say please and thank you more that i wanted her to say it from the heart and no repeat it by rote. it is a subject which i still revisit and you might want to check out my recent piece ‘i was wrong, manner do matter’.

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