Thursday, October 27th, 2011
Why I Don’t Want My Children to Be Happy
raising-global-citizens/ © Kim Gunkel-istockphoto
I came to Amy Chua’s book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, and its controversy late. Even though I never had parents who hit me or called me garbage, I could relate to a lot of what Amy Chua had to say. Like Amy Chua, my parent’s held an unfailing belief that I would succeed. The more I read, the more it seemed that her detractors were mainly critical of her certainty, more than anything else. This, I feel, is the core of the debate between Eastern and Western parenting styles.
When I first went to high school in the U.K., I would ask my friends what they thought they were going to do when we finished. Many of them were not sure and a lot were going to take a gap year between school and university to discover themselves. I even remember my friend’s mother saying that she didn’t expect my friend (then aged 17) to know what she wanted to do with the rest of her life. I was flummoxed. This was not the case in Kenya.
Even now (aged four) my daughter will happily tell you that she wants to be a pilot and a doctor so that she can fly to treat people who need help. My many years in the U.K. mean that I am much more open to the idea that she may well turn out to be something else (she also wants to be a ballerina), but if you had asked me as a teenager, I would have been firm in the understanding that of course she would know.
African parenting assumes a belief in your children that allows no room for doubt. It was not until I went to the U.K. that I realized that my father had a somewhat different grading system: grade C was failing, B passing and an A to be obtained. Yet, on occasions I got anything less than a B, he never made me feel small. He may have stepped up the tutoring and encouraged me to put in extra hours of studying, but it always felt supportive. He simply believed I could do better and so I would. Even when I was in university, he would study all the core texts that I was using so that we could discuss them together. He always had time to follow what I was learning so that he could help me when I struggled. It made me feel special that he took such an interest.
I find myself replicating this certainty. Although my U.K. mind tells me that there is pressure in my conviction that my daughter will behave appropriately, learn the right things and indeed go on to excel, my Kenyan mind has confidence that if she gives her best then contentment will follow. Contentment seems a lot more realistic and sustainable to my Kenyan mind than the ephemeral happiness that people in the West seem to be in great pursuit of these days.
I hear all the time, “I don’t care what s/he does as long as s/he is happy.” But I don’t really believe that. The people who state that would certainly be challenged if their children declared that their sole ambition in life was to collect other people’s rubbish for a living. In the African context, happiness is tied up with a lot more than individual will. We all have goals for our children and I don’t think that is a bad thing. If we are open and honest about our goals and have some faith in the belief that they can be attained, perhaps then, we can all be a little more content—whatever the outcome.
© 2011 – 2013, JC Niala. All rights reserved.
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