Monday, February 4th, 2013

How I Raise My Kids to Respect Their Elders, Nigerian Style

Raising Nigerian Children/ © Shutterstock

I came to the United States 13 years ago, as an adult from Nigeria. Despite being well traveled as a former airline employee, I had very little understanding of other cultures beyond my own.


In Nigeria, we believe in showing the utmost respect for your elders–elders meaning parents and their peers, grandparents, older friends and teachers. It is also a country that is rich in traditions ranging from wedding ceremonies to the birth of babies. For instance, in the Yoruba culture, a baby is not given a name at the hospital, but through a “naming ceremony” seven days after birth. The baby gets names from the whole extended families, the parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts and siblings. A child could end up with as many as fifteen names, and the parents choose one which they will use, usually theirs or the grandparents.


In the Yoruba tribe, we have several cultural norms related to how you greet and address elders. Females kneel down to greet our parents and elders (aunties, uncles, parents, friends and so on). To greet much older people like grandparents, you are expected to fully bend your knees and have them touch the floor. With parents and other familiar people, it’s ok to curtsy with bended knee, although some might insist on the knees touching the floor. For men and boys, they are expected to prostrate, lie down flat on the floor to greet, but again bending at the waist is a smaller, acceptable gesture.


When responding to older people, the answer is normally, “Beeni ma or sir,” meaning “yes ma, or yes sir,” which is another way to show respect. When someone (a visitor) meets you eating, you invite them to eat. The typical response is, “No thank you,” but some people may actually join in. This also applies to when people come to visit you. You offer them food, not just drinks. And lastly, if kids are old enough (usually seven or eight) they are taught to help when they see an adult carrying something.


Fast forward to raising a child in America. How does one combine “hi mommy” with the “good morning mommy” from home? How do you teach your child what’s valuable to you in your culture? How do you let your child know which context belongs to which culture? My mom, a retired school principal was very strict when instilling cultural values in us. Even though I hated it then, I more than appreciate it now because I hear her voice and feel her approval or disapproval in everything I do.


We can train our children in our culture by a simple biblical teaching: “Train up your child while they are young, when they grow up, they will not depart from it.”


I started training my children within the family. When grandparents visit, I teach them to kneel down or prostrate to greet them properly when they come back from school. They in turn get hugs from their grandparents. I listen to most of my parents’ advice but follow my own instincts when needed. My daughter is eight, so she gets it and does it without my prompting. My son who is five finds the prostrating both confusing and hilarious and prefers to kneel with his sister (which makes me laugh as it’s so funny to see a boy kneeling). For now it works, at least he gets that he has to do something different.


I have always been impressed when I see my friends’ kids curtsy to greet me when we are at events.  Even though I don’t expect it, it strikes a warm chord within me, and I have started to teach my daughter the same thing.  (I’m old school, I know). I have taught her that when we’re in a Nigerian gathering, she should kneel and say hello to aunties and uncles. For now, she still needs prompting, but I hope eventually it will come naturally. Note she doesn’t kneel to greet me though, and I didn’t teach her that! Sometimes, if I do something extra special, I might prompt her to “kneel down and say thank you” just to teach her for later, in case of visits back home. I grew up with my mum caring about the kneeling and my dad not caring at all, so we children greeted them differently.


When it comes to food, I love to cook both American and Nigerian food. I am successfully raising my kids on both. They eat our local amala (yam flour), eba (cassava meal) and the king of all–pounded yam–even though they refer to them as white amala or black amala. They laugh and plead with me when I tell them I’ll bring those meals to their school for “show and tell” though (I don’t know why).


Where I have failed miserably is teaching them my native language, Yoruba. They understand a few phrases but cannot speak it. I will continue to work hard on that as I believe that is another valuable addition to their cultural education.


So how do we train bi/multicultural child or expat children? Here are a few tips I have learned with time. Feel free to add your own:

  • Speak your native language to your children from birth. They will still learn English particularly if they have a care provider that speaks in English or they go to daycare
  • Teach them your cultural values early–respect, kneeling, whatever it is that is important to you
  • Tell fun stories about your childhood as well as stories about the traditions in your culture
  • Tell them what’s OK or not in your culture
  • Teach them to practice their cultural values, language skills, etc in familiar surroundings (among close friends and families of the same culture)
  • Let them know about your food
  • Show and tell that you’re proud of your culture

This is not meant to be a “how to” guide but just some ideas from our rich Yoruba culture that perhaps other multicultural families can use.


A version of this article was originally published in African Goddess Magazine.

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Sola Olu was born and raised in Nigeria. As a child she loved making up stories and as soon as she could write started to put them on paper. Sola works in the retail industry and volunteers as a counselor to mothers of premature babies. Her writings include the newly published memoir "The Summer Called Angel- A Story of Hope on the Journey through Prematurity," essays, poetry and children’s stories. Sola loves to cook and travel and enjoys the theater. She lives in Illinois with her husband and two children. To learn more about her, please visit

Leave us a comment!

  1. CommentsNigerian Social Network   |  Friday, 08 March 2013 at 7:59 am

    Join Nigerian Community, Share ideas read blogs, make your own network.

  2. CommentsJustine Ickes   |  Saturday, 20 April 2013 at 6:55 am

    Hi Sola, I really enjoyed reading about the ways Nigerians show respect to their elders. My Turkish husband and I talk about this often. Growing up in the U.S. I was taught to refer to my friends’ parents as “Mr.” or “Mrs.” In Turkey, my husband was taught to use the term “Abi” (uncle) or “Abla” (aunt) when addressing older men and women. Nowadays, many parents are more lax about how kids address adults. I’ve tried to teach my kids to use “Mr.” and “Mrs.” but, many times, the person in question will respond, “Oh, no, please use my first name.” So frustrating when you’re trying to teach kids good manners. Several weeks ago, my children had a friend over for a playdate. I was so surprised, and pleased, when he called me “Mrs. Cinel”. I had to laugh inside because I remember the first time a store clerk called me “ma’am”. I was horrified that I seemed old enough for that form of respect. Today, I bothers me less. I guess, like you, I am “old school” but, when it comes to forms of address, it’s a label I’m comfortable with.

  3. CommentsOla   |  Sunday, 26 January 2014 at 8:55 am

    This was wonderful and helpful

  4. CommentsLulu   |  Friday, 09 May 2014 at 4:38 am

    Hi Shola,
    I am Yoruba who grew up outside Nigeria and can understand the issue of cultural upbringing. This is a nice article because the issue of cultural upbringing is an issue among immigrant communities.
    One thing we humans need to understand is that environment is very powerful in the molding of a child’s character; Immigrant parents need to understand child psychology
    You are not in Nigeria, so it would be unwise to expect your children to behave like Nigerians. If you really know that you want your kids to act like Nigerians, you should not have brought them to the US in their formative years.
    It is not in North American culture to do the things you mentioned and their culture cannot bend for immigrant cultures including Yoruba. So, I feel immigrant parents need to reconsider ever immigrating to a country if they are not willing to accept than a child is naturally influenced by whatever environment they are living in. So I think another article you should post would be on educating immigrant parents not to immigrate.

  5. Commentssissu   |  Friday, 06 February 2015 at 3:24 pm

    OMG!!!! Lulu i agree with you. I am 20 years old and i am nigerian but i was born in london now i live in america. I get called a bastard by my parents because i don’t behave “nigerian” or “african”. Sometimes it’s just frustrating constantly getting yelled at by my parents. They’re alway like i could never ask my parents that and etc. sometimes i hate being nigerian. I don’t plan on raising my kids in the future that way when i grow up.

  6. CommentsEOla   |  Tuesday, 12 May 2015 at 9:05 am

    @sissu @lulu you will truly regret the attitude you have about not raising your children as proper Yoruba children living abroad when you are older. You will quickly see your culture and heritage die! Yoruba children are some of the most well-respected children in this North America. The North American children are so disrespectful and lazy children on earth. Yoruba culture teaches a sense of humility and respect that cannot be missed. I have been raising my children in the proper Yoruba culture since they are young and people admire them for it. I trust you will surely change your mind on these statements you have made. Sola, God bless you for your article and the job which you are doing. It will pay on in the end and you will reap that which you have sewn, ten-fold!!!

  7. CommentsNichole   |  Wednesday, 10 February 2016 at 10:38 am

    People can’t always help where life takes them. Some people migrate for the sake of jobs, political asylum, financial hardship, or to leave a place that was spiritually/emotionally bad for them. Sometimes that means switching to another culture as part of the move. So you can’t just say “not to immigrate.” Yes, the dominate culture will always influence our children (and ourselves), but that’s no reason to let the parents’ culture(s) slip away. It is perfectly reasonable to expect children to behave a certain way around the house or around extended family members. (Even when both parents are of the dominate culture, there will still be different expectations they place on their children that may go against that culture.)
    And as our world becomes more globalized, I firmly believe multi-culture children have an advantage as they move through the world.

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