Wednesday, April 3rd, 2013

How African Moms Can Teach You To Be a Better Parent

How Africa Moms Taught Me To Be a Better Parent / © CIMMYT

Most American moms can probably relate to these scenarios: You tell your child it’s time to go home and he runs the other direction. Or he collapses in a heap telling you his “legs don’t work” when you’re trying to get out the door. Or after much coaxing, he finally agrees to chew a piece of the disagreeable dinner you’ve slaved over, and then defiantly pushes the chewed up morsel out of his mouth, which lands squarely on his plate, a disgusting masticated symbol of the end result of your best intentions.


It’s the final straw in a frustrating day, and you can feel your blood boiling, your chest tightening and your wits escape you as your irrational rage takes over.


You are transformed into a woman you don’t entirely recognize. You might become: a) The silent scary mom, whose anger is just bubbling under the surface. Your eyes bug out, you clench your jaw and your threat is issued in a throaty whisper—the kind Satan might have. Your child is temporarily subdued/scared into submission. b) The batcrap crazy mom, in which you just let it all out, scream things you’ll later regret at an instantly cowed toddler.


You feel you’re driven to this kind of behavior. It’s hard being a mom. It wears you down to continually try and fail to convince irrational small people to do what you ask all day. You’re vindicated by the scores of mom bloggers who joke about being driven to drinking wine out of sippy cups.


Unless, apparently, you’re a Kenyan mom.


OK. I could be way off here, and readers please do correct me if I’m wrong, but, after nearly three years of living in Kenya, I’ve never seen a Kenyan mom driven to these adult temper tantrums. Maybe it’s just more of a private display, but I rarely see them explode like this, and when they do it’s never with the undercurrent of actually losing their minds. They never seem to require a mommy time out. There might be a yelled threat of a punishment, sure, but it doesn’t seem to wear them down personally the same way. They seem to address the issue—with a threat, a punishment, a simple distraction, even with a decision to let the child win this time—and then they move on to whatever they were doing before.


To be fair, I know some Kenyan moms struggle the same way American moms do, and certainly some American moms manage to not fall to pieces when raising young children. But, I can’t help noticing a difference.


I have a convoluted constellation of theories as to why motherhood does not appear to frustrate Kenyan mothers as it does their American counterparts.


In Kenya, there is generally more help from extended family; there are fewer parenting philosophies to pick from, doubt and then be judged by; there’s no scheduled sleep times to disrupt; there’s a more relaxed free-range parenting style; it’s a less tightly wound culture in general; there’s not the pressure to be the main source of entertainment for your children.


All of this probably goes into it. But there’s something else. And it’s best explained by Mama Brandon.


Mama Brandon came to our house unannounced. She was going door to door looking for work as a tailor with her two-year-old son, Brandon, in tow. It turned out I did actually need some curtains made, so as we discussed specifics, my son Caleb and Brandon dug into our basket of toy cars.


When we had finally negotiated a deal and they were about to leave, it was time for Brandon to give up the toy car he had been playing with. Well, this did not sit well with the young lad.  He threw a mighty, screaming, jumping-up-and-down-with-two-feet fit. It was quite the spectacle.


What did Mama Brandon do? She simply continued, at a relaxed pace, giving us her goodbyes, took time to pinch my baby’s cheeks and gather her things. When she finally acknowledged the stampeding elephant in the room, she asked him to quiet down. Then, she tried to distract him with another toy.


It didn’t work. Then….she laughed.  Not at all a nervous embarrassed laughter, but a laugh that found the humor in the whole out-of-proportion, emotional meltdown. She scooped him up and departed, smiling, shaking her head and saying, “Ah… watoto.” “Oh children.”


An American response would have probably treated the whole thing a lot more seriously—like a battle that needed to be won, or at least a toddler who required a lesson about appropriate behavior and sharing. And then, facing likely defeat, the mother would feel embarrassed, frustrated, perhaps judged by the other parent, and maybe even a bit resentful of her child.


And of all the reasons I can come up with that Kenyan mothers seem to keep their cool, there is one I can probably try to use.


I don’t have an extended family to pick up the slack. I do have a head spinning array of parenting philosophies to choose from and then doubt. I can’t be as free-range or schedule-free. But I can try and find the humor in the situation, and I can let go of winning all my battles, all the time. From the looks of Kenyan children, my kids will grow up just fine despite that. And, they’ll have a happier mom in the process.


For more on African parenting, check out the most popular article on our site Why African Babies Don’t Cry.

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Kim Siegal has been living in Western Kenya with her husband and two sons since October, 2010. She was working for an NGO that researches anti-poverty programs but is currently staying home with her new baby. She blogs at

Leave us a comment!

  1. CommentsTeresa   |  Thursday, 04 April 2013 at 10:30 am

    Yes, yes, and yes! I agree, those are probably the two keys to being a happy parent–finding the humor (I was so glad that I had read this just the day before my three-year-old had a giant tantrum in front of his school because I didn’t know what Tarzan’s mom’s name is….), and just relaxing (and that implies only saying “no” when you really mean NO and are willing to go to the mat on the issue). I hear so many mothers talk about feeling constantly judged and found lacking as parents, feeling crippling humiliation because their children….behave like children. And that’s really sad for everybody involved.

  2. CommentsKim at Mama Mzungu   |  Thursday, 04 April 2013 at 11:40 am

    I know! They seem like such basic things (finding humor and relaxing about things) but for some reason… well MANY reasons (sleep deprivations, feeling judged by other parents, the sheer exhaustion of children, other stresses in life) it can be really difficult for parents. I am truly inspired by Kenyan moms who seem to almost never get their panties in a bunch about the small stuff.

  3. CommentsOlga   |  Friday, 05 April 2013 at 4:40 am

    Love this article!And maybe you got it! Humour, of course!Maybe it’s because Western parents take parenting way too seriously, always afraid that they’ll mess something up and their children will become alcoholic, shop-lifting drug addicts? A little humour has never hurt anybody and can only help you be a better parent. Thanks for reminding me of this, I’ll remember this post when my children have a tantrum 🙂

  4. CommentsInCultureParent | Why I Love Raising My Children in Kenya   |  Monday, 09 September 2013 at 4:33 pm

    […] You learn to laugh. Kenyans have a way of laughing off some of the things that drive American mothers to joke about dri….  Especially tantrums.  In the face of an out of proportion, feet stomping, back-arching tantrum […]

  5. CommentsCharlotte Heaps   |  Thursday, 21 August 2014 at 1:57 pm

    Also consider that Kenyan mums are likely to have had a warm attached relationship with their own mum with breastfeeding, carrying etc so they are not having their own childhood hurts regularly pressed by their kids

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