Pin It
Tuesday, June 3rd, 2014

How African Societies Protect the Innocence and Magic of Childhood

How African Societies Protect the Innocence of Childhood via flickr

There is a new boy in my daughter’s class. He told her a thing or three that resulted in us having to have ‘the chat’ at bedtime last night. “Was Father Christmas real? What about the Tooth Fairy? The Easter Bunny? The Easter Monkey?” She wanted to know and know immediately. Now without boring you about what particular beliefs my family holds there were two things that were foremost in my mind.


  1. How do I handle this transition of knowledge without losing some of the magic that is held within it?
  2. How do I help her appreciate that realities and truths are layers revealed to us as we pass through different stages?


I found myself turning to the wisdom of my ancestors. In many traditional African societies, there was (still is but dying out rapidly) an age set system. People born within a certain year had a specific kinship. This held together the whole fabric of society as well because within that year group, certain pieces of information were held as sacred and adults would know not to share information that children were not ready for outside that age group.


This group would then go through initiation rights together and the loss of innocence that we lament about so much today was not even a topic of conversation. It was understood that through the age set system and initiation rites, young people growing up would usually meet the right knowledge at the right age, which was ultimately beneficial for their development.


With the advent of media and technology all that has changed of course. We live in an era where at the click of a button anyone of any age can in an instant have access to all sorts of information whether or not they are able to process it. I may sound like a Luddite but I think that it is sad. Couple this with the increasing individualism in modern societies, where there is less of a collective agreement on what children ought to know and at what age, and suddenly we have the current situation where studies show everything from emotional problems to obesity and aggressive behavior are strongly linked to this glut of information.


I must admit that my family made what would seem like (to some) rather extreme decisions to create (in her early years at least) an environment that would reduce the risk of exposure to information before she was ready for it. We do not have a TV, use the radio to listen to football (soccer) and music, and the only film she has really watched is Mary Poppins.


The net result is just shy of her seventh birthday she expressed a heartfelt sentiment that she could not imagine a person killing another person. “Who would ever think of such a thing?” she wanted to know. Now I am not under any illusion that she will spend the rest of her life in this wonderful bubble but it gives me great comfort that even as she moves through the ages that she will have held a place in her soul where murder seems impossible.


Still, I do know that it is part of my parental duty that her world begins to expand. Given her recent change of teeth (one of the signs traditionally used in my culture’s initiation processes), I read to her an initiation story. “The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly: A Novel” by Sun-Mi Hwang is a South Korean fable that tells the story of a chicken sprout who decided to take her life into her hands and follow her dreams.


It was appropriate for my daughter’s ‘age set’ because as she embarks upon primary school she is no longer a baby. Up until now, her job as a child has been very much guided by my plans for her. Whilst motherhood is a series of ‘letting go’s’, growing up is a series of ‘taking on’s’. The story is to support my daughter’s initial awakening that she can indeed be the captain of her own soul. It is a book that covers determination, the ways in which difference matters and the ways in which it doesn’t, loneliness, isolation, friendship, understanding and also how we can give help and need help—all of the things she is likely to face in primary school while away from the watchful eye of her mother.


So after we finished our chat I waited with bated breath for her conclusion on Father Christmas. Her main concern turned out to be for someone she knows who will be without a beloved parent this December. “Who will do Christmas for her then?” She also mentioned a school friend who had not been party to the discussion with the new boy and we agreed it would be best if she found out in her own way in her own time.


As I watched my daughter falling asleep I was reminded of a conversation I had with a man, who incidentally had no children, that was practically foaming at the mouth when I described the lengths to which I had gone to maintain my daughter’s innocence. “You people!” he had spluttered. “You cannot protect them forever!” Sadly, I did not have this quote from L.R. Knost at hand, but it is what I firmly believe:


“It’s not our job to toughen our children up to face a cruel and heartless world. It’s our job to raise children who will make the world a little less cruel and heartless.”

© 2014, JC Niala. All rights reserved.

More Great Stuff You'll Love:

Si­, Yes: Raising Bilingual Twins

Language acquisition in three-and-a-half year old, bilingual twins.

Is Raising Bilingual Children Worth the Costs?

Fancy schools, international vacations, foreign language books, DVDs and tutors add up fast

Overheard on the Beijing Subway When People Don't Think I Speak Mandarin

The awesome stuff I overhear like what these two Chinese women think of foreigners.

Arranged Marriage 101

Everything you wanted to know but were afraid to ask


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!

Notify me of follow-up comments via e-mail.
Or leave your email address and click here to receive email notifications of new comments without leaving a comment yourself.

Get weekly updates right in your inbox so you don't miss out!

Why I Travel 13 Hours Alone with My Kids Every Chance I Get

Travelling with children, while definitely more of a mission, contradicts the old saying that “life is about the journey, not the destination.”

A Diverse Book for Preschoolers in Celebration of Multicultural Children's Book Day

A book that honestly and simply celebrates the every day diversity that children experience.

Why My African Feminist Mother Gave Me the Identity of My Father's Tribe

She gave me an identity so different from her own.

2 Children’s Books about Jamaica

Explore Jamaica with your child.

Costa Rica with Kids: Two Weeks of Family Travel

Two weeks of Pura Vida in a country with so much to offer families.

Should I Worry about My Child's Accent in Her Foreign Language?

See why Dr. Gupta takes offense to this question and where children learn accents from

How to raise trilingual kids when exposure to Dad's language is limited

My kids only get 1-2 hours of the minority language per day-help!

What Cultural Norms Around Bare Feet Taught This Mother in Guatemala

Her baby's bare feet ended up being a lesson on poverty and privilege.
Hi Kim! I am so glad that this article was useful for you and made you feel validated as a parent. It's not often in this judgmental world of parenting we get that, right?! That's the main reason...
From The West’s Strange Relationship to Babies and Sleep
I love reading your work. I can olny imagine what it would be like to have such beautiful customs and true community. I understand why it is so very very important to keep these traditions alive. Be...
From No Kids Allowed: How Kenyan Weddings are Changing
Your mother in-law seems somewhat reasonable. Many Chinese Mother In-laws are not. In their scenario, they would be number 1 to the child and you would be number two. Many want to have a bond closer...
From How My Chinese Mother-in-Law Replaced my Husband
I think Konstantina is actually responding to what is probably more familiar/praised/or preferred socially as well. I was an English teacher in Poland with a distinct accent. I struggled to get Engl...
From Should I Worry about My Child’s Accent in Her Foreign Language?
Noor Kids' title "First Time Fasting" is another great rea...
From 6 Favorite Children’s Books about Ramadan
This article was shared in a community I run to connect globetrotting parents and everyone LOVED it. You should join us! We all relate to your experience. Many of us, including me, are in the same b...
From Why I Travel 13 Hours Alone with My Kids Every Chance I Get
Please help: I Love my wife and my son. I am also EXTREMELY involved as a dad. I had to move to china ( in a tiny tiny town) where I am the only foreigner so that my wife can take over the family bu...
From How My Chinese Mother-in-Law Replaced my Husband
Thanks for writing this!! My baby is 7 months, and I love having her sleep in my room. I don't mention it too often to people who have had kids because they seem a little judgy on it. So tonight I...
From The West’s Strange Relationship to Babies and Sleep
Honestly, it looks like the author married into a very backward and old fashioned family. Not stimulating children's curiosity, differences between boys and girls, and women slaving in the house, wh...
From French versus Italian Parenting in One Multicultural Family

More Global Parenting