“Baby and Child Care, the African Way,” New York Times, 23 May 2012.
The laissez-faire attitude of African parents produces admirable resilience among their children.
NAIROBI — Earlier this month, I met Richard Turere at a TED talk in Nairobi, Kenya. His story electrified the audience: using LED lights, an old battery and motorcycle parts, he’d created a lighting array to protect his family’s cattle from lions prowling on the outskirts of Nairobi. The invention so effectively mimicked a human with a flashlight that it was being used by several neighboring households.
The kicker? Richard is 13 years old, and he invented the device at 11, on his own.
Richard was made responsible for his family’s herd — and primary source of income — at the age of 9. Oprah-watchers will be familiar with the story of William Kamkwamba, the Malawian boy who “harnessed the wind” by building a windmill from junkyard scraps to power his family’s farm. And these two precocious boys, who overcame significant adversities to do incredible things, are not exactly exceptional.
By dint of busy adults or a pressing need to earn money, children here in Kenya and in other African countries are endowed with a lot more freedom and responsibility than their counterparts in wealthier regions of the world. Girls and boys routinely help with taxing housework and fieldwork. Streams of children walking, unattended, several kilometers to and from school — with the older ones minding the younger ones at times — are a classic morning sight across the continent.
Though it’s tough to generalize, the comparatively laissez-faire attitude of African parents seems to produce admirable resilience among African youth. Researchers haven’t teased out the socioeconomic, psychological or biological consequences of this just yet, but they suspect that children who experience high levels of stress are more likely to develop alcoholism, heart disease and psychological problems later in life. At the same time, the pressure to “just do it,” which is unusually present in resource-constrained settings, brings real benefits. It can widen what psychologists call the “window of tolerance” for adversity and improve one’s adaptive imagination. Rather like the germs that help build immune systems, autonomy in child rearing can develop resourcefulness. It is also said to help develop a better sense of humor — and of justice.
Some innovators in the American school system have begun to emphasize “character education,” a holistic approach to growth that tracks curiosity, perseverance, optimism and other qualities aside from an ability to do well on tests. These educators are trying to engineer “grit,” a measure of resilience and an unusually accurate predictor of success, whether in college or the military.
This would seem to contradict the conventional wisdom depicted by that recent TIME magazine cover showing a four-year-old suckling at his mother’s breast. As yet another volley in the Mommy Wars, the related article advocated “attachment parenting,” a kind of early-stage sensitivity training geared at confidence building. The mother on the cover, who was breast-fed until she was six, told the Today Show, “I had so much self-confidence as a child, and I know it’s from that.”
I beg to differ. Self-confidence doesn’t come from endless affirmation — any more than it does from neglect, Tiger Mom punishments or the firm European indifference advocated in new books like “Bringing up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting.” It’s about giving kids a longer leash. Allowing them to exercise their own judgment — about how to cross the road, fix a meal or ward off lions — flexes important muscles for better use later in life. Growing up in Nigeria, my own mother was told only to come home in the evening when it got too dark to see the lines on her hand — a good rule when you don’t own watches, but also a good way to build mutual trust.
African kids like Richard — and many others who are less famous — draw a sharp contrast to the wealthier kids still stuck on the figurative teat. Even as a byproduct of relative hardship, practical parenting in Africa is giving children the tools they’ll need to handle the challenges this century is throwing at them.