By Jean Hakuzimana
One day I reprimanded my daughter about some minor bad behavior at home and she said, “Dad, you’re making me mad!” I said I couldn’t be – that I love her so much. She responded that I shouldn’t hurt her feelings, and she referenced “Sophia’s feelings”. I was interested to know who Sophia was, so she showed me a little book from her school bag titled Sophia’s Feelings. It turns out it was a book that teaches children to recognize different feelings they have. We talked a lot, and in the end, she mentioned that the teacher had asked them about whether their parents beat them, insulted them, or in any way harmed them at home. I found myself confused – it was as if the teacher was implying that she loves my (your) daughter or son more than I (we) do? I have heard many African immigrants tell stories like this about life in America.
My American friends have explained to me that psychologists and child development specialists have raised concerns in recent decades about punishing children. They particularly object to corporal punishment, and my friends say this parenting practice is gradually becoming less common. Many states in the U.S. ban corporal punishment in the schools, and though children can be punished at home the punishment cannot leave a mark. In the U.S. the authorities will be called if parents are suspected of abuse. Americans increasingly use alternative methods of teaching children to behave, such as “time outs” or denying privileges.
For Africans, this is all strange. I grew up in a family of nine, and one of the handy tools that made us all polite, respectful, and disciplined was Mom’s magic stick – a little freshly cut branch of eucalyptus. I used to have to go cut one whenever I made a mistake, and bring it to mom to punish me. Believe me – that was the end of my falling into such a mistake! My punishment was not cruel, it provoked the same level of fear that vaccinations do – another useful tool that is accompanied by some pain.
My neighbor recounted to me an upsetting story. One evening, the 10-year old son of a single immigrant mother in Maine called 911 when the two were quarreling. The police responded quickly, and the son told the officer, “My mom is hurting me — I want to wear earrings and she is not supportive of me.” The police officer said, “What would you like to do as a profession in your adult life?” The boy replied, “I want to be a policeman.” The officer said, “You can’t, because no one among us officers has earrings. Son – your mother will always love you more than anybody.” The son gave up his quest for earrings. (In Africa earrings are okay for women, but for men it’s a very new trend, and many parents become concerned if their sons want to wear earrings).
To make my argument more explicit: African societies give absolute power to parents to raise their kids, from generation to generation, as their cultural norms instruct. This includes how to punish them. Any adult can rebuke any child in Rwanda when he sees bad behavior. My dad was invited to my school when a classmate and I had skipped class. My dad sent me to cut a little stick in the forest near our elementary school and he punished both of us with it. Rwandan culture adheres strictly to the ancient roman adage “Bene amat bene castigat” — He who loves well punishes well. Another Rwandan proverb that all Rwandans know is “Inkoni ivuna ingeso ntivuna igufwa”, which means A stick breaks bad manners and not a bone. I have worked in nearly 10 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa where this approach to parenting is followed. I believe it is important to differentiate cruelty from little slaps with sticks that are meant to lovingly correct and teach a child.
From my perspective, it is difficult for African parents to get used to the way things are done in America. I have seen many kids behaving here in a manner that would cause society to deem the parents irresponsible if they were in Africa. In Africa, for example, a kid can’t yell at his parents. Children must ask for advice, approval, and a go-ahead from a parent before taking action. Things are quite different here.
Young African immigrants enjoy the freedom they have in America and sometimes disregard African values. This can be challenging for parents. Immigrant parents adapt their parenting style to the environment here in Maine, and are very careful to respect the laws, but it is difficult to adopt child raising practices that differ from the way one was brought up.
Jean Hakuzimana is a communication and media scholar. He likes politics and he cherishes Africa where he had an extensive career in multiple countries. Immigration is an option when there’s no option.