Google+ Authentic Parenting: Scary Mommy: The difference between African And Western Adult/Child Communication

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Scary Mommy: The difference between African And Western Adult/Child Communication

My daughter befriended the neighbour's son a while back, and from the get go, the little boy was scared of me. He was so scared of me and my husband that he never came around and whenever he saw my daughter and me together, he woudn't approach us. I thought that was due to me being the first white women on the plantation since the war and that he had probably never seen a white woman in his life (back then he was two and a half, this is about a year ago). While this may be true, I found out the reason of his fear around the time my daughter celebrated her second birthday.
I had asked my nanny/cook why he was still so scared of me, so she asked the little boy in return.
He told her the reason he was scared was because we don't talk to him.

Indeed, the one time he came over to our house, I briefly said hi and asked his name, and then just let him play with my daughter, while I went along with my business. That's the way we Westerners do things. We wouldn't dream of starting a conversation with a kid because
a) we think they have nothing of interest to tell us
b) we have better things to do
c) we wouldn't want to embarrass them
d) we don't want to be the obnoxious parent with the 21 questions

Africans however do talk to children. They talk to them as if they were grown ups, ask them questions. If you walk on the street with your child people will halt and first ask the child how they're doing, before they ask you. Yes, I said ask the child, not ask you. We would ask the parent how the child is doing, even with the child there.
If a child comes over to play, most mothers are happy to be 'relieved' of their own kid for a while, and be able to do some grown up things.

Children are very much invisible and ignored in Western culture. The are handled, trained and talked over their heads. If they are at all talked to, they're sure not listened to. Western parents would find it irritating, at least, when a stranger came towards them on the street and adressed their child.

So I took that confronting realisation and turned it around. Now - it's school holidays - there's a gathering of kids all ages in our garden every day, and I do talk to them... Probably that's why they're coming back.

Image: Norma Desmond on Flickr



  1. This sounds made-up. None of the story seems legitimate. I believe the author speaks for herself but NOT by any means the majority of Western adults.

  2. I love this reminder, thank you. It is true that often when I have other kids over, I feel like it's "break time." But I also know that Kieran's favorite adult is the mama of a friend of his who DOES take time to talk to him and play with them when Kieran is there. Of course that makes sense!

  3. I'm working my way through anthropologist Meredith Small's book _Kids_. This post reminds me of a section where she describes different cultures relationship between adults and children. In one culture (Western Kenyan), adults only speak to kids in imperatives ("give me that", "put that away", that sort of thing). And so children in turn learn that you don't talk to adults, ever. I think this post is helpful in helping to examine what sort of relationship do adults want with children.

  4. Hhmm..interesting. I think it's true that Westerners often talk 'over the heads' of children, but I wouldn't say they never talk to them. Everywhere I go with my son, people talk to him - and yes, to me too, about him, but they certainly do start conversations with him. He is still at the small and 'cute' stage, though - I think it may well be a different picture when he is older (he's just under 3). I myself have often felt awkward trying to talk to children and I can see why people avoid doing it. We just don't have enough practice, perhaps - i.e. all growing up in our isolated nuclear families etc?

  5. I feel what you said was true as a general statement of society. I like talking/interacting with children, but often don't in public areas because of the American cultural fear of strangers (strangers hurting children,women,etc.) Sometimes when children smile or talk to me in public and I respond, parents will apologize for their child "bothering me". Sometimes parents give me that "it's cute you seem to like my kid, but I don't know you so leave us alone" kind of look. Perhaps that's my own perception, but I believe it is the attitude of people in general. All this added to the other points you made and why would new/stranger adults ever talk with children?

    Also I think there is a distinction between talking "to" children and talking "with" children. Sure, we can argue that we talk to children all the time, but do we talk with them?

  6. It's interesting to read this - in an assessment to determine if our daughter has a speech delay (we don't think she does) we were asked if a non-family member can understand at least 75% of what she can say (she's over 3) we said it's tough to say b/c as far as we've seen the majority of adults will ask a question, then not even bother to attempt to listen to her response. My MIL is the worst. Our DD will say something to her - then my MIL will break out in monologue for the next 10 min, she might pause for a response occasionally, but she doesn't listen to what the response is. It drives me nuts and it happens more often than not with the majority of adults. Close friends are different, but they are the exception.

  7. i dunno. i live in a small town in california and maybe that in and of itself is the difference but I feel like people go out of their way to talk to my 3yo and even the baby. my 3 yo is very shy and people seam to respect that, they say hello, how are you? and then smile when she looks down or hides and tell her it is ok to be shy. i hear very little "quiet mommy's talking" in my rounds of the town, children here seam to be treated more like people than pets...

  8. Interesting, Ballerina Baller, so maybe in the US that isn't such a problem. Don't forget I am Belgian. I live in a country where playgrounds get closed because they make too much noise and where kids are put in daycare at three months and school starts at 2 and half years

  9. I agree. Although adults make small talk with children in our society, kids generally aren't really properly included in conversations and spoken to as if they have anything to offer, other than polite answers to mundane questions.

    Having said that though, I do feel like the 'question nazi'/'embarrassing mum' sometimes when my kids' friends come over, I talk their ears off, and sometimes I can see they aren't very comfortable with it because in our society, the kids aren't used to it.

  10. Interesting point, Anonymous. It is true that parents can easily fall into the nosey/irritating category when they over-question kids. But I think that's actually just a different reaction to the same problem: kids are not seen as full citizens so either we ignore them or we act as if they're stupid, asking them millions of silly questions they really don't care about. Why not have a genuine conversation with them.
    I find that when I speak to kids about what they really like, with interest and just on a normal conversational (not questionary) tone, they can be really really interesting. (I do have to add that not all children are thus, bc as you said, some just aren't used to conversing with adults)


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