Having kids is a life-changing event. It is a blessing in so many ways but parenting can also be challenging especially if you are raising kids in an environment foreign to the one where you grew up in. For African immigrants, parenting in the Western world requires careful navigation in the integration journey. Many of the values and character formation strategies our parents applied cannot be replicated in our current context and this often means we have a steep climb in learning on the job.
Among the most challenging aspects of parenting is how you discipline your kids in seeking to mold their character. For us growing up, discipline was drilled in us through the principle of “spare the rod and spoil the child” and despite the trauma inflicted, the results speak for themselves. But that was then and this is now. The question is thus, how do we leverage our African background to raise responsible kids as immigrants living in a Western world? When is the African way helpful and when is it counterproductive?
To explore this issue, it is important to examine the issues that African parents typically grapple with in raising kids in the West. The first one is the fact that you technically cannot use corporal punishment without facing legal consequences which may be as serious as losing your parental rights. This would have been unthinkable where we grew up but even in Africa, corporal punishment is no longer legal, though some places still use it. Some parents may use a watered-down version of it such as light spanking but the law is clear, you are not to lay hands on your children. So that’s issue number one.
Tied to this is the fact that kids have rights that parents need to be aware of. Kids are entitled to certain protections but also specific accommodations including the right to be consulted on decisions that affect their wellbeing—a concept known as adultism. For us, we grew up knowing that kids are to be seen but not to be heard. Here, kids talk back to us and we are supposed to debate them into reason.
In Africa, the saying it takes a village to raise a child is quite literal. Everyone in the child’s inner circle has permission to discipline them if they are misbehaving based on the communal agreed-upon standard of behavior. That’s not the case in the Western world where people tend to be very individualistic. You dare not discipline some else’s kid.
As kids grow up, we struggle with the clash of cultures around issues such as dating and adherence to religious beliefs. Kids in the Western world start dating very early compared to how we grew up. This can be challenging for African parents to accept and yield control over certain entitlements. At a certain point, kids start to rebel and have a mind of their own about certain issues as they navigate pop culture and social media influence. Against your better instincts, you just have to let them be.
Another case in point; we were brought up knowing that the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning is to make your bed and that cleanliness is next to godliness. This was meant to instill a certain work ethic in us. In fact, you had to do your chores before you could enjoy a meal or for those who were lucky enough, indulge in something like watching TV (not the same as streaming Netflix I must say!). Raising kids in the West presents a different challenge altogether due to limited external pressure for kids to work hard in order to earn certain rights. You can only do so much to influence them, the motivation has to come from within. The question is how do you instill the desire to work hard from a young age so they grow up valuing this?
The challenges of parenting are not an issue for parents only but also for kids. Kids of African immigrants may have trouble understanding the peculiar ways their parents behave compared to their peers. Some kids are embarrassed by the Africaness of their parents and may resent their discipline imposed at home especially if it seems harsher than what is considered typical in the context. This can create a disconnect between parents and kids and may end up affecting the ability of parents to pass on family values to their children.
These are just but a few of the kinds of issues we may grapple with as African immigrants raising kids in a Western world. I am sure there are other examples out there and I’d love to hear what others have observed.
So what coping strategies do we resort to? Well, despite the challenges, I find most African parents do a pretty good job of raising their kids, at least where I live in the US. They employ a variety of strategies to ensure their kids appreciate discipline. One of the strategies is to connect with other African parents to create a mini-village where African parenting becomes normal. The idea is that if you know other kids just like you, then you will not find it too unreasonable to follow certain rules even though they may be peculiar to the broader world you live in as a child. Sleepovers can also help in norm-setting.
I have also seen African parents come together to form peer support groups where they bring together girls or boys of a certain age group and run them through a “ten-week program” where they are coached about African values. This can be done either as a summer camp or even as a weekend program during the school year. It has to be well run in order for it to be effective and the parents put in a lot of time as volunteers to come up with an engaging program. It is also easy to build in other aspects such as career advice and mentoring.
One area I wish we had more of is mental health therapists/counselors who appreciate African culture. I have known cases where parents have had to seek the help of a therapist for a child who was struggling with behavioral issues. Most therapists are not equipped to understand African culture and may struggle to come up with suitable solutions within context. The way you manage parenting really differs depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents may have unique struggles. Parents who are in intercultural marriages may also grapple with additional challenges in seeking to harmonize parenting approaches. It is important to keep talking about our challenges and to share and learn from each other. We welcome your comments and thoughts on this topic.
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