The Difficulty of Raising Children in Two Cultures

I recently read an article  where some interviewees stated that raising kids between the cultures of Senegal and America while residing in the US is literally impossible. While I think that it is in fact possible, it is not easy to accomplish.  Parents must constantly negotiate cultural clashes while being sensitive to how confusions can negatively affect children. Most of our SenAmerican homes tend to naturally favor the Senegalese culture. Our attempts to “not lose” our “Senegaleseness” often lead to our children being taught one thing at home, and another at school, making it difficult for them to reconcile both.

Recently, my daughter wrote a list of chores and said that her teacher had told her that she could earn money at home by doing chores. I was shocked that the teacher had the audacity to introduce her to the notion that she could be paid for doing something I believe any responsible member of a family should do and not expect a reward. But I knew that we live in a culture where this is widely practiced, and even applauded. I had to be smart about how I spoke to my daughter about it. After I recovered from my shock, I asked her to come up with a list of all things that mommy does in the home. When we went over five minutes of enumerating “mommy’s chores,” I asked her to pay me a dollar for each item, each time I did it. Her eyes doubled in size as she realized that she could not possibly pay me. I then explained to her that I do what I do because it is my responsibility as a mother and a member of the family, and that each member of the family has a responsibility to the whole. We do it because we love each other and must contribute to the running of the household, not because we want to be paid. I talked to her about having an allowance and that she would get $.50 for every year of her age. I was careful to explain to her that an allowance is not something we owe her, and that it is our way of helping her have money for herself because she is not old enough to have a job! I also think that the idea of allowance helps children learn financial responsibility while giving them some freedom in acquiring things they want.

This strategy worked out quite well but I must confess that I am not always as lucky with parenting young children in America. For example, I am still struggling to teach my kids that mommy and daddy’s room is not a playground, and that when adults are talking a child does not get involved. One of the strengths of the Senegalese model of parenting is that it is often done within an extended family where other adults and sometimes neighbors, contribute to raising children. Children are socialized to know their place. There is a division of space within the home where children understand playing does not happen in bedrooms. While it is possible to teach these rules in America, it is not always easy because of the nuclear family. Many of our homes do not have other adults other than mommy and daddy. We tend to do everything with our kids. Although I love spending as much time as possible with my children, I think that our nuclear families make it difficult to teach them independence within the home.

Another area where I am struggling is extra-curricular activities for kids. Growing up, I played team handball and never expected my parernts to come see me play. In fact, I do not think my mother ever saw me play. She would hear from strangers about what a wonderful player I was but never found it necessary or important to come to one of my games. I have a vague memory of my father coming to one game but I might have dreamed about that. Although I wished that my parents would see me play, it was not the end of the world. I don’t think it did anything to my self-esteem nor did I feel unloved by my parents. In America on the contrary, parents who do not show up at their child’s soccer practice or play recital are seen as bad parents.  It also seems that American parents want their kids to do it all. Kids are engaged in several extra-curricular activities that they often do not like and parents, especially mothers, spend their week chauffeuring them from one place to another. I refuse to buy into this culture and tell my kids to identify one activity and stick to it as long as they like it enough to invest the time in it. My kids are fairly young and their commitment to a sport or instrument is very short. I am sure there will be a time when they would want to do something consistently. Even then, I would insist that they stick to a maximum of two.

The most challenging aspect of parenting in America is the issue of spanking children. In Senegal, spanking is accepted and used as punishment whereas in America, it is frowned upon and parents who practice it are viewed as abusers. I honestly have mixed feelings about this but I have opted to not spank my children. I have never been a fan of the practice but after having kids, I can see why some parents revert to the stick to keep some children in line. My apprehension is about its effectiveness. If the point of corporal punishment is to inflict pain on the child, I believe it can be accomplished with other means such as taking away beloved possessions and other privileges. I don’t however believe that every parent who chooses to spank their child is an abuser because there is spanking and there is beating up a child. The first when practiced necessarily could be fine while the second is abuse.

Parenting in America is difficult because as parents, we too are caught in between two cultures, yet, we must raise children within this space. Knowing how to negotiate these two worlds is not easy but I think it can be done if we pick what we think is positive in each culture and combine them. This requires a lot of work and trying out different strategies. There are many other parenting areas I struggle with such as religion, food, and language, to which I will dedicate entire posts.

I look forward to hearing from parents. Please share your parenting struggles and tips.

SenAmericanly yours.

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8 thoughts on “The Difficulty of Raising Children in Two Cultures”

  1. Ha, how all the issues you just wrote about have haunted me for years!
    First of, giving an allowance to a child for doing chores has always been hard for me! Though I understand the reason why parents might think it could be a good motivator to get kids to actually do their chores without complaining, I was raised by a stepmother who put me to work at all times of day or night and I never EXPECTED any money in return. My reward was that if the chores were done to her expectations (which were always very high); I would not get a beating. Yes, it was a beat down and not a spanking.
    My feelings have changed though! This year, my 15 year old started getting a monthly allowance for getting good grades and helping around the house. We, in turn do not have to pay for any of her “extras”. If she wants a pair of shoes in the middle of the school year, or wants to go to the movies with her girlfriends, she has to pay for it herself. she is in charge of her “little money”. Funny how those trips to the mall have become far and few. She is learning how to manage her money. Hopefully, she will be great at money management before she goes to college and ruins her credit.
    My 11 year old gets no money (which she thinks is so unfair); but I give her little rewards here and there for bringing good grades home.
    As for sports, I too am guilty of having tried almost every sport under the sun. I, unlike you, did not play any sports growing up, and tried to vicariously live through my kids. We did everything from dance (hip hop, jazz, ballet, tap) to Karate, swimming and basketball. We now only play Lacrosse (for the 15 year old), and it’s great to see that my 11 year old stuck to what she truly loves: basketball.
    Thanks for sharing your experiences, Marame, I so can relate! 🙂

  2. Aida,
    Thank you so much for sharing too! I teared up with your opening. Altough I did not live with a stepmother, I lived with a disciplinarian mom who wanted everything to be perfect from school work to housework. I feel sometimes that our children are so lucky to have parents like us (who have experienced both cultures). I also do sometimes feel overwhelmed with trying out a parenting concoction that works. I love the idea of allowance and wish I had one growing up! I think there is merit in having children try everything as they figure out what they really love but I so hate the idea of me having to be the chauffeur and make every single practice! I find that in America, the life of a parent is all about the children, which is so unfair. If I can dig out an article about how French children are more independent and grow up knowing that mom and dad too need some time to themselves, I will share it!

    Thanks for taking the time to read.

  3. Assalamu aleikum,

    First of all thank you both for sharing.
    This is a very hard thing to discuss but I do get where the confusion and hardship is coming from.
    Even before I got married I was always afraid of my future kids being stuck between these two cultures.
    I have two girls. Very young 5 and almost 4 and they are in Senegal with my dear mother.
    Not everyone can afford to take their kids back and forth to Senegal but I still think it would help to at least once take them there so they can experience the culture and see for themselves. The younger they start going the better. If you can’t afford that at least be very regular on calling home and have them talk to parents there. They will make friends over the phone and that could be their cousins, uncle or aunt or even grand parents. They will definitely learn something from the conversations. They will ask questions and all. They will know the difference. Tell them stories of your childhood and don’t make it pretty, tell them about every single aspect of life back home. With their imagination they will travel and they will want to know more. Most of all, they will know the difference and take what they want. It is our job as parents to make them want the best of it all. Not forcing it on them.

    Don’t get me wrong this might be very far fetched but at some point anything that can help is great.

    One of the many things I cannot take is kids talking back to their parents or elders for that matter. And in a tone you would not even address your dog with. And siblings don’t always get along for so many meaningless reasons.
    Where is the love???
    Here kids only think of their RIGHTS not their DUTIES. Yet the single thing that just puts me on fire is the ungratefulness of most kids toward their parents. Even when they are all grown and have a family of their own. Then they are all willing to do whatever it takes for their kids but not for their parents who made it all possible for them to be even there.
    Then the parents also have to be paid to babysit their own flesh. I mean seriously, I don’t even know who to blame.

    Anyways, like I said it is a hard subject. But talking about it with an open mind makes it easy for both parties.
    Marame gave out a very good example with her daughter paying her for all she does and that made the daughter see reason.
    Won’t be always easy but teaching kids how to be responsible and how to take responsability for their actions might be the key.
    BUT IT ALL DEPENDS ON HOW YOU TACKLE THE MATTER.
    Hopefully with philosophy!

    Keep up the good work ladies.

    Wassalam.

    Rama D.

  4. Rama D.

    Thank you so much for stopping by and for the heartfelt comments. I definitely agree that cultural exposure is very important for our kids. Taking them to Senegal often helps a lot in having them understand cultural nuances that we cannot provide in America. For example, I had a hard time explaining to my seven year old that my sister’s children are not her cousin and that in Senegal those would be brothers and sisters. Only a lived experience can teach a child the difference between a cousin (the child of a uncle) and a sister or brother (the child of a maternal aunt).
    I too have my frustration with the kinds of “laissez-aller” that exists in America when it comes to children talking back or treating their parents like subordinates.
    I intend to dedicate a post on the topic of taking children to Senegal for an extended stay (years) and leaving them there with relatives. Although I find the cultural exposure to be invaluable, sometimes our relatives have a hard time disciplining our children that we send to them. Two summers ago, I left my two oldest in Senegal for the summer. The experience was great when it came to cultural immersion and them learning Wolof, but they were spoiled beyond belief. My family let them have their way and yielded to their every desire. When they came back, I had a hard time going back to my parenting routines. What I mean is that because our families miss us and long to spend time with our kids, they tend to be softer with them and that it is not always a good thing.

    Thank you so much and I hope you will continue to read and comment on future posts,

  5. Thanks for sharing this interesting parenting experience. I do share a similar opinion on spanking. I’m not a mother but I can perceive the amount of patience you need to have to explain things, like you did about household chores, and set borderies. Kids are smart and should be treated as little persons but not as an inferior being. I live in Australia and if I wanted to be a mother here, I could definitely face the same situation as you in the United States.

  6. Thank you Marion. May I ask what kinds of challenges immigrant parents living in Australia might face? I have yet to read your recent post but it is on my “to read” list. I always enjoy the stories you cover.

    Thanks for stopping by.

  7. Awesome topic Marame! Great discussion you all! Thank you for sharing your stories. The first time I heard about “making kids earn the money you give them” by having them help around the house was with Suzy Olman. As a single mom of 3 it was like an enlightenment: I do not have to do it all by myself, these little guys could actually help me with some house chores in a blink of an eye! no more cleaning up “your spot” only, besides, I could kill two birds with one stone: I’ll give pocket money but they’ll have to earn it by doing some chores. At the beginning it went very. My Kids were helping around non stop I did not even have to ask for anything, but I was paying for everything they were doing at a quiet reasonable price between $.50 and $1. But later on since I did not always carry cash with me I started owing these kids money! Every time I get paid I had to pay them too. I then noticed that anything that I happened to ask them to do they’d ask how much I’d pay! To cut the story short today I still rely on it but with different rules: the money earned is only for doing “extra” work around the house and Thank God that still motivates them. However I never fail to tell them how, at their age, me and my siblings back in Senegal were raised to do house chores with no monetary rewards attached to it yet we would do them otherwise we would get some beatup. That lightened them up a lot. Fortunately they’ve all lived in Senegal therefore have been exposed to certain realities they will never forget because they have become part of their upbringing.
    The extra curriculum activies as a single parent were not an option for me until some other Senegalese friends of mine told me the benefits that could bring mainly in economic crisis like nowadays. So this year I look forward to getting them involve in one activity at least just to give it a try.
    I would conclude by saying it’s our duty as Senegalese parents living in America to present both realities to our children in a way they can evolve in or face any situations. Once again thank you for giving us the opportunity to open up, you rock Marame!

    1. Dear Leila,

      Thank you for stopping by. I laughed out loud at the image of you walking around with the kids asking you to pay your debts to them! I never thought about that aspect! Like I said, we must try out many strategies to see what works and what doesn’t. You are right that extra curricular activities can be very beneficial to kids but one has to find balance. Thank you again for your contribution. I look forward to more insights from you on other posts.

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