In Britain, children are worshiped and considered the most important members of the family. The parents exist to provide for and guide the children, their own needs being second place to fulfilling their children’s needs (or wants).
In Madagascar, children justify much less respect and sentimentality.
Here are some examples of how children are not on a pedestal:
- Any adult (not just family) can instruct any child to do, fetch anything and the child will do it straight away
- Children must never walk in front of adults who are sat talking
- Children don’t join in the adult conversations
- Children are expected to do domestic chores (and not just the nice ones)
- Parents don’t spend much more time on their children than is necessary – playing is something done by children amongst themselves.
- Parents don’t intervene much in children’s disputes (unless it disturbs the adults)
- Children are the last people to be greeted when visitors arrive
- Smacking children is normal
- Children are not encouraged to express their opinions or ask questions
- Children are not comforted if they hurt themselves – it is either pointed out why it was their own fault or someone distracts them by doing something humorous
- Physical affection is kept a minimum
- Children are rarely praised
- The normal mode of parental conversation is barking instructions, correcting negative behaviour (criticising or telling off) or mocking (Malagasys from other towns tell me this ‘mickey taking’ is particularly a Diego trait)
If you are a sensitive Anglo-Saxon reader (British or American), you are probably sobbing quietly into your hanky by now. I frequently come up with plans to protect my child from unfeeling Malagasys such as raising him alone in my living room, setting up an orphanage where children can be raised in my way and distributing copies of the poem ‘If a Child lives with’ in French and Malagasy (I confess I’ve already translated this to put up in my own house).
I should note that, despite my initial concerns, the two people who have looked after my son, his Dady (Granny) and Zakia, have both been lovely with him.
How is my parenting perceived?
Remember that all Malagasy parents were raised as Malagasy children and so see this as the right way to raise children to be functioning adults. And they’re right because that’s the way society works here. It would be unacceptable for children to impinge on adult lives and Malagasy adults also talk to each other in ways more critical, more directive and more mocking than we consider appropriate.
So far, people aren’t too critical (to my face) about my parenting but I know there will many opinions about over indulgence, over sentimentality and lack of boundaries.
Is it about money?
In England, families spend a fortune on their children – not just toys but food, education, activities, holidays, electronic gadgets, baby equipment – I could go on and on.
The difference in parenting isn’t directly about money – people also don’t see why children need much more than food, basic clothes and a place to sleep. Children make their own entertainment and toys and certainly don’t need after school activities to keep them fit – all the 10 year old boys are ripped with six packs and biceps.
Is it about time?
In England, adults invest inordinate amount of time into their children. Manic middle class mummies attempt to create a constant environment of stimulation with visits to petting zoos, coffee mornings with other mums and children, playing classical music, reading, putting on child friendly videos etc. etc.
People have argued with me that Malagasys are too busy looking for something to eat for their children to be ‘playing’ with them. However, anybody who has visited Coastal Madagascar will know that there’s a fair amount of ‘down-time’. Britain has the longest working hours of any country in Europe – maybe that’s why we make so much effort in the hours that we are with the children.
In Madagascar, real life is going on all around and children get a lot of stimulation just from watching real life. There’s no need to visit petting zoos when animals are all around. And who needs videos when the adults are carrying on their lives around them. And there are always plenty of kids around providing the best form of entertainment.
However, looking at Madagascar with my English eyes, I do feel that children here lack something by not doing some structured activities lead by adults. My natural reaction is to be depressed by the lack of effort put into encouraging children to have inquiring minds. I heard a resident Vazaha say the other day that ‘The problem with Madagascar is the lack of a stimulating environment for infants.’ It’s an interesting thought although may say more about different cultural approaches between Vazahas and Malagasys than whether they lack a stimulating environment.
Less children, more effort?
I saw Bill and Melinda Gates talk about setting up the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which is the world’s biggest medical funding charity, trying to cure the world of big nasties, such as malaria and HIV. They commented that the West has been allowed to develop a different parenting model because of our increased confidence that our children will grow up to achieve adulthood. We can confidently invest all of our effort into our precious 2 children relatively safe in the knowledge that they will thrive. In poorer countries, the child mortality rate is still very high and people have more children.
I asked the woman I bought fish off this week how many children she has and she said 8. With 8 children and little money, you have little choice but to let them raise themselves whilst you search for money to feed and clothe them. She could have saved money by investing in condoms but that’s a whole other debate.
Or is it just more French?
After I’d written this piece, I found the following article in the Telegraph by Janine di Giovanni called, ‘Is Maman mean or magnifique?’
It describes the difference between Anglo-Saxon and French parenting styles and seems to sum up the situation here perfectly. I’ve yet to work out how to evaluate the effects of French colonialism (only 60 years) on Malagasy cultures. But, by coincidence or learning, the Malagasys are definitely quite French in their approach to children.
Who’s got it right?
And Malagasy children do grow up (usually) and they grow up very respectful of authority and rules. And they learn to fulfil the main tasks of life. Could they achieve more if they were given more attention? Probably? Could they benefit from some praise and tenderness from time to time? Well, I’m British so I’m going to shout ‘Yes, show me the love – let’s all hug’.
But could British kids benefit from having a bit less of everything they want, a bit more time freely running outside with other children and a bit more hard graft to do? I think they probably could.
What about me?
I am British and middle class and the child of Anglo-Saxon educationalists. I fulfil my demographic clichés nicely. I devote my time to making my son feel loved and stimulated, monitor his progress against developmental milestones and ensure he is my priority in life (and everybody else’s if I get the chance).
However, I hope that he will benefit from a more physical life here (will he be the one fetching coconuts?), he will have more chores to do (keeps them occupied and gives them a sense of responsibility) and will spend time running around outside with other kids (I’m more nervous about this one when I see what some of the kids get up to but you can’t have it all ways!).
I believe in discipline and boundaries in theory though I’ve yet to demonstrate I can do it in practice. But I had an idea that punishment comes from showing disapproval contrasting with the usual positive atmosphere of praise and love – disapproval isn’t a punishment if it’s the default mode of interaction. I’ve also been watching TV programmes like Supernanny (and anyone else peddling the same ideas) since becoming a Mum so I’m all up for (again in theory) giving the child choices and explaining consequences and following up on them.
But, I know I sound like I’ve swallowed an ‘Earth mother’s guide to raising your child’ and even I have a horrible fear that’s a recipe for a wilful little prince to develop.
Can I learn to be a little more Malagasy and a little more French so my child doesn’t get horribly confused or take his mother for a sucker against all the other bossy adults around him (surely any approach needs to be consistent and in context)?
We’ll wait and see. For now I will go and wrap my son in my arms protect him from any stray harsh words or mean looks that might be blowing around on the hot Malagasy breeze.