Africa and responsible parenting

Traditionally, sons in Africa are born into a genealogical order: taking over the baton from their fathers, they are born in the name of the father– Christopher E. W Ouma

RECENTLY, the Nigerian social media space was saturated with opinions over the action of a Zambian father who was seen beating his son in a viral video. He reportedly paid a tuition fee of $21,000 and was aghast when results came in to reveal that his first son — we don’t joke with them in these parts — passed just one subject(Music) and failed the rest. The boy also skipped some exams (English and Maths). Sacrilege! Presumably, the man was more peeved at his son adding insult (passing the ‘non-essential’) to injury (skipping the ‘essentials’) than the fees ‘wasted’ and he gave the boy a serious drubbing while his wife recorded. Expectedly, many Nigerians justified his actions on the premise that having paid such a huge sum, the son owed him a duty of returning the favour by romping through his exams. In their thinking, some posited that the money could have been put to better use instead of being ‘wasted’ on a delinquent son. Some even argued that his actions were driven by his love for son while many fumed at the fact that the boy excelled in Music. Music of all subjects? Something dropouts pick up for free on crime-infested streets corners and go on to become international stars? Is that what a dad wasted $21,000 on?

Ironically, I am reminded of an incident in Nigeria some years back when a friend who had observed my phone conversation with my wife over an increment in my daughter’s music tuition fees asked why I was paying that much for a child to study music? I was as bewildered as he was. To me, it was somewhat sad that an elite parent would be asking that in this age and time. And on his part, he couldn’t seem to get his head around the fact that I would encourage my child to study music let alone cough out such ‘expensive’ fees. My explanation that her choice was backed by her teacher’s strong recommendation was like spitting in the wind. Some of the commentaries following the prolonged debate over that viral video exposed the awful and barbaric perception of parenting by African parents of my generation. Undoubtedly, the challenge of helping boys navigate their way to a purposeful life is a difficult one. It is even more in Africa where boys are often saddled with greater responsibility. And while one cannot question a father’s love for his son or measure same from a two-minute clip it is antwacky to believe that forking out huge sums in tuition fees or panel beating an erring child translates to excessive love from a parent. Haven’t we seen more than enough of rich parents who abandon parenting responsibilities after paying expensive school fees?

The Kano federal lawmaker who displayed his four wives during a plenary session comes to mind here. After boasting of his 27 children and still counting, Speaker Gbajabiamila quickly reminded him of his own story about how he couldn’t recognise one of his sons. Surely such a man can afford to pay tuition in dollars and I cannot sit here and accuse him of not loving his kids but how will he find the time to raise them properly when they reside hundreds of miles away from Abuja? Responsible parenting doesn’t end with paying school fees, neither is affection for a child gauged by the severity of the beating from a parent. And while much of the talk dwelt on the propriety of the man’s action and whether or not we should spare the rod and spoil the child, many ignored the obvious disconnect in the affairs of the boy’s learning. Raising a child is also the collective responsibility of the larger society. Good schools monitor a child’s attitude and behaviour. They provide a feedback mechanism for regular interaction with parents. I still help out my son with his homework. I am usually notified of any bad behaviour from his teacher’s comments and when I’m too busy to respond the school sends an SMS requesting a meet with the teacher.

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Unfortunately, many of our elite private schools lack this system and even where they exist how many fathers — who believe that their responsibility lies outside the home — rarely comply. One Farida Kabir aptly captured it in one witty tweet when she wrote: “My son’s school fees is around 400k per term and his school sends me weekly messages about his academic standing in his comment book. If I have an issue, I also write it in his comment book and send back. If I’m paying 21K USD they better be sending me hourly notifications”. And please can we get rid of the absurd belief that a father who loves his son must beat him when he derails. After all, we also have many examples of people severely harming those they claim to love and oftentimes the perpetrators are victims of a violent upbringing as suggested by a growing body of research that has linked corporal punishment with adverse effects on childhood and adulthood. I know many of us men were spanked by our fathers. The fractious relationship between living up to their expectations and carving our own identity as we form a worldview shaped outside the home warranted regular caning.

I for one had a strict dad and our relationship was a hierarchical one largely built around my education, discipline and career prospects. It was authoritarian, if you fail in any given task, you get punished. It was as simple as that. And even though there were several early morning pep talks it was still a type of relationship that left little room for grey areas like gaiety, bonding and father-son rapport. This is also true for most of my peers. Should we blame our fathers? Hell no! Did they care? Of course! They were simply socialised in a different era. Moreover, we later turned out to be responsible men. But we cannot justify familial subjugation today because of what presumably worked yesterday. We are in 2020 and while African parenting methods are passed on from one generation to the next, we must endeavour to perpetuate desirable and discard undesirable, practices. Corporal punishment and other punitive measures are being replaced by research-backed correctional methods. How about impounding his phone, PlayStation, scooter or grounding him for a few days? Millennials live online and I have discovered that sometimes children are likely to behave better with the threat of being denied certain pleasures.

This is the age we have found ourselves in and we are not going back to black and white TVs. (But I do acknowledge that we are humans. And it understandable that one can lose his temper and dish out a slap in anger but that’s just about where it should end. There is no excuse for repeatedly slapping a kid. Beating is for animals, not humans, and definitely not for kids. Developed nations long moved beyond that and have even outlawed animal cruelty. A caring father who lashes out at his son in a fit of rage should quickly retract his arm, bring him close and fete him.

I know you are already dismissing my views as impractical, western idealism that is incompatible with our culture but until you show me the African Einsteins produced by long years of flogging I will continue to propagate this. We just have to accept that some stereotypical tropes that culture associate with African parents especially fathers — things like being strict and unapproachable — are gradually being obliterated by education, technology and the social engineering of our pleural society.

I look back at my childhood and I can proudly say that I am not the man I am today because my father spanked me. Rather it was the early morning admonition and more of his exemplary lifestyle that shaped me. My father taught me about values, determination and respect for others. I watched him live a virtuous life, grind daily and treat others with respect. He told me to be kind to strangers, women and the needy. I also witnessed him doing these things. He honoured and loved my mother. He accommodated destitute children and employed drifters.

As a father, I often ask myself the question, “what can I do to show my son the way?”. I wouldn’t want to be a father that will spend his retirement trying to make up for my shortcomings during his boyhood. No, I want to be present in his life here and now. I want to drive him to school, help with homework and take him for playdates. I want us to attend judo lessons together and when he is of age we will be grooving side by side in the same nightclub. I want him to look at me as I looked at my father and say “this is the man I want to be”. And if he grows into a different man I can still have a pint peacefully, satisfied that I gave it my best shot.

A son needs a father figure and raising one is no piece of cake because fatherhood is a nondelegable duty which requires emotional and interpersonal skills. You have to be authoritative without being authoritarian. You should be soft enough to pamper your boy and firm enough to correct him. You have to find a balance between motivation and placation. You should be able to tell your son that it is possible to do everything in his power and still fail to reach a target. But also let him know that you will be there to support him, to give that soothing pat on the back.

And finally, you have to know when to scale back your expectations. When Music begins to relegate Physics and Arts is preferred to Maths, then it is time to encourage him to be the person he wants to be and watch him excel.

There are no cast-iron rules for raising a child and what works for you may fail another. However, every rational person will agree that beating a child repeatedly is abusive and detrimental to his well being. Having a child is a right but raising one is a responsibility and the best training a father can give a son is to live by example.

Nwokike is a media consultant who writes on sociopolitical topics.

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