Friday, March 13, 2009

Instilling Self Discipline- Is Africa Failing Her Children?

I’m currently reading Sefi Atta’s excellent book Everything Good Will Come and there is a conversation between two characters in the book where one of them says nothing will come right in Nigeria because Nigerians lack discipline. On the drive home yesterday from Gaborone, my husband and I were talking about discipline and punishment and an incident we had last month with my daughter at the boarding school where she attends and this idea of discipline came to the fore. What is discipline and how do we instill it in our children? And perhaps more important, is there something wrong in African countries that leads to our children growing to be adults who are unable to discipline themselves?

The incident with my daughter involved her refusing to be punished by the head of the school for a crime she was innocent of. I had to go to the school, as refusing punishment is considered a very serious crime leading to widespread indiscipline. In Botswana, like in most African countries, corporal punishment is allowed in schools. In Botswana in our traditional courts, dikgotla, adults are also often given lashings as punishment for crimes committed.

In the case with my daughter I believed her; not because she cannot do wrong, but because there were many pieces of evidence that showed she didn’t have enough time to commit the offense in question. During our conversations with the head teacher, she also agree that it was likely my daughter was innocent, but since other, likely innocent, girls were punished; she would need to take the punishment too. That seemed ludicrous to me and, in fact, a sure fire way to escalate the school’s discipline problems. In the end, my daughter did not get punished though we both received a stern warning from the head teacher who was not pleased with my line of thinking.

In our conversation yesterday I came to the conclusion that perhaps Sefi Atta’s characters have a point. In African culture children are raised to respect all adults as parents. I can be in a new town and I can call the nearest child and tell him to show me the way to the community hall. He should drop what he’s doing and accompany me the whole distance without complaint. I’m his parent and he must obey me.

This is good in a perfect world which we of course don’t live in. The problems that can ensue given this situation don’t need to be elaborated on. Sad cases abound of the abuse of our children who were just innocently following the rules of Setswana culture.

We set our children up as pawns with no will or thought of their own. Then we use strict, often harsh, sometimes unjust discipline to keep them in line. In the case of my daughter, her friend, who also was not guilty of the crime, accepted the punishment without a word as a well behaved Motswana girl should. My daughter, caught between her Setswana and Western upbringing, could not quite do that.

A well behaved Motswana child has no need to trouble themselves with self discipline; they can rely on the adults around them to rein them in when they go astray. They accept their position without power, as that position also comes without responsibility and in some ways that’s a good thing. Yes, occasionally you might have to accept an unjust punishment, but that’s part of the deal.

Then suddenly they’re adults. Their freedom given to them on a silver platter. In the past, strong community bonds and social pressures would keep their behaviour in check, but Westernisation of the culture has eliminated most of that. Now people watch others do wrong and the common Setswana attitude is- “He’ll see what he’s going to do” and then everyone remains quiet and watches to see what mess the person in question will get himself into. They no longer feel any responsibility for that person’s actions.


Helen Ginger said...

It seems like there has to be a middle ground. Children need structure and need to understand when they've done something wrong. But punishment undeserved does not serve the child well.


Lauri said...

I think children must be given structure but as an understood guide. What happens here unquestioned barricades are put up and kids just need to follow then when they are adults the barricades are removed and they didn't know the reasoning behind their placement. They were just there and now they're not. That's the problem.

Karen said...

It seems to be a widespread problem, although here the children are not given any discipline, they are allowed to "express themselves" and "experience new things."

Um, while I believe those are good and worthy causes, unless they are accompanied by discipline, or guidelines that they are expected to follow, they learn nothing.

Unfortunately, many of the parents were brought up the same way, and they have no idea how to make any changes (providing they can see that behavioral changes are needed in the first place).

Anonymous said...

I had no idea that every child in Setswana culture had to regard every adult as a parent. I can imagine the problems that must arise.

Discipline at school is difficult, particularly when cultural values come into play. A friend of mine teaches at a school where 90% of the kids are of Middle Eastern descent. She experiences a lot of problems with her male students who have a different attitude to women than their Anglo-Celtic counterparts. It's a tough one.

I'm sorry to hear about what your daughter had to go through. I hope she is OK.

Lauri said...

Selma- My daughter is far more resilient than her mother. This is why a month later her mother is still wondering if she did the right thing and she has nearly forgotten about the whole thing.

Karen- I think in America parents have gone too far in the other direction. There needs to be a middle place- I hope...

Anonymous said...


Deprive children from their favorite items;do not fullfill their wishes in case they skip school classes,want to be "sick" again;behave badly in the school;offend or insult their schoolmates.
AND DO NOT GIVE UP,when they start begging and try to change your mind.

Praise them thousand times when they accomplish something;when they have good grades;when they help in the household a.s.o.

Corporal punishment is WRONG!

Children start hating you for hiting or beating them.

And TALK,TALK, to them as long as you convince them why you want them to behave in such and such way.

Giving orders(what e.g.most Germans are doing)without explanation makes children rioters.

As you,Lauri,wrote ,it was correct that your daughter did not agree to be punished,if she felt she was not guilty.

In my opinion CORPORAL PUNISHMENT in Botswana is "an archaic" institution.It remainds me of the Inquisiotion.

It ought to be abandoned as it punishes NOT just the children's body but also their soul!