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Speak Up or Perish

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Our Nanny has been with us since January this year. When I first met her, we hit off from the get go. I found her very pleasant, warm and sincere. I like her on the spot. When she told me she has two children back home, my heart sank. I wondered how I would have this lady in my house parenting my children whilst her children remained un-parented upcountry. When I expressed my worry to her, she was very earnest and entreated that spending the quality and quantity time that I was talking about with her children was a great idea yes, but was she to hug them close to her as they starved on empty stomachs and didn’t go to school?

We went home with her immediately. In the course of the first three months it occurred to me that we could have her kids over on the holidays and that way she’d get to spend at least 4 months with them – two months in April and August and the 2 months November-December holidays. She was thrilled with the idea. And so Imani (3yrs) and Baraka (6yrs) visited us earlier in April and they are now back in August.

One thing I’ve observed more so this time round, is that when they arrived in the first week, they were painfully quiet and reserved. They would not speak unless spoken to and when they did it was in quiet halting tones looking down – never making eye contact. This bothered me very much. I wondered if they were naturally quiet children or if they had been schooled this way. Their mum is a very bubbly and highly talkative person who talks nineteen to the dozen and makes friends very easily. Something was not gelling…..

Well………..it only took a week and the other day from my room I heard a little girl’s voice saying very loudly “I am going to tell on you!!!” “I am going to tell on you!!!” followed by the pitter patter of little feet running to my room to report to me in loud tones that my younger son Thayu was not letting her have her turn pushing ‘Alphabet Pal’ – A caterpillar toy with alphabet letters that is dragged around my house at top speed and whose multiple legs when pressed sing different alphabet songs. I marveled at how quickly the transformation had happened. From a shy, downcast little girl who couldn’t look at me to this one coming a top speed to ‘report’ injustices happening to her!

Also on arrival home in the evening I usually stand in the doorway and say very loudly ‘Hi Everyone!” and always get the response “Hi Mum!” in return. In the beginning, only my two boys would respond and I would then walk over to each of them and say “Hi Imani” and “Hi Baraka” and they’d feel like melting away from the attention. Yesterday after saying my usual “Hi Everybody!” greeting, four voices piped up in a chorus and said “Hi Mum!” right back at me.

These two instances have got me thinking. The environment we provide our children is what shapes them and is what will govern their personalities throughout their lives. I am certain that Baraka and Imani are not naturally quiet children. The noise levels in my house – with 3 boys between the ages of 9 and 5 and one little girl would have NEMA come and arrest us if they chose to do house visits . There is so much fun, laughter and joy. They play, fight, make up, share and care for each other. And for me who is used to parenting boys, having a little girl in my house has been a real fun learning experience.

Growing up upcountry, where the old maxim that ‘children are meant to be seen and not heard’ is still maintained, children are then naturally inclined to retreat within themselves and not speak up. I highly encourage freedom of expression amongst children, respectful expression of course, because this is what will have us ‘hear’ what they love to do, what their natural passions are, what gifts and talents they possess and things that have happened to them that are worrying them.

When we encourage our children to ‘talk talk talk’ and we listen to them including to the things they may not be saying or the things they may be saying that are hidden within their stories, we understand them that much better. And our paints and brushes with which we paint out the landscape that is their lives on the blank canvas we have with us as their parents and caregivers, then get direction on colour, brush strokes, depth and feel.

This world has become that much more competitive, where those that are unable to speak up and ask questions or speak out and point out stuff, get trodden on and left behind. We need to teach our children to speak up. At home, in school in the community and in whatever social spaces they may be in. With all the crazy things happening in this world it is in our best interests to have the little ones we care for be as confident as possible. This world requires confidence. And a point to note is that confidence is not necessary loud brashness, far from it. Confidence is just that – confidence. Whether quiet confidence or vivant confidence, confidence needs to reign.

We are also making good inroads with teaching Baraka and Imani how to ask for what they want. The other day I had a pack of cookies and instructed that whoever wants one must come and ask me. My boys as you can imagine ran over at the quick. The other two, slowly, carefully, shyly, battling between the thought of coming up to me and asking and the need for a chocolate cookie, came up and whispered their requests. We clapped for them very loudly, gave them hi-fives and presented the cookies with flair. Their smiles were epic! We’ve repeated this exercise with different other things and the situation is turning around. Our children must surely learn how to politely and respectfully ask for what they want in life yes?

And so of course I have come to love these little children like my own and I worry for them like any mother would that when they go back to their grandma and grandpa’s where they live, they will retreat into their little shells again. But Rome was not built in a day right? And the four months a year they spend with us will hopefully begin to plant the seeds that will have them know that there is ‘another way’ that is different from the usual way.

And watch this space, I will soon be reporting that Baraka is the Doctor he wants to be and Imani is the Sunday school teacher she wants to be when she grows up.

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