John Kimari* remembers growing up in Murang’a in the 1980s, when parental authority was unquestionable. He was brought up under the strict dictates of Christianity where any moral deviation was akin to a curse.
Together with his four other siblings, Kimari lived under the 15th Century proverb: “Children should be seen and not heard.”
“My mother’s word was law. As for my father, even getting close to him was like being in God’s presence. If he summoned you even to congratulate you for school work well done, you still appeared before him trembling,” he recalls.
Kimari now has children of his own, two teenagers and a preteen. Times have changed too and what was taboo for him as a young man now seems to be commonplace.
His teenage daughter, he says, finds nothing wrong in wearing what can pass as beach wear in the presence of her grandmother. As for one of his sons, walking around in the neighbourhood hand in hand with a girl is the norm, the father’s disgust notwithstanding.
“My father would turn in his grave if he were to see me do the things my son is doing. I would be cursed, and not once,” he says.
Welcome to new-age parenting, where laws on morality are blurred by the day despite Kenya being one of the “God-fearing nations around’.
Proper boundaries between parents and children are getting thinner and thinner if a video that has been doing rounds in the last one week is anything to go by.
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In the video, a young man approaches his mother from behind, puts his arms around her and caresses her breasts. The mother seemed unbothered by the son’s behaviour, at least from the few seconds of the video.
As expected, there were those who saw nothing wrong in the act while others termed the entire episode as akin to “writing your own death sentence”.
“If you want to go to hell early, try this with my mum,” said Twitter user @cliffe254_
“How do you hug your mother Bwana, my mother doesn’t even shake my hand. Talks to me from [a five-metre] distance,” wrote @_Don_Ben.
The video has since elicited debate about how much leeway children should be given and how parents can balance between being overly strict and overly permissive.
Much of what a number of parents interviewed would appeared to be dictated by their own upbringing.
Pat Ochieng, mother of a teenage daughter grew up in the city where her parents could afford to treat her and her other siblings to regular outings. The bond between her and her parents grew strong and, as she says, she could confide in them over any subject.
Children, according to Ochieng, are under immense pressure from various quarters including their peers who also come from different backgrounds. She says being overly strict might end up choking the free flow of communication, with teenagers shutting off completely.
“Parents must learn to meet the kids where they are, lest the kids shut them out and end up in self-destructive behaviours,” she says.
“It’s a challenge but parents must learn and grow. We think we are raising children but the children are also raising us. We must intentionally work to become emotionally mature and grow into better human beings in order to succeed.”
Like Kimari, Muguru Njeri grew up in a close-knit Christian family. Like other teenagers, she too had raging hormones that needed to be reined in lest they ran wild. Her father’s mild nature complemented the mother’s strict code of ethics.
Njeri may have had her reasons for evading some of the house rules, including curfews. Now though, with a preteen son herself, she appreciates her parent’s efforts to keep within the straight and narrow path.
“Old-school parenting was best,” she says.
“Although at times we felt our parents were tyrants, it helped shape who we are today. Discipline was key and this helped instill respect for others. Being seen and not heard helped the child know his place in society. This preserved discipline and a child could differentiate between needs and wants.”
What does she think of modern parenting? “Is modern-day parenting even parenting? she poses.
“It’s become like a partnership where each party has a right to something. Parents can’t discipline their children because they don’t even know them. Both parties are sometimes strangers.
“There is moral decline, no respect for authority and even no respect for life itself from the young ones. The child feels the parent is old fashioned and therefore can’t tell him anything. Children fear nothing.”
Mercy Wanjiru, another mother of a teenage son thinks advances in technology have created a social conflict with media exposure influencing the way parents and children think.
“The older way of parenting created fear. In those days technology wasn’t advanced while today’s children know their rights by observing trends in advanced lands,” she says.
According to one local journalist who is also a mother, peer pressure makes young people prioritize the opinions and influence of their peers over their parents’ guidance.
This makes it difficult for parents to provide positive influences and shape the child’s values and behaviour and curtailing their emotional development.
“Lack of respect and authority where children perceive themselves as almost equal to their parents makes it difficult to establish and maintain a respectful and authoritative parent-child relationship. This can lead to lack of discipline, defiance, and a disregard for parental guidance,” she says.
Clash of old and new
Cheryl Mwangi, a counselling psychologist with Kidsalive Kenya says the old style of parenting dealt more with structure rather than nurture.
Today’s parents, she adds, have lost the structure but are nurturing their children and compensating for what they never received hence the thin parent-child boundaries.
“These are parents who will not beat their children to avoid annoying them but end up creating entitled brats. Some parents may not understand what parenting is all about.
“We saw this during Covid-19 when parents did not want children at home and felt they were being forced to parent. Some even told the teachers they did not know how spoilt their children were. But children need structures to thrive,” says Mwangi.
Mwangi says lack of balance between structured and nurturing results in children who do not know the difference between what is acceptable or not.
“A boy who does not know proper boundaries between him and his mother will one day treat a girl inappropriately and still feel entitled. Such a boy will not learn how to handle any rejection in a relationship,” says Mwangi.
If we do not step back and rethink parenting in the new age, she says, we will see the bad results of such leniency in the next 20 to 30 years, if not earlier. “There is no perfect parent but we can improve”.