On a recent train ride to Mombasa, a robust conversation ensued between some strangers. The man, probably in his early 60s, was seated opposite a lady within the same age bracket, or older. Then there was the lady’s daughter who appeared to be in her mid-30s.
“These people don’t want to be told what to do,” the man said, directing his comments to the young lady. “You see, this generation does not want to get tired. If she moves houses, she wants the commercial movers to arrange every item, including very personal items, in their respective drawers or shelves. She will not touch anything.” By the look of things, the younger lady was still living in her mother’s house.
The man, who had by now sent his travelling companions into a bout of laughter said he was having the same problems with his children back home. “They question every move I make. They questioned me when I bought a pick-up truck since they wanted a smaller, posh car to impress their friends. But you see, I can buy a goat on my way from a holiday, or a bag of charcoal, or animal feed and just load them at the back.”
The man had just bought a cup of tea on the train. The tea comes with some utilities such as several sugar sachets but since he does not take sugar, he put the sachets in his shirt pocket, but not before teaching the young lady another lesson. “I am finding it hard throwing the sachets away. They cost some money but these people won’t care and are very wasteful because they do not know the trouble we went through to be where we are,” he lamented.
The two seniors belong to a group of parents now finding themselves at crossroads. When they were growing up in the 1970s and 80s, their parents’ word was law. It required unquestionable obedience. School holidays were not used to tour the country but work in the family farm, picking coffee or tea, fetching water and firewood, or tending to cows.
By the time they finished secondary school, usually by the age of 18, they had acquired life skills that could enable them live on their own. But their children, now in their 30s or 40s are staying put, enjoying what the current generation refers to as the ‘soft life’—free lodging and support provided by their parents.
They were described by Forbes as “adults, often middle aged, perhaps formerly working, who depend on their parents for the basics of life: food, clothing and shelter as well as other benefits”. Carolyn Rosenblatt, a contributor for Forbes stated that even younger siblings are not sure on how to deal with big brother especially if the parents wish to sell a home or a piece of land to cater for medical needs that come with advanced age.
“The family agrees that the family home must be sold because the aging parent needs the money. No one knows what to do with the sibling still living at that home. They won’t move out,” she wrote.
Parents of yesteryears brought up their children to leave home when they became of age. Among some communities, for example, once a boy underwent the rite of passage such as circumcision, it was almost taboo for the young man to continue living in the mother’s house, scrabbling for food with younger siblings.
Jane Wangui, a woman in her early 80s and a mother of four sons, says among the Kikuyu, a young man had to throw a spear over a Mugumo (fig tree) indicating that he had become of age. While her brothers had to perform the rite of passage, her sons who were born later inherited the same mindset of establishing their independence as young adults.
This, she says, taught them social skills needed to face the realities of life once they became husbands, and later, fathers.
“My youngest son, now in his late 40s was so determined to move out that his father had to assist him construct a small wooden house at one corner of the property. He was barely 18. His older brothers had moved out and he felt he too needed some independence,” says Wangui who lives in Nairobi’s Karen suburb.
In many African communities, it was considered a lack of morals for a young man to entice a young woman while still in his mother’s house. “Back then, there was no girl who would be comfortable being approached by a man who was still sitting in the fireplace waiting for the food to cook. He had to construct a hut, however wobbly, to show his determination for independence,” she says.
But some of her contemporaries have continued to nurse older children who have been stuck in the family home. One of her friends is still being trapped by a son who, despite having a well-paying job would prefer the company of his mother rather than live on his own, or start a family.
“He is over 40 and earning good money. The mother told me that he would move out occasionally and them get back after a few weeks. She feels stressed but says there is little she can do,” Wangui says.
Duncan Wambua, a parent in his early 60s says the conflicting parental styles reflect the social norms in each generation. For example, his parents had so many financial responsibilities with little income that it was not possible to “baby sit” any child who “refused” to grow up.
For example, he cannot recall his parents dropping him to school, including his first day of school. ‘You just followed your older siblings, some who were walking faster than you, in early morning dew, and with no shoes. Today, we take our children who are in their 20s to university and collect them at the end of the semester. I think parents do not want their children to go through what they (parents) underwent,” says Wambua.
He says even the way the family house was constructed did not encourage children to stick around for long as adulthood approached. “In many cases, it was a four-roomed house. There was a kitchen, a family room and two bedrooms, one for the parents while the children squeezed in the other. Who would want to hang around such a place?” he poses.
Wambua recalls being bullied in high school but could not dare report to his parents or miss school as he would have been deemed a coward who cannot hold his ground. He would have become the laughing stock of the village. “There were just too many problems at home and it was just easier to face my tormentors school. Some of these problems made us grow up,” he says.
Experts in family matters say perhaps it’s a sense of entitlement could be part of the reason why today’s children find it hard to leave the nest early. Faith Gichanga, a psychologist says past experiences may dictate how parents deal with children today.
“Parents do not want to take their children through the same amount of trouble they went through. On the other hand, children overstaying at home know that even if they leave, there is always a place they can come back to. They may fear risks associated with setting up independently,” she says.
So are our children today feeling entitled? Have parents lost their grip owing to the fast-paced, digital world? You make the call.